How Culture Evolves—the Johnnie Librarian View

September 13, 2023 | By Frank O’Mahony

Elisabeth Long (A86), the Sheridan Dean of University Libraries, Archives, and Museums at Johns Hopkins University, weighs in on the changing nature of academic collections and her job itself.

Elisabeth Long (A86) was appointed Sheridan Dean of University Libraries, Archives, and Museums at Johns Hopkins University in January 2023. She came to Johns Hopkins after a long career at the University of Chicago. We sat down with her to discuss the role of an academic versus a public librarian and the evolving culture of academic libraries, with any lessons she has for St. John’s.

Elisabeth is part of a strong Johnnie family. Her father, Donlin Long (H21), is an honorary alum; her mother, former Board of Visitors and Governors member Harriett Long (AGI93) attended the college, as did siblings Kimberly Long Riley (AGI87) and David Long (A90).

Elisabeth Long (A86), at center, during the March 2023 inauguration of Annapolis president Nora Demleitner

Talk about the life of an academic librarian and the different demands placed on the role versus a public librarian.

There are obvious differences. A public library is just that—public—while an academic library is focused on its college community. A public library has a deep role in civic society, responding to demands that range from cookery classes to help with immigration applications. And of course it has books suitable for all ages. Academic libraries, on the other hand, are there for the student and faculty audiences, with a heavy research emphasis and a focus on collecting and preserving knowledge for the long haul—even if it isn’t being used today. They might have children’s books, but it would be to support researchers studying them.

Work at institutions such as mine is increasingly collaborative—libraries are no longer places purely for study, but they are locations for groups of students to gather and do projects together. This reflects the fact that teaching is changing and often expecting students to work collaboratively. And students themselves often want to study together. We still, of course, welcome, and have spaces for, individual study. There are times when there’s no substitute for coming to a quiet place, spreading out five books around you, and really digging into a subject. So, as we accommodate new student habits, we think a lot about appropriate “zoning”—creating collaborative zones and quiet zones.

What shifts in your services do you currently face?

It’s the challenge of digital content. Faculty produce their research digitally—fewer old-fashioned notebooks. Archives are coming to us in digital form. And the government agencies that fund research are starting to require that the results be made publicly and freely available. They started out just requiring that researchers share their articles—now it’s the underlying research behind those articles as well. This is creating fundamental shifts in the publishing ecosystem which, in turn, has a major effect on academic libraries.

What does digital transformation mean for you?

We must develop sophisticated digital storage and retrieval systems. It has implications for the people who work here—the people we hire for the library—and also for students and faculty who have to use these rapidly evolving systems. Also, especially with students, I worry that anything that’s not available on the internet becomes invisible. We have an entire historical record of material that remains vitally important. That history—especially cultural history—cannot be allowed to become invisible. So we are looking for ways to make it available in a format that’s approachable to today’s researchers. And signals matter—I’m advocating for putting our microfilm readers into a new digital scholarship center we’re working on. Researchers still use them, and we don’t want them in some dusty room, but rather alongside what’s currently the latest tech. Once they were the latest tech.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush imagined something he called a Memex—millions of books at your fingertips in a small machine with interlinking trails between works and automated association of content that can be shared with others—that sounds a lot like AI and the internet, except he thought it would be built on microfilm! It is such a great example of prescience bounded by the constraints of the technology of the day. It is a reminder to identify our own blind spots as we look toward the future.

What other issues are you tackling?

We simply cannot collect everything—there is so much produced now, and it’s getting more expensive. This has led to much deeper collaboration between libraries so we can coordinate our collection development. It is also important for research libraries to be much more diverse in what we collect. Many voices and types of materials have been traditionally under-represented in academic collections. But that can mean looking beyond the traditional publishing channels that don’t always help us when we want, for example, indigenous literature being produced in Mesoamerica, or ‘zines being traded at art fairs.

Let’s talk culture: how does it survive at a time of great upheaval?

I think that times like these—for institutions like Johns Hopkins and indeed St. John’s—the maintenance of culture, as defined by a set of core values, is vital. For so long, a library has been about books. Are we still a library as we move to a world of bits and bytes? We need to understand what our true nature is—it isn’t just about the format; it is about the knowledge it contains. So while we used to collect books, now we also must collect research data sets and complex digital objects that may be layering medical data onto maps to visualize distribution of an illness. We need to translate what we have always done, help knowledge flow, into this new environment. But we also need to hold onto what hasn’t changed. Sometimes it is still about the format.

It might be wonderful to have a digital copy of the Gutenberg Bible, but nothing will substitute for the importance of the original. I am a letterpress printer and book artist, so I have a deep appreciation for the materiality of books, and in some cases the physical object is as important as the abstract knowledge held within it. So we need to rigorously question what is important and why, and not have a one-size-fits-all answer as we navigate the changing environment. Institutions like libraries need to think deeply about the value they bring and constantly articulate why they are still relevant.

In terms of St. John’s, I reject the meme that says the college is just reading books by dead white males. My experience of the Program was of the vibrancy of reading the revolutionaries of their time. We get to see what it looks like to be the person with the new and radical thought.

By reading in chronological order, as St. John’s students do, we also watch the evolution of ideas over time—how they respond to each other, building on or reacting against each other. And how they eventually transform from new and controversial to accepted, and maybe even to antiquated or obsolete. I like to think those perspectives are one of the reasons why St. John’s students can have productive conversations with wildly different perspectives at the table. You learn how to talk across those gulfs of difference. That’s so core to the St. John’s experience, and a critical skill for the world today.

You have a deep family connection to St. John’s. What are your final thoughts on the college?

I think the school has gotten better at focusing on its values and communicating them. And it needs to celebrate what some might see as drawbacks—for example, the all-required curriculum meant I took classes I would never have chosen. I loved that. It taught me to stretch outside my comfort zone. This openness to being outside your bubble is a core value. The other benefit—value, if you like—of the all-required curriculum is that it gave me a common language to speak to other alums everywhere I meet them. I’ve made so many friends with people I was never in school with because of the bond that the common program creates.

My St. John’s education exposed me to so much thought in so many fields that in my professional career I’ve been able to talk to and collaborate with faculty from across the university. Not only can I connect with their subject, but I can enter a conversation with the confidence that I will be able to understand their research. Once you have struggled your way through Kant or Maxwell’s equations, you become fearless!

If I had not gone to St. John’s, I likely would have focused on the humanities and never have discovered the wonderful world of math, astronomy, and physics. But because of St. John’s I find myself incorporating math and astronomy into the artists books I create. And I was able to get involved in a project that took me to CERN to talk with high energy physicists about the preservation of data coming off the Large Hadron Collider. I credit St. John’s with giving me the facility to engage with anybody professionally and figure out how to get things done, from understanding physics to the book artistry, letterpress printing, and paper-making I will revive once I find a new home in Baltimore for my beloved 1,500 lb. printing press!

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