Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ETD 2011 and the Library of the Future

This week, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) holds its annual international conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Founded by Prof. Edward Fox of Virginia Tech, NDLTD is dedicated to making theses and dissertations available on the web. NDLTD is an organization where library and academic-computing professionals coordinate their activities and support each other as they develop programs to improve the quality of multimedia theses and the repositories that hold them.

The good news is that universities from across the globe are adopting electronic-theses mandates at an astonishing rate. Right now, over two million theses are available with a few mouse clicks. Check out the VTLS Visualizer or the SCIRUS ETD Search. By making their research available online, universities increase its impact. This is especially important for developing nations, who are in dire need of thinkers that solve local problems and contribute to global knowledge. That makes the location of this year’s NDLTD conference crucially important, both from a practical and a symbolic point of view.

The bad news is that thesis repositories are underfunded. Often, a thesis repository is thought of as just an affordable digital service with a fast payoff in research visibility. In fact, it is much more: it is a paradigm shift for the business of university libraries. Paper-era libraries collect information from around the world to be consumed by their communities. This paradigm is largely obsolete and must be turned upside down. As discussed in a previous blog post, “The Fourth Branch Library”, digital-era libraries should focus on the information produced by their communities, collect it, manage it, and make it widely available. Setting up an electronic thesis repository, helping students and faculty develop best practices, and helping universities through policy issues are exactly the kind of activities at the core of the digital library mission.

Repositories should be funded at a level commensurate with their importance to the future of libraries. We need to redouble our efforts to get out of PDF and into structured text, to enable full-text search, to improve reference linking, and to connect scientific formulas and equations to appropriate software for manipulation. We must capture all data underlying thesis research and make it available in raw form as well as through interactive visualizations. We must standardize when appropriate and allow maximum flexibility when feasible. A lot of work is ahead.

I congratulate the organizers of ETD 2011 for putting together a fantastic program. I hope the attendees of ETD 2011 will be inspired to build the foundations for the library of the future.