For Torsten Reimer, the potential of libraries in our digital age is unbounded. At Imperial College London in the 2010s, Reimer led the development of a cross-campus data infrastructure that vastly increased access to faculty research. As head of content and research services at the British Library, he focused his attention on the revered institution’s legion of users from around the world and their evolving needs. Last spring, Reimer moved to Hyde Park with his wife and young child to become University librarian and dean of the University of Chicago Library.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why the University of Chicago?
Having studied and worked at universities that take pride in advancing society through research, I found the University of Chicago’s research focus very appealing. Together with its location in a vibrant city, the proud history, terrific collections, and impressive buildings of the library were a strong draw too. In Germany [where Reimer earned his history PhD from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich], university library systems often consist of small independent libraries, so leading a library that brings its services and collections together was another strong point. There’s a very solid foundation but also the opportunity to have a conversation across campus about what we want the role of the library to be in five, 10, 15 years—and then to build on what is already here.
What are some of the new roles you foresee the library playing?
Historically the role of university libraries has been to collect material, mostly from the outside world, and then to make it accessible within the organization. In an environment where more is published online and most people go to search engines to find it, our role expands. It includes supporting the creation of knowledge in digital form and helping faculty and students push that knowledge out to the world. Libraries can help make publishing processes easier and make the exciting fruits of research at UChicago widely findable and usable. In addition, we need to think not just about our local collection but also about the global collection of knowledge and how we can ensure transparency, reproducibility, and equitable access to information.
Libraries face challenges different from those of other organizations going through the digital transformation. Others can shift all their resources into digital, but that’s not a sensible approach for us. After all, libraries are custodians of cultural heritage and historical material in print. In humanities research in particular, print continues to have a key role. So it’s not digital replacing physical, but thinking about how both can support each other, and about the spaces that will facilitate this. If you’re a musicologist, for instance, you might want to see original printed sheet music and historical writings, you might want to listen to different recordings, and you might want to do computational analysis of that music. Libraries can be the space to do that.
On the computational research side, there’s a drive to make the research process more transparent and reproducible. That means making available not just publications but also the data that went into the research: the collection materials used, the protocols, the code. These are all becoming part of the scholarly record, and librarians need to help users track those materials and make sure they remain usable in the long term. It’s a classic preservation challenge made much more complex by dynamic digital objects.
Can you give an example of how the library can more actively support the creation of knowledge in digital form?
One topic on many people’s minds is climate change, where much of the work is built on complex simulations using large-scale data and specialized software. The more the world talks about the impact of climate change and how to deal with it, the more we’ll want to look not just at the data but also the models and code, which you need to properly assess the data. Libraries can facilitate the preservation of digital research, assuring persistent access.
Or, if a historian wants to understand how decisions have been made or how communication has circulated in, say, early modern Europe, one way to track this is through letters. You can create helpful visualizations if you look not at individual letters, but at who’s written to whom and how knowledge flowed across the continent. If you want to do network analysis on how thinking evolved over time among European elites, you can make the letters machine readable, and then trace the concepts that are mentioned in them—or do the same on a larger scale if you have digitized newspapers and maps. These types of research would have been impossible before. And by the end you’ve created a data set of digitized material for use by other scholars.
At the British Library you were focused on users and their experiences. How do you think about different users with different needs at UChicago—for example, undergraduates?
A few years ago, there was a perception that undergraduates would start coming to college super digitally savvy, more so than faculty. We’ve since learned that knowing how to be a creator on TikTok is not the same as understanding the back-end machinations of the internet or being able to critically evaluate sources. Universities and libraries have provided research training for centuries, and we need to keep evolving our offer to give undergraduates a first-class grounding in the challenges and benefits of working with digital information.
What about users and partners in the community?
The library has done interesting work with the community before. We’ve been in a project with public libraries across the South Side to train librarians to help patrons who are looking for medical advice. We work with public schools by, for instance, bringing items from Special Collections to teach about. I would like for us to develop a strong civic engagement strategy that develops joint programming and provides information resources and training.
I’d also like to see the library raise funds to set up apprenticeships in library information management aimed at South Side residents. Like other parts of higher education, libraries struggle to recruit from a pool of applicants as diverse as we wish; we should train more people to come into librarianship from different backgrounds.
These partnerships work both ways. I am continually impressed by public libraries and how on a shoestring budget they manage to be very creative. We can help them in many ways, and also we have things to learn from them.