Volume 2 : Issue 1
When we decided to dive into a case study for modern library use and the technologies involved, the first question we asked ourselves was, “Who do we talk to?” Many University staff know all the ins and outs of the real and virtual stacks and are happy to expound, but we wanted to chat with someone who uses libraries for research and teaching on a daily basis. The answer we heard from both library and technology administrators was, “You have to meet Rob Hume.”
A cup of coffee, stacks of tomes, a pipe collection, a Penn State rocking chair, all of these are the expected trappings of a literature professor’s scholarly domain. Less expected is the iPhone, and the large computer displays, strategically placed to scan for literary connections and data that echo across time and space.
But as traditional as world-renowned scholar Robert D. Hume may seem at first glance, he is a man looking forward, keeping the University and its future graduates at the forefront of technological innovations in library science. Juxtaposed with dips into books that are too delicate to hold in your hands are deep dives into the CIC databases, the CAT, and digital collections from around the world. From the comfort of his bright, well-ordered workspace, Hume and his graduate assistants travel unlimitedly through today’s digital library archives—finding the answers they seek and making researchers dreams come true.
We first met Robert D. Hume at one of his favorite places to do business, The Corner Room in downtown State College. A diner with a euro-pub feel is the perfect setting for this dignified professor of British literature, sporting a tweed jacket and a classic beard. “I’m convinced I was born wearing a jacket and tie.”he confesses. What dawns on us quickly, is how deceiving that old-world look can be. Professor Hume is anything but old-school.
When we first ask him about our University Libraries, his answers aren’t the expected cataloging of collections, but a strategic and overarching view. “As the ninth largest research library in North America, University Libraries draws interest from scholars in every part of the world, and these resources make an immense difference to individual research possibilities. But, the most valuable asset of all is the people involved."
Like his well worn 1950s-era leather briefcase, Hume’s view of digital libraries is full of charm and surprises, “technology has changed both our research and teaching in radical ways,” he observes. “It’s about a great deal more than books and journals today—it’s about the electronic data, equipment, and resources that institutions need to manage these tools, as well as the explosion of knowledge available to us because of them.”
The Heart of Every University
Within the walls of the University Libraries, the distinctive figure of Robert D. Hume is a familiar sight. An Evan Pugh Professor of English Literature, Hume is one of the world’s renowned living historians of English Restoration and 18th-century theatre, with a reputation in the history of literary criticism, opera, and drama. He is author, co-author, or editor of fourteen books and more than 125 articles, mostly in the realms of drama, theatre, and historical research.
For each of these scholarly endeavors, Hume has relied on the University Libraries’ immense collections, repositories, archives and databases. Using these tools, he and his students make frequent forays into the Arts and Humanities and Special Collections Libraries, Rare Books and Manuscripts, digital journals, specialty databases, newspapers, microfilms, and a multitude of other resources.
Hume points out that researchers often come to Penn State to explore its enormous collections. “As the ninth largest research library in North America, University Libraries draws interest from scholars in every part of the world, and these resources make an immense difference to individual research possibilities.
But the most valuable asset of all is the people involved. Of the libraries I’ve used all over this country and all over Great Britain, this one is the most deeply devoted to the service of faculty and students.”
Though Hume acknowledges that the role of the library is changing, he believes it will continue to remain at the heart of the modern university, emphasizing that bringing digital capabilities into the equation has transformed and revolutionized the scholarly realm. “Technology has changed both our research and teaching in radical ways,” he observes. “It’s about a great deal more than books and journals today—it’s about electronic data—and the equipment and resources institutions need to manage these tools, and the explosion of knowledge available to us because of them.”
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The Penn State Special Collections Library is a laboratory of sorts.
To scholars in the humanities, the best data can often be found using primary sources. These original accounts of events, experienced by contemporaries of the time, shed a light on the past that is invaluable to today’s academics. Taking the form of letters, transcripts, newspapers, and other rare materials, these pieces of history must be handled meticulously during their preservation.
And sometimes—like their peers working in scientific laboratories —librarians need to wear gloves to safeguard
these valuable artifacts. Before they can produce top-notch scholarship,modern researchers must organize the vast stores of information about the people and events they study. The Special Collections Library at Penn State contains more than 200,000 printed volumes, in addition to over 25 million archival records, manuscripts, photographs, maps, prints, and audio-visual items.
These important holdings are available for use by undergraduates and endowed professors alike.
These materials are archived in collections rather than by discrete individual item—since the contexts and
circumstances in which the materials were produced are often an important ingredient in determining their historical value. Penn State’s collections are organized around various subject areas including labor, literary, art, military, university, local, state history, and more.
