Are libraries up for e-science?
So, e-Science and libraries. Maybe I was having a bad day, but I left the course on on “The Library in the Scholar’s Workflow and Research Data” at the Ticer Summer School with a distinct sense of despair: Not only did it stay unclear to me what the role of libraries and librarians might be. Also I could not help but wonder: Isn’t the search of libraries for new services to deliver in order to prevent their much-feared fall into into insignificance just pathetic? Although I am usually quite enthusiastic when it comes to unusual or time-consuming measures to make a difference, both for libraries and the profession. What happened to me?
At the course, I have seen terrific examples and overviews of virtual research environments (VREs) and learned of projects that try to internationally aggregate research data. But what can we as librarians contribute to that? Of course: We provide metadata on printed material and as much full text as our funding stretches to. We have some expertise in the organisation of knowledge (though mainly in form of printed material) and care about archiving. But does that mean we should take the lead on the building of the actual tools that researchers require in order to collaborate and share? Carole Goble from Manchester gave a demo of a platform in systems biology that allows researchers not only to share data, but also to rate research and thus help to build enough trust to foster even more sharing. But Goble, despite all her brilliant ideas for features of e-research frameworks, seemed hard-pushed when she was asked to come up with ideas for the role that libraries might play here. Andrew Treloar from Australia’s National Data service took the same line in his presentation “Data, librarians, and services”: While very respectful of the knowledge of librarians regarding metadata creation, he felt that the librarians’ ideas for metadata schemes and interface design were too complicated and “purist”.
I am not saying that the library profession should not care. Big libraries like the British Library or, in Germany, the TIB/UB Hannover have initiated Datacite, an international consortium for the collection and archiving of research data, for which they have just been rewarded with an award for “Rethinking Resource Sharing Innovation” (Congrats! Seriously!). But the average subject specialists will probably have neither enough time nor know-how to start leveraging e-research, even if they did have excellent contact with the communities they serve. And even if a local group of researchers got the ball rolling and approached their library for support in the VRE-building, would the library be able to give them want they need?
- The content libraries offer is oftentimes not ready for re-use. Catalogs, repositories and other databases lack APIs which would be needed for an automated integration of metadata and fulltext into the VREs. And we are very reluctant to give up on our established metadata schemes and models (not to speak of licensing models). So before we can start playing the field of e-science, maybe we should ultimately decide to open up the silos that are our information services and prepare to let go of whatever “purist” views on metadata that we might indeed have.
- Librarians are trained to gather and collect information. But I suspect many librarians would feel uncomfortable to be cast into the role of content curators or even arbiters, which is actually one of the few roles that researchers seem to have in mind for us when it comes to VREs. We are all about neutrality. Our subject headings describe content in the most non-judgemental fashion. Are we prepared to make decisions about which datasets to archive?
I am particularly concerned about the lack of openness of our information systems, both in a technical and conceptual sense. If we don’t fix this, I don’t think that engaging in e-science is going to make much of a difference, let alone be a safeline for libraries who would otherwise just become the Starbucks with books. On the other hand, it would certainly be inspiring to see a few best practices for e-science projects with significant involvement of librarians and library content. Seeing as some studies seem to indicate that e-science is going to evolve slower than expected, there might be time to prepare – and in spite of all the despair, this is pretty much what the course was all about.