University Libraries Apply Leading Edge Innovation and Technology: Yvonne Hyland in conversation with Dean David Seaman

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7 min readAug 21, 2023

I always center coaching, mentoring, and the sharing of my expertise and knowledge in any discipline I pursue, not only to give back to future generations of leaders, but also to enrich my own insights into new and ever-changing fields. I have had the great privilege to interact with many such individuals from across the worlds of business and technology, and each has contributed to the broadening of my interests and expanding understanding.

Recently, I was honored to join the Libraries Advisory Board at Syracuse University. This role enables me to contribute philanthropically, as well as to draw upon my expertise in strategic planning and technology as the Libraries develop their new strategic plan. As someone committed to continuous learning, I find the opportunity to participate in the Advisory Board truly exhilarating, and the Libraries’ capacity to foster innovation has been a revelation to me. Being from the corporate environment, the world of academia is new to me, and I truly had no idea of their sophisticated level of innovation and use of leading-edge technology!

The work of the Libraries Advisory Board is incredibly wide-ranging, and I found particularly interesting two recent discussions that may seem diametrically opposed. The first was concerning the ancient process of recycling vellum by scraping off the original text and reusing the expensive animal skin to create a new manuscript; the new work is called a palimpsest, and a medieval example was recently added to the SU Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center. The second discussion was about digital humanities: the application of modern technology for the betterment of the study of humanistic disciplines. On both fronts, I knew I needed to learn more!

David Seaman, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian at Syracuse University Libraries, is an expert in both and was kind enough to discuss the two topics with me; below is a summary of our conversation.

Yvonne (“YH”): David, it has been fascinating to learn about the breadth of the Libraries’ responsibility. I was truly surprised about the scope of innovation that you drive, whether in discovering and preserving ancient manuscripts or by implementing the digitization of large amounts of collections and data using emerging technologies. How did you become so deeply engaged in cutting-edge advancements? Is this the role of today’s librarian?

David (“DS”): Yvonne, first let me say I have been very impressed by your interest and enthusiasm to learn about the Libraries’ vision, mission, and strategy. It’s refreshing to see how you have been able to translate your corporate and technology knowledge to academia.

To answer your question, I came to librarianship as a student of medieval studies and scholarly editing, both disciplines that made use of computers long before the World Wide Web arrived in the early 1990s. Prior to that, humanists used technology for literary and linguistic work, including word counting, building indices, linguistic analysis, and large-scale literary editing projects.

As a young librarian, I was early on the scene of what we now call Digital Humanities, but over the past 30 years, Digital Libraries and Digital Humanities have become the stock in trade of any academic library. We digitize our own rare and archival materials, buy vast digital collections from publishers, partner with our faculty and students on projects that re-use and analyze digital collections, and provide the tools of the Digital Humanities trade — scanning equipment, data analysis software, data visualization skills, geographic information systems, and so on. Today’s academic library is much more deeply engaged in faculty research projects than ever before, beyond providing the research materials in our collections that drive scholarly inquiry.

It is often said that the library is the laboratory for humanities scholars, as we provide the spaces, equipment, services, and expertise that allow humanists to research and teach in new ways. One feature of the Digital Humanities is that the work is almost always collaborative, more akin to contemporary scientific inquiry, requiring a team with different types of expertise. Often some of those project partners are librarians with technology and data skills, along with the digital production and digital preservation specialists we have on staff.

Digital technologies allow us to scan rare and delicate materials in our collections — manuscripts, film, audio, books — that can then be used easily online, and the digital reproduction enhances access to these primary and historical materials as well as helping with their preservation. Think of content on video and audio cassettes — that is a commercial recording medium not designed to last, and if we cannot digitize cassette-based content in time, it will be irretrievably lost. But it doesn’t end there: we have to ensure that the digitized content will be accessible in the future, and this requires us to address new forms of digital preservation and archiving. We spend a lot of time working on the technical side of digital preservation to make sure our digital collections and online scholarship persists as formats change and technologies become obsolete.

