Message From Our Dean

A Foot in Each World

image of Deb Carver

Research libraries have one foot in the past, one foot in the future, straddling the present.

Our past, our history, is preserved in the handwritten diaries of the Oregon Trail pioneers, in the archival papers of Senator Wayne Morse, in an LP recording of Charlie Parker, in Ken Kesey's manuscripts. Our future is evident in the digital resources that dominate today's information landscape, from e-books to vodcasts. New formats and digital collections are emerging with startling frequency.

 

Generations of individual consumers can move from one medium to the next without giving too much thought to what is left behind. It is not necessary for most people to maintain a foothold in the past. Witness the number of first-year students arriving on campus without a stereo or boxes of CDs. Their music is on their laptops or in their iPods.

 

But what happens in a research library when formats change? The library must adjust to those changes while maintaining access to all the information that was created in another form. One foot in the past, one foot in the future. Words have migrated from the page to the computer screen, sound has migrated from cylinder recordings to MP3s, photographs have migrated from glass-plate negatives to JPEG files. The challenge confronting research libraries is how to maintain access to content in many different formats.

 

Changing formats often demand new skills, new equipment, and new approaches to long-term preservation. In some cases, libraries have engaged in format conversion, taking content and making it available in one of the newer, more flexible formats. Over the past several months, the UO Libraries has made great progress in converting many of our slides to digital form and acquiring huge collections of digital images. This process requires an understanding of the content, so it can be adequately described and searchable. It takes an understanding of the technology. And it takes an understanding of the power of new formats and how that power and flexibility can help faculty use these resources in their teaching and research.

But what happens to the content that, for one reason or another, cannot be converted? What happens to superceded formats? The research library, with one foot in the past, plays a crucial role in preserving not only the content, but in many cases, the artifact as well. While the image on a glass-plate negative might be converted to a computer file, the qualities and the subtleties of the original cannot be replicated. The color definition in an analog slide may not be the same as the digital surrogate. In many cases, the library needs to preserve the slide and the equipment to view it. This is not an easy task.

Research libraries have always had a foot in each world, the past and the future. Today, that responsibility has become more challenging, more interesting, and more necessary.

Deborah Carver
Philip H. Knight Dean of University Libraries