In late 2015, Provost Martin A. Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88 asked the then-new director of the MIT Libraries, Chris Bourg, to lead a task force on the Future of Libraries, consisting of 30 representatives from MIT’s faculty, student body, and staff. A year later, the task force released its preliminary report. Spectrum asked Bourg to discuss how the MIT Libraries will evolve to advance the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge.
How would you describe the primary value of libraries in tackling complex, unanswered questions?
CB: To my mind, and this is the philosophy I have brought to the MIT Libraries, the primary value that libraries provide to scholars and researchers is not answers, but rather the tools, resources, collections, expertise, and space to productively explore a range of questions and to be inspired to ask new questions.
There is a popular quote by author Neil Gaiman: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” I don’t think that’s quite right—in many cases, Google is quite good at bringing back answers to factual questions; but libraries and librarians are much better at helping scholars and researchers develop strategies for tackling complex questions that require interdisciplinary approaches. We connect people to ideas and knowledge that they didn’t know they were looking for—which is often how breakthroughs on big questions and hard problems happen.
Is the role of MIT’s research libraries changing in the 21st century, or just their tools and platforms?
CB: I think the fundamental role of research libraries will always be to provide enduring, abundant, equitable, and meaningful access to knowledge. Certainly, the tools and platforms for doing that will continue to evolve, as the forms by which scholars express, consume, and analyze knowledge move from static, physical forms to dynamic, interactive, networked digital forms.
In today’s environment, for example, providing access to knowledge includes having a licensed drone pilot on the MIT Libraries staff, who accompanies an EAPS [Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences] class on a research trip to Death Valley to obtain 3-D images of terrain the students could not access on foot. Another change is that modern research libraries must ensure that our collections are accessible not just to human readers, but also to text- and data-mining applications, algorithms, and machine-learning tools. And at the MIT Libraries, we are responsive to our community’s desire to interact with our content in more active, innovative, and participatory ways—through annotation, mashups, and other creative uses and reuses. This is what we mean in the Future of Libraries report when we call on MIT and the world to “hack the library.”
The report recommends an ambitious increase in the digitizing of analog collections. What are some of the priorities?
CB: As we ramp up our digitization efforts, we are looking to prioritize collections that are distinct to MIT, and that are likely to have greatest value to the scholarly community. Because we have high-quality digital versions of MIT theses only from 2008 forward, the MIT Theses Collection is exactly such an example. But with over 109,000 theses published by MIT graduates from 1868 to 2007, we will have to prioritize within this collection as well. We also have a sizable collection of MIT-generated technical reports that are not available online. Both of these collections represent some of MIT’s unique contributions to scholarship, and digitizing them is the best way to increase their accessibility and impact.
What trends are you seeing in terms of how researchers on campus—as well as off-campus and non-MIT-affiliated researchers—are engaging with the MIT Libraries?
CB: What is interesting is that while we have seen an expansion of the ways in which researchers engage with the libraries in online environments, the role the libraries play in providing space for quiet contemplative work has remained very important to faculty, students, alumni, and other researchers. Researchers also are increasingly coming to the libraries to learn about and use new kinds of tools and techniques for engaging in digital scholarship. We are seeing a shift from the library as a place for consuming knowledge, to a place to both consume and to create new knowledge.
In addition, the MIT Libraries are a highly sought-after space for a variety of scholarly events: book talks, student orientation events, panel discussions on current event topics. So while the MIT Libraries are working hard to make our collections and services broadly available online, we also have to continually update our physical spaces to ensure they support the full range of research, teaching, and learning needs of our community. Finally, scholars and students alike are also increasingly looking to the libraries as partners in research and development, especially in creating new tools and technologies to reinvent scholarly communication and improve learning and research.