Libraries Host Grand Challenges Summit

Experts convene at MIT to set research agenda

Kate Zwaard. Photo: Bryce Vickmark.

Forty-five experts from across disciplines gathered at MIT March 19–23 for a week of workshops focused on the most vital issues in information science and scholarly communication.

“We gathered experts from across many domains, locations, and social roles,” said Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries. “We spent a lot of time developing an idea of what the challenges are from many points of view.”

The summit focused on three areas — scholarly discovery, digital curation and preservation, and open scholarship — to identify critical problems that are solvable within 10 years. For each topic, there was a keynote speaker and a one and a half-day workshop to produce a draft research agenda.

In the opening keynote, Kate Zwaard, director of digital strategy at the Library of Congress, shared creative projects from LC Labs, which encourages innovation with the Library’s digital collections. One initiative invites the public to develop digital projects using congressional data; others use color as a way to explore the Library’s catalog. “We’re still in the early days of the disruption that computation is going to bring to our profession,” said Zwaard. But she sees collaboration and experimentation as critical to keeping libraries welcoming places: “We need to invite people into the tent.”

Keynote speaker Anasuya Sengupta leads Whose Knowledge, a global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the Internet. She stressed the responsibility of knowledge curators in deciding whose voices are heard and preserved. Three quarters of the people online today are from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but who is online is not reflected in the content online. Creating a truly global, inclusive sense of knowledge, said Sengupta, is a strategic choice and an ethical one: “So many communities are waiting for us to do this work.”

The final keynote speaker, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, is a longtime advocate of Internet freedom and open scholarship. He discussed the profound impact of the Internet on scholarship and publishing. “The business model of transferring information was completely turned on its head,” he said. “Innovation and research was pushed to the edges because the cost of collaboration was diminished. What’s not keeping up are the academic publications.” Ito described high-impact “citizen science” projects using open-source technology, his work with Creative Commons to legally share knowledge, and a first-ofits- kind collaboration between the Media Lab and the MIT Press to transform publishing.

A forthcoming summit report will be made available on the open publishing platform PubPub, where the community will be invited to comment.

Watch the keynotes at

Emerging Themes

Here are some of the key questions and themes that emerged from the workshops held on each topic.

Scholarly Discovery

  • How do we make discovery environments that reflect the values of transparency, agency, and participation?
  • How do we ensure discovery is globally inclusive and supports mutual exchanges of ideas?
  • What are the political, social, policy/legal, and economic barriers to creating these kinds of environments?

Curation and Preservation

  • Making knowledge global
  • Making data useful
  • Making participation open and inclusive
  • Promoting skill building

Open Scholarship

  • What are possible incentives to motivate communities to participate in open scholarship?
  • What infrastructures are needed to sustain open scholarship?
  • What are the challenges to establishing the credibility, durability, and integrity of the record of human knowledge?