April 27, 2004
Reflections on UThink
Why the library? Why should the library host blogs on campus? I've heard this often enough where I feel it is an important question to answer. The easiest answer to this is, why not? But that probably won't satisfy the masses. I think most people are hung up by their own perceptions of what both libraries are and what blogs are. To many in a university environment, the library is a stuffy building with old books and even older librarians whispering "shhhh!" all the time. There is also a (better) perception of the library as a temple to knowledge, the epitome of academia and the holder of the record of the breadth of human history and discovery. The library provides resources people can trust, hand selected by subject specialists, meticulosly cataloged, and ready for use in scholarly discourse. The keyword there is "scholarly." Why in the world would the library be interested in blogs?
This brings up people's perception of blogs. To many, blogs are little more than electronic gossip devices, or personal diaries filled with drivel of little or no academic value. This is what I call the "blueberry muffin" effect. Why in the world should I care that you had a blueberry muffin for breakfast? And possibly more importantly, why in the world did you feel the need to write about it for the world to read? Are all blogs filled with this personal drivel? Can we stereotype them all and box them all into this corner of having very little scholarly value?
Obviously I would say no. I personally feel that blogs and libraries can help break these stereotypes that both must overcome. The University of Minnesota and the University Libraries are not unique in offering blogs to the campus community. Many other univeristies are taking this leap, and it probably all started with Blogs at Harvard Law. There is also a lot of research and thought going into blogs on college campuses which you can find here, and here, and here, and here, etc. Blogs are approaching the tipping point on many campuses around the world as a tool that can enhance the traditional academic enterprise. How do libraries fit into the picture?
Libraries can certainly offer blogs an air of legitimacy given people's already stuffy impression of the role of the academic library on campus. However, when you think about it, blogs are just another example of the breadth of human knowledge and thought in electronic form. There are blogs for every topic under the sun and more are being created every day. Why isn't it the job of the libraries to also collect this material? We already collect material in all subjects and all formats; blogs are merely an extension of a responsibility. Right now there are hundreds of faculty, staff, and students on the U of M campus that maintain blogs, blogs that discuss their lives, research interests, classes, political persuasions, work life, and more. Why wouldn't the libraries want to archive this (sometimes) very important content? In addition, this content is quite literally a gold mine of unfettered and unedited essays that represents a snap shot in time of the history of the institution. Regardless of whether a person feels these posts and entries are "scholarly" or not, they reflect what people are thinking about at the U of M right now. Libraries already collect material like this through the University Archives. Blogs, however, will offer a much richer picture for researchers of the future interested in the cultural memory of the institution.
Let's talk a little more about the whole "scholarly" thing. While I would agree that most of the libraries' tradtional holdings (books, microfilm, databases) contain materials that could be considered "scholarly" I can also promise you that right now the library's collections also contain literally thousands of books that you would consider to be absolute crap. If you don't believe me you haven't looked hard enough. That is why this perception of blogs as frivolous irks me so much. It is so subjective. This idea that blogs must be "scholarly" (as the reader defines it) to be worthy of being published is academic elitism and censorship at its finest. That is why it is so important for blogs to be housed in the libraries. As guardians of intellectual freedom libraries can encourage people to write what they want, when they want, without fear of institutional restraint. Blogs give people on campus the freedom to express their opinion in any way they see fit, and libraries can ensure that their first amendment rights aren't tampered with.
I fully believe in the process of writing. I think of blogs as a public practice arena for putting your thoughts on paper (or screen as the case may be). Sometimes your thoughts will be complete schlock, but as you practice more you are bound to get better at expressing yourself. Sooner or later you will become more adept at expressing an opinion, making an argument, debating what you feel is an important issue, etc. More importantly you will learn to trust your own opinion more, and you will find that you actually have opinions on a lot of topics. I guess what I am trying to say is that through all the crap people write on blogs there is usually the germ of an idea trying to get out. The University Libraries don't want to squelch that idea, we want to give you the chance to express it.