Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Editorial Board Thoughts: Arts into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-STEAM, Creative Abrasion, and the Opportunity in Libraries Today

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Editorial Board Thoughts: Arts into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-STEAM, Creative Abrasion, and the Opportunity in Libraries Today

Article excerpt

Over the millennia, man's attempt to understand the universe has been an evolution from the broad to the sharply focused. A wide range of distinctly separate disciplines evolved from the overarching natural philosophy, the study of nature, of Greco-Roman antiquity: anatomy and astronomy through botany, mathematics, and zoology among many others. Similarly, the Arts, Humanities, and Engineering developed from broad over-arching interest into tightly focused disciplines that today are distinctly separate. As these legitimate divisions formed, grew, and developed into ever-deepening specialty, they enabled correspondingly deeper study and discovery (1); in response, the supporting collections of the library divided and grew to reflect that increasing complexity.

Libraries have long been about the organization of, and access to, information resources. Subject classification systems in use today, such as the Dewey Decimal system, are designed to group like items with like, albeit under broad overarching topic. A perhaps inevitable result for print collections housed under such a classification system is the physical isolation of items--and, by extension, the individuals researching those topics--from one another. Under the Library of Congress system, for example, items categorized as "geography" are physically removed from those in "science;" further still from "technology." End-users benefit from the possibility of serendipitous discovery while browsing shelves nearby, even as they are effectively shielded from exposure to distracting topics outside of their immediate focus.

Recent years have witnessed a rediscovery of, and renewed interest in, the fundamental role the library can have in the creation of knowledge, learning, and innovation among its members. As collections shift from print to electronic, libraries are increasingly less bound to the physical constraints imposed by their print collections. Rather than a continued focus on hyperspecialization and separation, we have the opportunity to rethink the library: exploring novel configurations and services that might better support its community, and embracing emerging roles of trans-disciplinary collaboration and innovation.

The Library as Intersection

Libraries reflect the institutional and organizational structures of their communities, even as the physical organization of the structures built to house print collections mirror the classification system in use. Academic libraries are perhaps most entrenched in the structural division: rather than intrinsically promoting collaboration and discovery across disciplines, the organization of print collections, and typically the spaces around them, is designed to foster increased focus and specialization. Specialized almost to the exclusion of other areas of study altogether, in branch libraries of a college or university this division can reach a pinnacle; libraries and collections devoted to exclusive topics of engineering, science, music, and others, exist on campuses across the country. Amplified by separation and clustering of faculty and researchers, typically by department and discipline, it becomes entirely possible for individuals to "spend a lifetime working in a particular narrow field and never come into contact with the wider context of his or her study." (2)

The library is also one of the few places in any community where individuals from a variety of backgrounds and specialties can naturally cross paths with one another. At a college or university, students and faculty from one discipline might otherwise rarely encounter those from other disciplines. Whether public, school, or academic library, outside of the library individuals and groups are typically isolated from one another physically, with little opportunity to interact organically. Without active intervention and deliberate effort on the part of the library, opportunities for creative abrasion (3) and trans-disciplinary collaboration become virtually nonexistent; its potential to "unleash the creative potential that is latent in a collection of unlikeminded individuals," (4) untapped. …

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