Vol. 23, No. 1 (Fall 1999)
by Heidi Hutchinson
ACRL’s Western European Studies Section (WESS) marked its 20th anniversary at the 1999 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans with a program that looked back over the field of Western European studies librarianship and attempted to look into the future. Moderated by Roger Brisson (Digital Access Librarian and Selector for German Languages & Literature, Pennsylvania State University), the program featured speakers from both the provider and the consumer side of information. Looking both back and forward in our field provided many moments of levity, along with nostalgia, pride, and pure astonishment at the rate of change we have seen in all aspects of our lives and our profession in the past twenty years.
WESS member Barbara Walden (European History Librarian, University of Wisconsin, Madison) examined the changes in librarianship, and in Europe itself, that have taken place in WESS’s lifetime, saying, “Europe itself has been transformed politically, economically and socially, and in that transformation some of the basic assumptions upon which academic programs, scholarly careers, and library collections were built have been swept away.” Many library collections in Western European studies have their roots in an era of Cold War politics which already seems very quaint and far away from the world we have come to know since those seminal moments in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.
Barbara asked us to think back to twenty years ago in the library and how different life was then, not only on the surface (“How long has it been since you filed a catalog card?”) but also in the philosophies governing research collections. The goal of comprehensiveness in our individual collections, once the touchstone of the large research library, is farther out of reach than ever before. The digital information age has had a profound influence on the way libraries carry out their traditional functions, and at this moment, many libraries are struggling to prepare for a future whose outline is still very blurry.
The notion of Western European studies, too, has evolved in these twenty years. From a well-defined field with an emphasis on language, literature, and the humanities, it has broadened to encompass all of the aspects of area studies. And so have the jobs of Western European studies librarians. Barbara outlined the twenty years of WESS history by touching on some milestones that she believed would point a way to the future, such as the early attempts at cooperative collection development and new forms of interlibrary lending, which were widely discussed in WESS meetings and programs. Undoubtedly one of the highlights in WESS history was the 1988 Western European Specialists Conference in Florence, Italy, which broke new ground by bringing together American specialists in European studies with their European counterparts to examine the collection, organization, and preservation of materials which support research. Another was the 1992 beginning of the ARL foreign acquisitions project (now known as the Global Resources Project), in which WESS played an important role. We are still studying the phenomenon of materials not purchased in U.S. libraries as a result of this impetus.
Today’s WESS concerns, of course, often revolve around the library’s role in the world of digital information, as reflected in both our daily work and our WESS programs, discussions, and projects. WESS’s structure, too, has changed to reflect the broader emphasis of Western European studies. The Cold War as a driving force in European politics has been replaced by the European Union. As Europe moves toward a new era and the former Communist bloc is transformed into something else, the notion of Western and Eastern Europe as separate entities are breaking down. Perhaps the future of WESS will involve eliminating the word “Western” from our name . . .
The second speaker on the program, James J. O’Donnell (Professor of Classical Studies and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing, University of Pennsylvania) is a classicist and Augustine scholar perfectly at home on the World Wide Web. Speaking from the viewpoint of the user of information, Professor O’Donnell pointed out that although in many ways we still treat information as a scarce and precious commodity and still train graduate students in the hunter-gatherer tradition of our elders, there is now too much information for anyone to hope to collect or organize. We are threatening to drown in seas of information. Professor O’Donnell examined the concept of Europe, calling into question the very idea of Europe and showing that Europe is a historical, not a geographic or a geological concept. He asked whether, in the European Community with its unstoppable spread of non-European trends, we might be seeing the end of Europe as cultural-historical entity, and if so, who is responsible for studying this phenomenon. And in fact the future of “community” as we know it has broken down first through mass communication and now through the advent of the internet. World Wide Web technology makes it possible to create, at any spot in the world, a community of people regardless of their geographical location. Even language has ceased to be a defining factor in internet communication. Will English become the lingua franca of the entire technological world?
The challenge for those of us who define ourselves as students of the European past and present is to know what is meant by Europe, but also to know who we ourselves are, who our colleagues and students are, and to think first of our own values and only then of the incidental manifestations of those values in the ever-changing sea of information in which we swim and dive.
Europe, Western European Studies, libraries, and WESS have all undergone tremendous changes in these past 20 years. WESS looks back on a proud record of achievement and looks forward to a future of more change and challenges.
Summaries and papers from the program are posted on the WESS Web.