YH: noted that this is of great interest and is analogous to corporate needs for data retention, with common use-cases in regulatory and warranty requirements. Oftentimes train and plane manufacturers, for example, must keep and have accessible warranty data on the machines they produce for decades.

DS: Finally, you mentioned palimpsests — medieval manuscripts that had the original text scraped off so that the expensive vellum could be reused. We are now using what is called multi-spectral imaging to be able to see manuscript text that is damaged, erased or overwritten to the point that it is unreadable with the naked eye. This technology takes digital images using different light spectrums including from frequencies beyond the visible light range such as infrared and ultra-violet, and then employs powerful data analysis software to reveal what was hidden. In the digital library scholars can ask questions of huge bodies of material, and sometimes literally see what is obscured in an original object.

YH: David, your expertise in digital innovation and technology is impressive. Why do you believe that Libraries are a natural home for this kind of knowledge?

DS: Libraries have always been quick to adopt technologies that allow broader access to materials — from microfilm and early photocopiers to digitizing equipment and online content. This has meant that we often have skillsets in emerging technologies ahead of our users, and often a sense of the possibilities that these technologies permit.

So, while it may not be obvious, libraries are engines of innovation especially around the use and analysis of our digital and digitized collections, and we help users acquire the information technology and information literacy skills to create new knowledge.

On a separate note, Syracuse University Libraries are literally driving student innovation in non-scholarly areas too, as our Blackstone LaunchPad space in Bird Library has become the campus hub for student entrepreneurship — another form of library innovation and community building.

YH: Can you share an example of a recent project or research that highlights the practical implications of this interdisciplinary approach? How would such a project contribute to a better understanding of our evolving relationship with technology and its ethical considerations?

DS: Our faculty and students are not only consuming and creating digital content, but they are studying digital culture — computer games are being analyzed as cultural objects in the way that scholars have traditionally analyzed literature and film, for example. We partner with faculty who are experts in the study of human/computer interaction — everything from our intimate relationship with our phones to how we interact with robots that look like humans and animals. And because the humanities include the study of ethics and philosophy, we also spend time studying the ethics of information technology in areas such as the future of work, equitable access to information in society, and the ability to recognize when you are being given deliberate disinformation or accidental misinformation.

YH: In light of the increasing prominence of generative Artificial Intelligence and its ethical implications, how do you see the role of information literacy specialists in the library evolving to address the challenges posed by AI?

DS: The recent public interest in generative AI raises all sorts of ethical and practical questions for the university to wrestle with, and information literacy specialists in the library are very much part of that conversation. In addition, we are helping our users understand the power of AI to analyze digital content and uncover patterns and relationships with a speed and sophistication that is unparalleled to date. I’m old enough to remember the thrill of being able to search all of English poetry at once in a literary database back in the early 1990s. We now take for granted the ability to search massive amounts of content in the digital library, and AI provides a new set of tools for analyzing content in multiple media. Our librarians will be there to help digital humanists understand and apply this latest technological innovation.

YH: Thank you, David, for your time and enlightening insights. The Syracuse University Libraries, along with the broader realm of digital innovation that libraries facilitate, often remain undiscovered gems. I greatly appreciate your willingness to reveal aspects of these hidden treasures. Thank you as well for providing me with an opportunity to learn and share my experience with the Libraries.

Yvonne E. Hyland is a people-centric, solutions-driven executive with 30 years of experience in international enterprise technology leadership. A pragmatic innovator and former intrapreneur, Yvonne improves and optimizes businesses with the power of technology.

David Seaman leads a talented library staff to deliver the services, technologies, and collections necessary to drive 21st Century research, teaching, and learning, and to provide welcoming spaces for study, collaboration, and innovation. Seaman came to Syracuse University in 2015 after library leadership positions at Dartmouth College, The Digital Library Federation, and the University of Virginia.

Connect with Yvonne on LinkedIn.

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