by David Green, Knowledge Culture
Originally Published December 16th, 2007
James O’Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University, is a distinguished classics scholar (most recently author of Augustine: A New Biography), who has contributed immensely to critical thinking about the application of new technologies to the academic realm. In 1990, while teaching at Bryn Mawr College, he co-founded the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, one of the earliest online scholarly journals, and while serving as Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Penn’s Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing. In 2000 he chaired a National Academies committee reviewing information technology strategy at the Library of Congress, resulting in the influential report, LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress. One of his most influential books, Avatars of the Word (Harvard, 1998) compares the impact of the digital revolution to other comparable paradigmatic communications shifts throughout history.
David Green: We’re looking here at the kinds of organizational design and local institutional evolution that will need to happen for liberal arts (and other higher-education) institutions to take advantage of a fully-deployed international cyberinfrastructure. How might access to massive distributed databases and to huge computational and human resources shift the culture, practice and structure of these (often ancient) institutions? How will humanities departments be affected–willingly or unwillingly? Will they lead the way or will they need to be coaxed forward?
James O’Donnell: I think the issue you’re asking about here boils down to the question, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” And I think I see the paradox. The NSF Cyberinfrastructure Report, addressed to the scientific community, could assume a relatively stable community of people whose needs are developing in relatively coherent ways. If wise heads get together and track the development of those needs and their solutions, you can imagine it would then just be an ordinary public policy question: what things do you need, how do you make selections, how do you prioritize, what do you do next? NSF has been in this business for several decades. But when you come to the humanities (and full credit to Dan Atkins, chair of the committee that issued the report, for saying “and let’s not leave the other guys behind”) and you ask “what do these people need?” you come around to the question (that I take it to be the question you are asking of us) “Are we sure these people know they need what they do need?”