Friday, 11 February 2011

whither university information services?

University Information services are almost universally a nineties phenomenon when universities merged their computing services with their libraries.

At the time the rationale was something like this:

  • Computing has moved to the desktop and increasingly we do not require teams of bearded and sandaled acolytes to perform incomprehensible acts of veneration at the console of the one big holy machine
  • Computing is increasingly about access to networked sources of information be they datasets on cd-rom or resources over the network
  • Libraries are also about access to information and that information is moving from the medium of dead trees to ones and zeroes.
This rationale was imperfect. It didn't consider fully the role of computing services in providing access to software for students by way of public access computer labs, the need to provide storage management and network connectivity - something which didn't really look a lot librarianship - information engineering perhaps. And of course books and journals were still printed on paper.

The gaps did show, and like a bad marriage, the real justification was often convenience. One set of administrators, one set of lab/library assistants etc.

So fifteen years on where are we?
  • Journals are overwhelmingly digital. Instead of working out where to put them, librarians manage subscriptions and with their information technology colleagues mediate access. Older articles are increasingly digitised on demand. A GoogleBooks mass digitisation style initiaitive could easily result in the disappearance of pre-digital bound journals
  • Books are going digital. Born digital print on demand is ideal for small volume scholarly publications, and even then print on demand is only really required for reference books. Books which are expected to be read linearly can be handled more than adaquately on an e-reader. One could imagine that librarians end up managing portfolios of e-books sourced from publishers repositories, with some form of DRM to inhibit mass piracy.
  • Google Books, Hathi trust and a number of similar initiatives will solve the long tail problem, and eventually every significant text will be available electronically
  • Students overwhelmingly have their own computers, usually laptops, on which they do their work. What they require is :
  1. pervasive network access
  2. pervasive access to resources
  3. printing services (although that is changing)
  4. access to some specialist applications and data
  • Pervasive network access means exactly that. Free or low cost wi-fi makes everything else possible
  • Pervasive access to resources - this means an authentication and authorization infrastructure that allows them access from anywhere to resources provided by their university - something which could be as simple as a reverse proxy service for journal access
  • Access to an execution environment to allow them to run particular expensive or complex applications for completion of their coursework.
So, what does this mean?

  • Network access is key. But there is no reason that it needs to be provided by the university directly - it could just as easily be outsourced to one of the big telcos
  • Traditional in house services like email and storage can be outsourced - google in the sape of google docs and Microsoft live can provide email and storage, and that most useful of services, a collaboration environment to share documents and jointly edit them.
  • Printing remains a problem but new services such as print-via-email will eventually get rid of this bugbear
  • Environments like HubZero offer a shared execution environment - in HubZero essentially a shared X-windows based environment allowing people to work co-operatively. One could imagine an evolved version of this where instead of a virtual desktop one simply provides a cloud based execution space, and one that is accessed via the student portal or learning management system
  • Storage, structured storage to hold all the digital outputs of the university from Master's and PhD theses through experimental datasets to collections of digitised photographs. Providing storage of course can be outsourced.
So what do we find left?

Access mediation, ie authorization and authentication to resources which are 'out there' and contract management be they for journal access or storage provision.

Yes students still need a place to work, and perhaps these redundant library buildings could be converted into comfortable beanbag filled work environments and coffee shops.

Obviously I'm being provocative. But the world is changing into something else. When I was a child there were two tv channels in black and white and they only broadcast for six or seven hours a day. Now we hardly watch tv in the old way, iview, you tube and dvr's mean we watch what we want when we want, and not necessarily content created by the conventional broadcasters.

I wrote my first program on punched cards when I was 17, and sent my first email a few years later. Phone calls were expensive, international calls prohibitively so. Foreign language newspapers arrived a week late if you were lucky, inter library loans came as photocopies in the mail, and one actually wrote letters on paper and put them in the mail.

I'm (almost) 55 now. I can read overseas newspapers from my desktop, access journals online sitting in my pajamas if I want and call people overseas with skype for pennies. Letters - well I still buy books and I have a maildrop to have packages delivered but I don't write letters any more, and I get all my bills (except for Amex for reasons too tedious to mention) by email.

The world has gone digital, and pervasively so, which means everyone expects to access everyone anywhere. After all if I can watch the ABC Australia news on my phone while sitting in San Francisco airport, why shouldn't some kid be able to do his statistics assignment from his share house?

In conclusion, university information services will shrink and change out of all recognition.

Universities will continue to flourish on the strength of their teaching and research supported by a group of information scientists and technologists who mediate access. We will no longer have big white buildings filled with books and computers.

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