UC Berkeley Report: Revitalize the Library and Empower the People Who Operate It

In 2010, The University of California, Berkeley Libraries started a “self review” process, which led to a much more comprehensive review that was endorsed by the campus, and led by a “blue ribbon” faculty committee. The working group is called The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library. The commission studied the library, the profession, scholarly communications, and the many opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for a full year. It delivered its report to the campus administration on October 14, and the report is now available online.

Many eyes will be drawn to the financial recommendations, which are broad in scope: five million dollars in one-time funding to make up for lost time, and new funding each year at that same level. This proposal is not unprecedented; in the late 1990s, Chancellor Robert Berdahl made a similarly-sized investment in revitalizing the campus libraries. Now, newly inaugurated Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will have an opportunity to once again revitalize a great institution. Moreover, the recommendations of the report—read the executive summary—are audaciously forward-looking and paint a picture of an academic enterprise that is lean, innovative, creative, assertive, and not least, keenly interested in empowering people.

Point of disclosure: I manage an Affiliated Library, which is outside the reporting structure of the University Librarian. Affiliated Libraries report to deans, directors and department heads, but their collections data and other metrics are reported to the Association of Research Libraries as part of campus totals. The Affiliated Libraries work in close cooperation with The University Library.

A Key Finding: Librarians are GREAT

It’s heartening to see a group of faculty members state, in unanimity, that the human beings that run research libraries are a vital resource. Moreover, in an era of digital information (and misinformation), they have become more important to scholars, not less, in the business of helping people find, analyze and interpret what they need to know. In my view this is the most exciting of the many proactive recommendations that are made in the report. I urge anyone who reads my blog to check it out.

The press has also taken note.  Steve F. Brown, writing in the San Francisco Business Times, offers a very good “Cliff Notes” summary of the report and the issues.

Read the SF Business Times article: 


Read the Report:


Big Data Meets Literary Scholarship

The New York Times published a very interesting update on how humanists are applying big data approaches to their scholarship (see The New York Times, January 27, 2013, p. B3). The article begins with a description of research by Matthew L. Jockers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He conducted word- and phrase-level textual analysis on thousands of novels, enabling longer-term patterns to emerge in how authors use words and find inspiration. This kind of textual analysis revealed the impact of a few major authors on many others, and identified the outsized impact of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

Jockers said that “Traditionally, literary history was done by studying a relative handful of texts…what this technology does is let you see the big picture–the context in which a writer worked–on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

The implications for comparative literature and other fields that bump up against disciplinary boundaries are compelling.This kind of data analysis has long been the domain of sociologists, linguists and other social scientists, but it is increasingly finding a home in the humanities.

Steve Lohr, the Times article’s author, provides a number of other examples. One of my favorites is the research conducted by Jean Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden, who are based at Harvard. They utilized Google Books’ graph utility–open to the public–to chart the evolution of word use over long periods of time. One interesting example: for centuries, the references to “men” vastly outnumbered references to “women,” but in 1985 references to women began to lead references to men (Betty Friedan, are you there?)

Studying literature on this scale is indicative of the power and potential of big data to revolutionize how scholarship is done. Indeed, the availability of useful data is subtly transforming humanist scholars to the point that interested humanists are gaining a new identity as computer programmers.

Lohr also points out that quantitative methods are most effective when experts with deep knowledge of the subject matter guide the analysis, and even second-guess the algorithms.

What is new and distinctive is the ability to ramp up the study of a few texts to a few hundred text. The trick will be to keep the “humanity” in humanism.

I also draw considerable inspiration from the growing awareness that pattern recognition–a daily exercise for information professionals–is gaining new attention as part of the research process in general.

Perhaps it’s time for some of us to collaborate as co-principal investigators….