Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ASU's Tech Officer's scorched earth view of library

Adrian Sannier's keynote speech at last December's Campus Technology '08 conference lit fires under several academic sacred cows. Sannier is chief technology officer at Arizona State. He was responsible for moving ASU's student email to Google's GMail and saving $400,000/year.

His keynote ended with this not-so modest proposal:

"Finally, I suggest you burn down the library. All the books in the world are already digitized! Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place; a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books! None of us has the Alexandria Library; Michigan, Oxford [UK], and Stanford [CA] have digitized their collections. What do you have that they don't? Why are you buying new books? Buy digital and let's spend some more time making those things level, flat, and transparent so a single search turns up everything we have. This has to change, because it's clear that people want to find information digitally. They want to search for it, find it, have it, and then amalgamate search results into a précis."

So he's for the idea of a commons-like gathering place. That's good. And he's right about the need to shrink our collections for the sake of efficiency. But we are still a ways from digitizing "all the books in the world." My experience with Google Book Search is that the "full view" items, i.e., those completely clear of copyright, are not what my students are looking for.

The title of his speech "From Context to Core" is a worthwhile concept. We have to work hard on defining the core for the institution and for the library that serves the institution. The Information/Learning Commons is a response to a newly defined core, a transformation in the definition of service and resources. But for a while we are going to have to support a transitional kind of organization, one that slowly but inevitably moves toward Sannier's vision. Just not yet.

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