Public Understanding of Science presentation at Canada South Science City, March 14, 2014
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A presentation for Science and Public Understanding forum @ Canada South Science City

A presentation by Mita Williams on March 14th, 2014 Uses reveal.js View this presentation online at:

Science and Public Understanding.

Hello. My name is Mita Williams and I’m the user experience librarian at the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor.

My opening remarks are dedicated to exploring where libraries fit in in this conversation of science and public understanding. Which means we need to start with the reason why we have libraries.

Libraries are organizations dedicated to acquiring and organizing information for access and preservation. But we don’t collect works for the act of collecting itself. Use of library materials is paramount. As philosopher Daniel Dennett once said, a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. Now, that’s not generally how scientists look at it. Their perspective is likely to be closer to that of Isaac Newton who said, If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The library is where we keep the work of giants. For example, the Leddy Library provides access to the digitized work of some of the earliest recorded scientific literature. Through JSTOR, the first scientific journals- the means by which scientists shared the results of their work with each other - are available for those in the campus community to read and reflect upon.

Now there are two things that I’d like to bring up now that we are on the topic of digitization. First, even though we have access to the Internet which is and remains one of the most remarkable technologies we have, I do not believe that digitization will mean the end of the library. The library of Alexandria, we must remember was a collection of scrolls as the technology of the book had not yet been developed. And what you might not have know is that in the early years of the printing press, that many of existing libraries of hand-scribed texts fell into disuse unable to complete with the exploding world of the printed book. It even came to the point that Oxford University decided to sell it’s library furniture. It took time, but eventually the library adapted to the world of the printed word. And similarly, as so now, libraries are adapting to the digital.

The other topic I want to bring attention to is that even though the archival works of the Royal Society has been made available for free online, many other works of scientific and scholarly literature that have long passed out of copyright and should be in the public domain, are not freely available on the Internet. Indeed most scientific research that is currently published require members of the public who do not have access to a university library subscription to pay to read the research, sometimes for costs of $30 an article. The reason why this is so, is a complicated story but to summarize many scientific societies have established agreements with for profit and nonprofit organizations who publish scientific material at a cost which is recuperated by subscriptions to libraries and individual researchers. Sometimes these license agreements are very restrictive.

The umbrella term for those activities and individuals who are working to make more scientific research free to the public is called the Open Access movement. The Leddy Library, as well as many other academic libraries are investing and investigating new ways to provide Open Access to scientific research to our students, researchers and communities. Open Access research is not free but takes advantage of the affordances of the digital to be free to the reader.

Digitization is not a replacement for libraries. It is the work of libraries. We have a history and literature dedicated to metadata and its practical applications. We have digitization expertise that we share with all the disciplines of the academy.

I understand that the topic of the recent government library closures by the federal government might be covered by today’s discussion and I’m willing to speak to it if comes up. But I’m warning you, I don’t have much good news to share. The Federal government is divesting of many of its libraries and trying to make assurances that they and Libraries and Archives Canada are taking enough care to preserve historically relevant work and to only remove duplicate and non-important materials. We are told that that digitization efforts will make up for reduced access by the closure of physical libraries and branches. Unfortunately there’s not much evidence that backs up these claims.

The future is what we create in the present. Investing in libraries means that future generations can see further than they can do today.