Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Abbot and ATLA
As someone who hopes to eventually find a home in an academic library, I was especially interested in Abbot’s section on that topic. In particular, I was drawn to Abbot’s discussion of the tension between the traditional refereed journal’s editor as selector, and the database that potentially emphasizes quantity over quality (p. 439). Until recently, it was the editor, presumably a scholar advanced in his or her field, who selected for his or her journal the most relevant, researched, and refereed work to be published. The corporation in control of an electronic database does not necessarily value the academically rigorous criteria of the editor, instead preferring a database that can generate more hits per search than its competitor’s (I’m reading some of this into Abbot’s piece). The academic librarian, as the mediator between user and database, is then forced to make value judgements on the scholarship available, a task heretofore reserved for the editor. The librarian, especially a veteran in his or her subject area, will no doubt have a certain grasp of the issues and scholarship currently dominating the academic field, but nowhere approaching that of someone actually a member of that discipline. The perfect candidate for subject librarian within an academic library now becomes someone already advanced in that academic field. Since such confluence is unlikely in most cases, the next best thing is for the academic librarian to stay afoot of the current debates, reading thoroughly the latest scholarship, attending conferences in the academic field of specialization (in addition to conferences for library professionals!), and consulting as often as possible with the academic department(s) on campus related to his or her specialization. Suddenly, the job of the academic librarian becomes two jobs. Few people have the time or inclination to work two jobs while they get paid for only one, and the result is librarians ill-equipped to manage the immense amount of (dis)information available through electronic databases.
Clearly, I’ve painted an overly dire picture here. But the potential for bad information, and the consequent necessity for filtering it, puts more strain than ever on the librarian. It might be useful to create dual positions, where the subject librarian also holds a post within the relevant academic department. By working directly with and for the scholars in that department, the librarian would be in a better position to judge the quality of information available via electronic databases.
I chose to look at the code of ethics for the American Theological Library Association (ATLA, http://www.atla.com/about.html#mission_and_ends). Since I have in the past benefited from the robust and useful database provided by this organization, I was somewhat puzzled by the lack of any mention of technology in its code. There are certainly allusions to this, “Excellent research tools supporting the study of religion and theology are created...,” “Research and development initiatives successfully address needs for improved and new products and services.” Without a doubt, theological scholarship is more text-based than most. For some time now, however, I’ve strongly believed that this is one field especially that could reap huge rewards by integrating technology. For instance, there are a number of debates that hinge on the way one letter in one manuscript is read. Why, therefore, is more energy not being put into making these manuscripts available digitally, for scholars to access remotely? It is a cumbersome and outdated process that requires a researcher to fly to Berlin or London to work on a manuscript, especially when the technology is so readily available to democratize that manuscript electronically.
All in all, I found ATLA’s code a collection of meaningless piffle without substance or impact. For example, “Primary source material and scholarly resources for the study of religion and theology are organized, preserved and made accessible at a reasonable expenditure of funds, time, and resources.” Way to take a stand, ATLA!