The Value of Interdisciplinarity

Guest post by Craig Gibson, Ohio State University Libraries


We see evidence of it everywhere: commentary on climate change and its political and communication dimensions; celebrity academics promoting their theories about creativity and social change citing studies from multiple disciplines; centers and think tanks associated with universities and other institutions bringing together resident researchers, freelance scholars and writers to share their wisdom and opinion leaders from across the spectrum of human thought responding to all of it.  The popular press and news sites push headlines and stories showing connections among fields of expertise.  We live in an age of simultaneous hyperspecialization and calls for connections among “hyperspecialists” to solve big problems that can’t be solved otherwise.

Academic libraries have always presented something of this paradox of hyper-specialization through intricate categorizations of knowledge and connectivity–creating trails, paths, meeting grounds, crossroads, or forums and more recently “blogs”, for specialists to break out of their own fields and find common ground with others, in the larger academic discourse.  This potential for broadened perspectives and connections, always imperfectly realized, is a primary contribution of the library to forming a more integrated community–in a time when user behavior points in another direction, toward the solipsism made possible through social media (a paradox in itself).  We don’t know yet how to fix or describe the value academic libraries offer as either physical or virtual sites for interdisciplinary discourse, knowledge creation, or community formation, but we believe that there is value attached to these aspects of academic life. Our challenge is to rethink the library’s role: as interdisciplinary connecting hub, as Daniel Mack, a colleague at the University of Maryland, would term it; as publisher of content with new, interdisciplinary viewpoints; and as a programmable, repurposable site for displays of new knowledge generated by the various communities served by the library.  From static warehouse to conversational connecting point: this is the trajectory we should strive for.  In this new reality, we will create new value, promote it, assess it, sustain and fund it, when we build in interdisciplinarity as a “frame” for all of our thinking, planning, and visioning for the academic library of the future.

Possible metrics and indicators for assessing the library’s contributions to interdisciplinarity include: 

  • numbers of interdisciplinary programs (panels, lectures, initiatives) sponsored, co-sponsored, or organized by the library
  • librarian contributions to interdisciplinary curriculum revisions (in general education programs)
  • number of interdisciplinary grants and research projects for which the library organizes and provides researcher profile information
  •  number of librarians serving on research teams spanning more than one discipline, with some review of their contributions
  • inventories of local communities of practice focused on interdisciplinary themes for which the library provides support
  • creation of interdisciplinary communities of interest, within institutional repositories
  • facilitation of service learning projects in which data and expertise from the library enable student success
  • digitization projects that facilitate interdisciplinary research or teaching
  • and the use of library collections themselves, whether special, rare, or “mainstream”, focused on identified interdisciplinary initiatives at the institutional level. 

Asking the right questions about what we want to know about the library’s impact on interdisciplinarity is the obvious starting point. Developing an actual assessment program will grow out of those questions.  As imperfect and inexact as such an assessment program might be, we should begin to measure how the library creates interdisciplinary “value” as the world we live in becomes more fragmented and paradoxically, more integrated.  The academy itself will be the richer for this newly created value of interdisciplinarity.

 –Craig Gibson

The Ohio State University Libraries

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