Monday, March 14, 2016

The Skeuomorphic Library

Barbara Fister, of Library Babel Fish at Inside Higher Ed, wrote a piece recently about, well, I'm not entirely sure what she's getting at. But it has a cool-looking obscure word in the title.

For those of you who don't know (like me) the word skeuomorphic refers to an object that has characteristics shared in common with and based upon some other object, usually made of a different material than the original. Ms. Fister uses it to describe aspects of library collections and organizational schema that belong to earlier periods. Why, for example, does our modern online book catalog, still use the big long MARC record format that was intended to streamline the production of physical catalog cards? For that matter, why do we still refer to the database of books & physical media as the "card catalog"?  Even sticking the word "online" or "digital" in front of it conveys no more meaning to current students who have, in all likelihood, never seen an actual card catalog.
Even I barely remember ever using one of these at the public library

Fister is not recommending (I think) that we abandon all of these reminiscent relics of earlier ages of librarianship. Good, I say. Keep the old until something can be shown to do it better. Things that last long enough to get old have something of value to offer, that's why they last.

The latter half of the essay talks about the importance of helping undergraduate students understand the significance of scholarly or academic journal articles, and the utility of citations as "chains of association" that help students conduct this new activity called "Research".
"learning how to read a citation and go from it to a source remains a huge challenge for undergraduates once they realize that fine print is actually good for something other than a kind of plagiarism liability insurance."
So it remains one of the librarian's principal responsibilities to open up the students' eyes to the larger world that they have entered. Help the students understand not just how to do research, but what the research is for. If they will be professionals in the sciences and other fields of intellectual life, they have to understand those fields, how they operate, and particularly, where they came from. The library connects current practice to historical understanding, without which students can't grasp the width and depth of their chosen field.


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