The Data-driven Library of the Future

Beyond digitization.


September 2, 2014

Last November, Portland-based library design consultant Aaron Schmidt wrote on Twitter that he wanted to create logos and visual identity packages for libraries.

His first rule: “no likenesses of books.”

It goes without saying that libraries are changing from repositories for journals and books to engaged community centers which offer new services that not only respond to innovative research but help shape it.

As a former programmer and now the head librarian at the John G. Wolbach Library that serves the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, I am constantly asking myself and our patrons what those services are, and what they can – and should – be.

Our scientists are accustomed to working at the edge of the known world. Accordingly, and because of our collaboration with NASA’s Astrophysics Data System (ADS), a major digital portal, we are situated to act as testing ground for new interactive services that answer the question “When everything is online, why come to the library?”

For me, the path to a relevant, 21st-century library lies beyond digitization (our collections are moving closer and closer to open access, so digitization is paramount for their preservation and dissemination) in creating “serendipitous discovery.”

If we’re able to offer a tool – a visual display, a 3D printer, a gesture-based interface, an Oculus Rift for visualization simulation, a Makey Makey for inventing new links to monitors and other devices – that tips off a researcher’s interest and causes him or her to run back to an office or study carrel or computer and say “Eureka!” then we’re making a strong argument for the library as a place.

What’s more, if we’re able to train our librarians to make research easier in an increasingly data-driven environment, we’re making a good case for our services. In recent months, the Wolbach staff has become versed in tools for authoring, managing references and tracking citations using alternative metrics to the peer review – a list of which is below.

We often hear from scientists that most of their time is spent finding, integrating, cleaning and transforming data – not analyzing it.

This seems like ideal work for librarians who are prepared to assist in the research, teaching and learning process. If we’re able to retool librarians' skills through programs like our Data Scientist Training for Librarians course, we’re able to add value at every step of the scholarly research process.

Taken in concert, libraries can offer places and services for discovery. While our scientists focus on the final frontier, we will work on designing a different kind of space full of physical and virtual tools that capture imagination and enable researchers to explore it.


John G Wolbach Library at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: recommended digital tools for scholarly research:

For moving beyond the book:

  • Oculus Rift
  • Intuilab (Interactive Experiences)

For creating collaborative, interactive articles and notebooks:

  • Authorea
  • ShareLaTex
  • IPython

For capturing research software/data releases and citation:

  •  Zenodo
  • Figshare

For managing and raising research impact:

  • ImpactStory
  • Altmetric

For reference management:

  • Mendeley
  • Zotero
  • Google scholar

For peer review credit:

  • Publons
  • PeerJ

For the cutting edge:

  • O'Reilly Atlas
  • Jupyter & coLaboratory

Christopher Erdmann is Head Librarian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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