Special Collections librarian Tim Pyatt describes one particularly unique holding: “We’re the official archives of the United Mine Workers of America. It’s a large and diverse collection and includes such confidential items as accident reports.” Often, donors will set restrictions on the use of archived materials, so researchers can use the report data in the aggregate
but may not disclose personal identities, he explains.
Though many of the resources in the Special Collections Library are much older than the Internet, Libraries staff is making great strides to ensure that these items are available in digital format to scholars around the globe who wish to tell their stories. “In effect we’re democratizing our collections by making them available to patrons on a wherever-you-are, whenever-you-want basis,” says Pyatt. “We want to make the Special Collections Library accessible to that vast audience of potential users who will never actually walk through our doors.” ■
An afternoon appointment brings us to his weekly mentoring meeting in Burrowes Building. Hume is holding court in his office, surrounded by his graduate students, as we get into the substance of how technologies feed current research and teaching. “Through these new digital collections, you can find hundreds of things that no one has ever thought to look for in books that are obscure, or have misleading titles, or aren’t by anybody known. So this kind of effort is what makes University Libraries so unique. As I often say to my students," he smiles wryly, "you won’t fully appreciate Penn State, until you see your next library.”
When your primary subject matter is located in Great Britain,you need to make friends with the locals, as well as like-minded scholars in every locale. Hume has worked closely with colleagues and friends from numerous continents to keep the information flowing. There is no question that digital library technologies have made this more feasible and affordable over the years.
With today’s interlibrary loan services, students and researchers can instantly obtain that elusive, missing volume for their studies from a wide-range of colleges and universities. Likewise, Penn State’s membership in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) provides library patrons with access to millions of shared collections and databases from across its Big Ten participant institutions. The University also recently negotiated a discounted group purchase of several collections that were digitized from a traditional, often eyestraining microfilm system to fully searchable digital text documents. Hume is deeply dedicated to this changeover, going so far as to provide personal endowments toward the acquisition of some of the purchases.
“Through these new digital collections, you can find hundreds of things that no one has ever thought to look for in books that are obscure, or have misleading titles, or aren’t by anybody known,” he observes. “So this kind of effort is what makes University Libraries unique. As I often say to my graduate students, you won’t fully appreciate Penn State until you see your next library.”
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As Internet use in higher education continues to expand, electronic databases are transforming the way scholars conduct research like never before. To be innovative in their professions, modern researchers need access to original scholarship by their peers, along with virtual access to documents from a wide spectrum of sources.
Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that the process of data gathering was a much more complicated and laborious task. Collecting relevant research frequently depended on a university library’s subscription to a particular journal, as well as the
availability of various types of reports, newspapers and documents. For rarer materials, such as hundred-year-old foreign periodicals, a trip to a different library (or even country) was often necessary.
As the largest research library in Pennsylvania, Penn State University Libraries provides access to over 593 electronic databases, which index periodicals, eBooks, government documents, industry reports, meeting notes, newspaper items, films, video recordings, and more.
Collectively, Penn State’s digital resources include
scholarship and analysis covering virtually every field of study in the sciences and humanities. Researchers with a Penn State ID can access this information from any web browser, anytime, anywhere. Visitors to University Park may be afforded the same access. Once connected, much of the world’s knowledge will literally be at one’s fingertips.
Penn State Ph.D. candidate in English Literature Patricia Gael is thankful for the University Libraries’ large selection of databases. “The availability of these resources has allowed me to do research that I wouldn’t have
believed possible a few years ago—like working on a dissertation that involves reading a few thousand 18th-century works in their original forms,” she says.
As an information source, a database may be searched by thousands of users simultaneously, and it is available whether or not the library is open. There is no limit to the number of times a database can be searched or the number of times an item can be displayed. Digital copies of documents do not deteriorate physically, nor can they be misplaced, stolen, or vandalized.
Let’s see a book do that. ■
A conversation with Hume in his home, on the semi-rural outskirts of State College, illuminated the forward-looking inner self we had been glimpsing all along. Spacious, bright and oh-sovery modern, filled with blonde woods, granite, orchids, and a few felines, you could not get a less stuffy work space in which to collaborate with research partners from around the world.
“This is the kind of research that would take a lifetime, and countless travel dollars for a single scholar in a paper-based library system,” he said. “Going digital expands the possibilities over print, in countless ways.”
Seeing the Future Through History
With a clear understanding that not every university can house every book, Hume has worked closely with University Libraries to recommend what should be acquired as a hard copy, and what digital collections are necessary to meet the research needs of the University’s many internationally-recognized humanities scholars. Hume’s convictions have propelled him to advocate for the acquisition of several specialized digital collections at Penn State including The Burney Newspapers, and the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).
