unlocking hathitrust: an interview.

I have an article in Library Journal this week on HathiTrust, the giant “digital library by libraries for libraries.” It’s an interview with Heather Christiansen and Paul Fogel, two key HathiTrust staffers that I’ve enjoyed working with in the past. An excerpt:

As librarians and users, we constantly encounter digital discovery interfaces and collections, but we don’t necessarily interact with the individuals who make them happen. This contributes to a widespread lack of insight into what these operations actually require. Who are the people behind the products? How do they work? When the human element is missing, interfaces can seem inscrutable.

The more I communicated with HathiTrust, the more I realized that they are a surprisingly small group of library-minded folks doing a herculean job not only participating in mass digitization projects with Google and the Internet Archive, but building a new, large-scale digital library with its own features and services. Enter the inspiration for this follow-up interview: to correct my (and others’) misperceptions about this important and emerging librarians’ digital library.

Among other things, Paul and Heather demystify aspects of large-scale collaborative digitization, and describe HathiTrust’s already enormous holdings (here rendered graphically by LJ):

The inspiration for this interview came from the realization that, while I might use digital collections often, I really didn’t understand the work it took to create and maintain them. I had unwittingly developed misperceptions about their quality and functionality.

Misperception correction is a familiar activity for most of us. Think about it: how often have you countered policy claims, re-explained misunderstood services, or, say, stopped a tour guide before they finish telling a group of prospective students that the library provides free year-round soft-serve?

It is impossible to blame the user for getting it wrong from time to time. Patrons don’t have the monopoly on misperception. Uber-specialization, departmental divide syndrome (otherwise known as the silo effect), and inadequate cross-training creates a climate of mutual un-awareness among colleagues and institutions. The digital transition provides an additional learning curve. As products, service models, and access methods develop, it’s easy to lose our bead on the things we don’t “own” (tech-focused or not).

In this climate of constant change, we are all candidates for misperception correction. It is important to recognize that there will be moments when prevailing assumptions about a particular tool, technology, or subject are simply incorrect. These are important learning opportunities, chances to gain new perspective on issues you thought you knew.

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