Thursday, April 11, 2013

How hard is it to imagine "popular scholarship"?

I heard an interesting talk yesterday at Clark University by Robert Anderson, former director of the British Museum, on "The British Museum and Library at the New Millennium:"   wonderful anecdotes from the early history of the museum, and a compelling argument for the essential intellectual unity of what museums and libraries do.

The British Museum Great Court.
Photograph by Eric Pouhier,
licensed under cc-by-sa license.

Two details troubled me.  First, while the rare book library at Clark was filled, I saw only one student, and I probably fell well below the median age of the audience.  The talk was sponsored by the "Friends of the Goddard Library," but if this audience was representative, the library won't have too many friends in a few more years.

Second, both Anderson's talk and some of the discussion afterward made some curious assumptions about scholarship.  As the director at the time of the separation of the British Library from the Museum, and the opening of the fabulous facility at the new Euston Road location, Anderson offered insightful comments on the tensions of an institution committed both to free public access and to serving the needs of specialist scholars.  He brought up a problem familiar to anyone who has worked at the BL recently:  it's such a popular place, that all the desks fill up early in the morning with students looking for a comfortable place to work (with free wifi and good coffee!), but who aren't necessarily taking advantage of any of the unique offerings of the British Library.  This can impose a real hardship on people working on projects that depend on BL material.  Two assumptions emerged in the discussion that struck me as odd:  that the results of scholarly research would only be of interest to a small circle of specialists; and that digital material should be openly viewable, but scholarly research was being well served by a policy that allows free reuse of scholarly material only in print publications with a very limited print run.

Interior of the British Library.
Photograph by Maria Giulia Tolotti
licensed under cc-by-sa license.
Let's parse that logic a little more closely:  scholarly reuse of BL material is OK as long as not too many people care to read it;  and that's fine, because scholars' research is only of interest to a handful of other specialists, and expensive print media are an adequate way to meet this need.  (The host's introduction of Anderson referred light-heartedly, in what was evidently intended to be humor, to the fact that his most recent multi-volume publication costs hundreds of dollars.)

If we think the goal of scholarly research is to produce high-priced monographs of interest only to other specialists, is it really a surprise that the general reading public sees in the British Library a wonderful cafĂ©?  If we think of "digital access" as a way of entertaining or at best informing a wide public, without inviting scholars to build upon the digital foundations of the BL's collections, is it any wonder that visitors to the BL are not drawn to the library's unique resources, but instead spend their time with the amazing hodge podge of entertainment and information that populates the internet?

(Footnote:  I was able to include the photographs by Eric Pouhier and Maria Giulia Polotti, without regard for how many people might view them, because both are available from wikimedia commons under the terms of a cc-by-sa license.)

No comments: