Technological Change and the Scholarly Communications Reform Movement: Reflections on Castells and Giddens

By Fyffe, Richard | Library Resources & Technical Services, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Technological Change and the Scholarly Communications Reform Movement: Reflections on Castells and Giddens


Fyffe, Richard, Library Resources & Technical Services


Reconceiving and reorganizing collection development practices around the evolving processes and products of the scholarly communications cycle has become one of our profession's fundamental opportunities. However, our increasing use of market mechanisms and digital technologies to rationalize the production and distribution of scholarly information poses significant risk that business cycles and the obsolescence of hardware and software will lead to the inadvertent loss of significant portions of our intellectual heritage. This article introduces a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between academic culture and digital technology as they relate to scholarly communication and library collection development, drawing chiefly on the work of the social theorists Daniel Bell, Manuel Castells, and Anthony Giddens. The article suggests that Castells's theory of the network society and Giddens's account of disembedding, expert systems, and risk as hallmark features of modern society together poi nt us toward a more candid recognition that the fragility of digital systems and the resulting possibility of significant cultural loss are intrinsic features of the new landscape of scholarly communications. Moreover, acknowledging this risk is an important dimension of successful reform of the scholarly publishing system.

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Scholarly communication has become a guiding metaphor for academic librarianship, and reconceiving and reorganizing collection development practices around the evolving processes and products of the scholarly communications cycle has become one of our profession's fundamental opportunities (Atkinson 1996, Atkinson 2000). At the same time, however, our increasing adoption of market mechanisms and digital technologies to rationalize the production and distribution of scholarly information--while promising a resolution to the cost crisis in scholarly publishing and bringing us within view of a truly national or international scholarly collection distributed across a network of cooperating repositories--also poses significant risk that business cycles and the obsolescence of hardware and software will lead to the inadvertent loss of significant portions of our intellectual heritage.

The challenges posed by digital technologies for long-term preservation of data and cultural objects have been extensively documented and discussed (see, for example, MacLean and Davis 1998). As Donald Waters writes,

[D]igital information and the technologies on which they depend are extremely fragile. Their fragility makes it highly uncertain that digital libraries can endure over time and it causes one to wonder about the durability of their supposed benefits. Rapid cycles of change and obsolescence infect the hardware and software products now in common use to create new knowledge (Waters 1999, 193-94).

Waters continues: "The challenge of creating the deep infrastructure needed to sustain digital records of knowledge over time consists, at least in part, of marshaling a complex set of political, economic, and technological forces toward the development of a system of organizations that have come to be known generally as digital libraries" (Waters 1999, 195). That is, the solution to the challenge of assuring the continuity of digital information is not just--or even mostly--technological; rather, it is economic and political or, more broadly, cultural. For example, economic models must be created for digital objects that may be used seldom, if ever, but that still assure long-term revenues to cover the ongoing growth and replacement of hardware and software; and governance models must be developed that define rights and responsibilities, that facilitate effective decision making, and that can be perpetuated across many institutional generations.

However, less consideration has been given in our professional literature to the question of the effect of technology on the cultural conditions necessary for the preservation of digital information. …

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