He stresses these tools bring essential functions to researchers’ fingertips. For example, the ability to gather cost-of-living data from 18th-century newspapers, or the ability to find certain cost references to historical books, performance tickets, and bookseller ads—makes it possible to define the impact contemporary literature has had on different strata of society.
“This is the kind of research that would take a lifetime, and countless travel dollars for a single scholar in a paper-based library system,” Hume explains. “Going digital expands the possibilities over print in countless ways.”
A passionate mentor, he encourages his students to delve deeply into Penn State’s historical paper publications and literature collections, while also embracing University Libraries’ 593 databases and indexing items such as legal documents, science databases, art journals, international demographic records, religious encyclopedias, film and media, as well as the full spectrum of archives from every CIC institution.
As he coaches his students in these research practices, he also enjoys coordinating their expeditions to some of the world’s largest 18th century repositories and other destinations, such as Harvard, Yale, the British Library of London, the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C., the Huntington Library of Pasadena, the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas, and the Newberry in Chicago.
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As universities across the country begin to investigate ways to securely archive the growing amount of digital information, a unique collaboration coupled with state-of-the-art technology, is making it happen at Penn State.
As part of the Content Stewardship initiative, the University Libraries and ITS Digital Library Technologies (DLT) have undertaken a joint project to support the growing academic and research needs of the Penn State community. The program consists of two parallel and complementary
tracks: One to develop new services using existing technical infrastructure, and a second to design and build a repository services platform that will receive, manage, preserve, and deliver a range of digital information and data for Penn State faculty, staff, and students.
The first services to be offered will include the hosting of Graduate Student Exhibition posters, digital data sets, electronic theses and dissertations, and journal publishing—all services that library patrons have been asking for.
“We are building a repository with technology that will be easy to use, and so generalized that the stored data will always be preserved, taken care of, and easily accessible—regardless of the specific electronic device a person is using or even what decade it is,” explains Al Williams, former director of ITS Emerging Technology.
The repository will store and deliver digital library collections,student and faculty papers, research data, and electronic business records.
Penn State is on the leading-edge in its quest to develop the repository and in discovering ways to manage long term interests in this type of data, according to Williams.
“We’re building a place and to preserve Penn State’s digital assets over time. ITS Digital Library Technologies and University Libraries are working towards this end by creating the repository.
It’s not the only answer, but it’s part of the solution.” ■
Hume and his students aren’t just investigating tomes and works from around the world, they’re creating them. From endowed scholarship seats that require publishing, to graduate dissertations, and articles for peer-reviewed journals—an essential part of Hume’s mission is to produce scholars and publications that help shape the literary landscape.
Inspiring New Generations
The opportunity to teach students who possess a passion for education is every instructor’s dream, and at Penn State, this has never been a problem. With the largest number of active alumni in the world, the University’s reputation precedes it—there is no shortage of qualified applicants.
As each new class of undergrads arrives at Penn State with increasingly more sophisticated computer skills, the challenge to keep them engaged in a traditional research environment continues to grow. From the etiquette of handling ancient texts, to mastering the techniques and expectations of copyright ethics and digital research, the academic perimeters that each generation is expected to navigate expand every year.
Luckily, so too do our libraries’ resources and advocates. Hume selects his grad assistants carefully, coaching them in how to seek quality data, select the best tools for scholarly investigation, and cultivate their own teaching methodologies.
His students are remarkable and their work is impressive. Ranging from investigation of the 18th-century novel to analysis of historic manuscripts and satire, their work dives deep into the Libraries’ resources to illuminate our contemporary view of the past. Just as they draw inspiration from Hume they also impart their own enthusiasm to the undergraduate students they teach.
Patricia Gael, Leah Orr, and Julian Fung are three of Hume’s graduate students. Even with marked differences in their individual academic concentrations and proclivities they all have two things in common—18th-century English literature and Penn State University Libraries.
As we wind up all the meetings, the lessons, and the swapping of anecdotes with the professor and his students, it becomes clear that our advisers were right. To get a broad view of where libraries are virtually going, Rob Hume was the one we needed to meet.
Closing the Book
A relief sculpture at the entrance of Penn State's Pattee Library bears an inscription from the Victorian era poet and philosopher Thomas Carlyle: "The true university is a collection of books."
As Hume and his students would attest, the truth of this observation still holds even in today's information age. Someday, obtaining and reading a book may not require going to a physical place anymore, and the university may no longer exist in a specific location as well— but may simply exist as an “idea.” Still, the library, whether virtual or actual, will continue to exist and serve as the depository of what has been thought (and what will be thought) by individuals throughout the ages. For many, a book, whether bound or electronic, remains the most effective way for transmitting or gaining an understanding of new ideas. ■
Contributing Writers: Cristol L. Gregory, Lauren Ingram, Peggy Smith, Joseph Weeks