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Ben on BenchPenn’s Best Kept Secret
Might Be Its Library

Carton Rogers, Vice Provost and Director of Libraries

Many Silos One Library

A colleague of mine tells the story of a Penn student who was using Google to find information for a research topic and getting nowhere. When the student voiced his frustration to a professor, she suggested he try the Library. The student replied, “You know, that’s so crazy it just might work!”

This story reminds us that the library is part of a crowded information space. Viewed through a Google search box, that space appears easy to navigate. In reality it’s not, particularly for students learning to do research. The internet contains a rich harvest for scholars, but the bulk of it exists in great silos erected by universities, governments, multinational publishing corporations, scholarly societies, private researchers, and libraries. Firewalls, in the form of copyrights, licenses, and system architectures, separate these structures from one another and complicate the task of discovering and accessing the knowledge they contain.  

That’s so crazy, it’s a wonder scholarship works. But it does, and students need to learn how it does, if they are to succeed academically and prosper some day in the information economy. Faculty impart this learning, and the Library supports the learning enterprise. In helping new scholars learn the tools of their trade, libraries face unprecedented challenges. Can we make a highly layered world of information easy to navigate? Can we provide scholars with paths to information that yield useful results with the simplicity of Google? Can we accommodate the work methods of different disciplines and styles of learning? Can we offer a coherent experience of the crowded information space, effectively creating one library out of the multiplicity of silos?

Power Tools, Safety Nets, and Productivity

Emerging technologies are key to meeting the challenge of integrating knowledge, and the Penn Library is harnessing--in some cases even developing—the best of them. A tool of our own devising, featured prominently on Library web pages, allows you to search across multiple resources, such as catalogs, databases, research guides, and various web services, in a single query. Searches can fail, but for this federated search tool “no result” is an unacceptable result. Unlike Google, it will not abandon its users, but will always provide a set of organized alternatives to a failed search, including tips for getting started, as well as IM, chat, and even telephone connections to expert help. The search tool often suggests a resource the searcher may not have expected or previously used.  In doing so, it provides a degree of instruction to students unfamiliar with Library resources. So important is this new search capability, it has become the impetus for our new entry page design, which users are currently testing.

Another powerful integrative tool of Penn’s Digital Library, PennText, allows you to locate an article in the 14,000 electronic journals we license, using a complete or even partial citation. Instant access to the article is highly probable since we subscribe  to the core titles online in every discipline. In instances where PennText can’t resolve a citation, it will  often discover useful alternative articles in our full text aggregations. The electronic citation search can thus be likened to browsing the journal stacks, volume by volume, at the speed of light. PennText also integrates content across proprietary boundaries by connecting article citations in one database to the fulltext of the cited works in another. Here again, the software presents structured alternatives that lead researchers gracefully around unsuccessful searches: if a citation database can’t link to an article that is online, PennText will scan our catalog for a print copy of the desired journal. If the Library doesn’t own the journal, the system provides a direct link to document delivery services, including RAPID, a collaborative venture with other libraries to provide expedited article delivery from titles not available at Penn.

When used by students, our finding tool and PennText can have pedagogical value, revealing structures used to organize information in vast print and digital libraries, while exposing new strategies when initial efforts fail.  In the hands of faculty, these tools can improve the efficiency of research and increase productivity. Improved personal productivity is at the heart of a new digital service in quiet rollout since January 2006.  We call it PennAlerts. Drawing from a database that will soon top 24,000 titles, PennAlerts offers busy faculty and students their own virtual journal subscriptions, according to profiles they create. Whenever their favorite journal publishes a new table of contents, PennAlerts subscribers receive an email “alert” which cites each newly published article, and in most cases links directly to the full-text of that article or to our catalog for information about print holdings when journals are not available online.

What the Library World Knows: Penn Is At the Forefront

The Library’s efforts to integrate the universe of knowledge and information are attracting good notice in the field, along with a number of other innovations, including the following:

The Penn Library co-founded the highly successful borrowing initiative known among the Ivies as BorrowDirect. We manage the consortial effort and help steer its technology development. In 2004 the BorrowDirect team was honored with Penn’s Models of Excellence award.

A growing number of libraries, including Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Yale, Columbia and Michigan license the Library’s Business FAQ, an answer database developed by our IT and business librarians.  In 2005, our local version of the Business FAQ handled nearly 100,000 questions on a range of business topics.

Our heavily used and widely recognized video catalog, VCat, has become a model for other libraries trying to spin off new tools from unwieldy cataloging systems.

The Penn Library is gaining national recognition for “PennTags,” a social bookmarking service for web content. Though still an embryonic initiative, PennTags is enthusiastically embraced by students, for example in Cinema Studies, who are using it to organize bibliographies and classify and share content from Penn’s Digital Library and the public web. 

In the area of assessment, Penn holds a unique position among research libraries for having designed and implemented a decision/management information system known as Data Farm. 

And finally, we have partnered with faculty and other centers on campus to make Penn’s rich cultural legacies accessible to the world through SCETI, the Library’s pioneering Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image. Digitized texts from the Cairo Genizah, original sources on the English Renaissance, tools to catalog the recordings library of PennSound, motion pictures of Theodore Dreiser and the voice of Marian Anderson, plus electronic facsimiles from our rare book and manuscript collections are just highlights of this extraordinary university resource. 

Laboratories of Change                          

The great book repositories that once were research libraries are quickly transforming into laboratories where scholars teach, study, and communicate.  Less than a decade ago, our support for learning management was confined to course reserve services. Today we are the principal center of courseware technology on campus and an incubator for the next generation of open-source, learning management systems. A few weeks from now when we open the Weigle Information Commons in Van Pelt-Dietrich, we will begin collaborating with SAS in new approaches to teaching and learning. Thanks to David Weigle and other friends, our increasingly sophisticated laboratories will include places where students experiment with digital media, sharpen their presentation and argumentation skills, develop their research prowess, and learn to communicate effectively in writing and with data.  

The Library is a social laboratory operating within the patterns and networks that epitomize student life. We are continuously monitoring the technologies students incorporate into their social settings and adopting those that can help improve service. Examples include instant messaging, live chat and the PennTags “folksonomy” initiative mentioned above.

The Library is also becoming a laboratory for exploring new modes of scholarly communication and potential solutions to the economic crisis in scholarly publishing. To help faculty and administrators envision new digital publishing options, we established the ScholarlyCommons@Penn. A fast growing digital library of faculty and student publication, the ScholarlyCommons has become an effective vehicle for presenting Penn’s intellectual products to the world via the internet, and for preserving those assets for future generations.

The student who combined “crazy” and “library” in one breath may have been prophetic. Earlier generations could not envision (nor can the present generation fully grasp) the evolution libraries are undergoing. It is somewhat crazy, in the way creative, energetic change can often be. Nevertheless, the Library’s mission remains consonant with the larger aspirations of the University.  As Penn seeks to make an exceptional education available to a widening circle of exceptional students, the Library will make the richest array of knowledge available to the scholars Penn attracts. We will effectively integrate knowledge resources to advance scholarship as disciplines re-form and alter boundaries.  And we will use our capacities to help Penn engage communities of learning within the region and beyond.  That is our Compact with Penn.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 26, March 21, 2006


March 21, 2006
Volume 52 Number 26


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