Tom Scheinfeldt: Looks Like the Internet: Networks and the Future of Libraries

Tom Scheinfeldt
Tom Scheinfeldt

Tom Scheinfeldt, Associate Professor of Digital Media and Design and Director of Digital Humanities in the Digital Media Center at the University of Connecticut, discussed how and why digital library projects succeed when they are structured like the Internet. Essentially, the Web is built on the end-to-end principle and maximizes the possibility of disruptive change. Because it is impossible to predict what applications will be developed in the future, the network was intentionally designed to be as simple as possible, allowing creativity and innovation to be concentrated in the “end nodes” (e.g., designers and users).

Scheinfeldt said that Digital Humanities projects also work end-to-end; the majority of experimentation is performed by designers and users. One example that exists in the cultural heritage community is Omeka (omeka.org), a free and open source web-publishing platform used to develop scholarly collections and exhibitions. It functions much like WordPress and is successful because it is based on a development model that promotes design through participation. In this environment, the role of site administrators is to keep network pathways open so that creativity can take place as opposed to directing projects or software development.

Tom Scheinfeldt taking questions from the audience
Tom Scheinfeldt taking questions from the audience

Despite the success of projects like Omeka, many digital projects in higher education environments are based around community source models. In these cases, commitment to a project is made at a high level and developers carry out plans created by committees. Many of these initiatives fail because administrators do not agree on goals, funding runs out and developers do not have a personal commitment to projects. Scheinfeldt said that the core issue linked to these failures is that community source projects run contrary to the structure of the Internet; they centralize project control and leave little room for creativity or innovation. In tech environments, success is hinged on joint decision making and developers should be heavily involved in all aspects of digital projects from conception to completion.

In conclusion, Scheinfeldt said that libraries should resist centralizing efforts and continue to support projects that keep productivity and creativity at the end nodes. When library professionals look to the structure of the Internet for examples of how to develop projects and organize staff, they create environments that promote success in the digital realm.

Melissa Goertzen
Columbia University Libraries

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