Digital Media(tion)

NASA’s Analog Computing Machine, Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (Glenn Research Center), Cleveland Ohio, c. 1949. Courtesy NASA.

By Will Rourk

Rows of stacks and quiet old ladies strolling up and down the aisles with their book carts used to come to mind when you thought about the local library. The web has changed all that and the conventional pile of bricks and mortar filled with a forest’s worth of printed books has been augmented by virtual repositories like the Internet Public Library, the Free Library, Google Books, and Google Scholar. With texts becoming digitized (and born digital), print is fading in the background. But, the content itself—in any form—is no less meaningful and access and literacy-training are still provided by libraries.

University libraries in particular, which remain reasonably well funded through endowments and annual budget allocations, have been at the forefront of actively supporting media and technology literacy. In the mid-1990s, media literacy for faculty and students became an institutional imperative and not just a novel interest across the country. In response, the University of Virginia Library System began developing a Digital Media Lab (DML) to provide hardware, software and technological expertise to the entire university.

“Although it was not unusual to find a computer lab in a library in the mid-90’s, it was fairly unusual to find one equipped with a full complement of media authoring equipment, and with staff ready to teach a wide range of technologies,” says Judy Thomas, Director of Arts and Media Services at the University of Virginia.

Today, the DML is unique compared to other university library services because it has become a teaching and learning environment that offers software and hardware (like high definition video and audio-capture devices) as well as training. As university instructors realized that a course’s content could be deployed in alternative ways, the lab—and departmental curricula—grew to accommodate the idea. Fifteen years later, it’s fairly common for instructors to assign projects that require video production, YouTube content or web-based interactive media.

U.Va. English professor Stephen Railton looked to the DML for an electronic aid for his students who were struggling to understand Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! “Faulkner, himself, provides a chronology at the end of the novel, but that gives the plot away,” says Railton. “I wanted to use new technology to come up with a way for them to [visualize] the main events of the story.” Working with Railton, the DML staff devised a Flash-based program to maintain the plot’s integrity while helping students visually see how the elements of that plot unfold in time. Since then, the program has been used by hundreds of Railton’s own students as well as thousands of other students around the country.

Information is not just limited to the printed or digital word. Textual information can be considered a component of the larger sphere of information media. “Tools for delivering media-rich content are transforming research, scholarship, teaching, and learning,” says DML Director Jama Coartney. “[The] field blends information-gathering and information-sharing with online communities actively seeking to consume and reuse this information.”

George Sampson, Director of the Arts Administration program for U.Va.’s School of Architecture, frequently seeks out the DML for help. “It has been a partner in a number of enterprises over the past few years, from salvaging tapes of my guest speakers, to partnering in a prototype class using new technology and programs, to using one of my students as a key peer-to-peer educator,” he says, “and always as a backstop for when a new technology needed explaining.”

In this sense, recognizing media as information is vital. Nearly every aspect of our daily lives is affected by technologies that increasingly make it easier for a variety of media to be consumed. The challenge conventional and media librarians face today is making sense of text, audio, video and other analog and digital media resources for designers, researchers, academics, and the public. The medium is the message after all, it seems, and you don’t have to read that line again to know it’s true.

Will Rourk is a digital media specialist in the University of Virginia Library System’s Digital Medial Lab.

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