The Origins of the Collaboration between the Philosophy Library and PIS

Text by Laura Frigerio, director of the Philosophy Library of the University of Milan, read on the occasion of BookCity on November 18, 2021.

The Library and the Piero Martinetti Department of Philosophy have a long history of collaboration that goes beyond the institutional role of an academic library in its twofold function of supporting teaching and research.

Thanks in particular to recent research projects and study groups within the Department, opportunities have arisen to forge robust collaborations and integrated programs beyond the “ordinary” activities of purchasing and updating the paper and digital book collection and offering study spaces and bibliographic services.

Over the years, calls from members of the teaching faculty, and at times from external partners, schools, and cultural institutes, and from the local community, have fostered the development of third-mission activities, which concern the entrepreneurial, social, and cultural mission of the university¹. The Library has played a regular, active role in these initiatives. 

The features and makeup of the book collection, which houses numerous personal and philosophical archives, acquired in recent decades and preserved in the Library’s spaces, have made it possible on many occasions to host training events and teaching workshops, as well as events and exhibitions open to the public.

Diverse means of enhancing the collections have been explored, in the awareness that a successful academic library model is active and participatory. 

With this in mind, we took up and reviewed the proposal of the PIS research group, which led us to evaluate which technical tools and areas of librarian expertise could be useful in responding to the needs of researchers. 

The collaboration was launched in 2020 amid a general climate of uncertainty, owing to the shadow of Covid-19 and a plan to replace the management system of the University libraries. It was common knowledge that the new software would bring a radical change to work processes, including to all the organizational and management models of the back office; most highly anticipated was the total innovation associated with the transition from the electronic catalog then in use to a discovery tool, a new bibliographic search tool for users. 

Indeed, the discovery engine combines the aim of the traditional catalog (identifying a document and locating it in a library) with that of being the single point of access for the University of Milan’s bibliographic resources: books, eBooks, articles in periodicals, databases, images, and videos owned and selected by the various libraries.  

How to preserve the PIS bibliography and make it recognizable within a repository of millions of records? 

The first meetings of the research group served to outline the features of the PIS collection, determined, overall, to consist of around 1200–500 works. The bibliography includes: 

  • Books already present in the library, in part selected at the outset by the research group
  • Books present in other libraries of the University
  • Purchase proposals (in this case it was necessary to conduct a preliminary economic assessment of immediate feasibility versus new accessions spread out over several years)
  • Periodicals
  • Extracts from multiauthored volumes 
  • Articles from reviews 

The total innovation of PIS, compared with the Library’s other “prized collections,” is that it consists in a growing collection.

Also for this reason, from a logistical point of view in the library, we opted not to create a dedicated physical space—a “PIS shelf”—but to leave the books in their natural places, adopting a more technological way of selecting and easily identifying them by transferring them onto a virtual display. 

A problem that arose right away and has yet to be resolved is that of the possible hybrid nature of the collection. Above all, this concerns the choice of format for new purchases: in what situations should eBooks be adopted in the place of paper editions, which are generally more expensive but more easily accessible, even during the pandemic?

For PIS books the use and loan processes have never been in question, since the goal is to build up a specialized thematic bibliography as exhaustively as possible, while encouraging its access and use. 

Moreover, we are aware that the development of the digital library of the humanities has over the years led to a progressive distancing of specialist users from academic libraries. This aspect of the geographical distribution of researchers, who are less and less physically tied to their institutions, strongly influences libraries’ purchasing decisions, as well as the possible scenarios of development for humanities collections. 

On a practical level it was necessary from the outset to work toward an initial PIS bibliography, provided by the research group, by evaluating and identifying the texts already present and those to be submitted to the purchasing office. Subsequently, thanks to our experience with solutions already used for identifying the numerous personal funds housed by the library, we decided to mark each volume with the standard copy note PIS—Performing Identity Studies.

The common note has, with the launch of the new management system in 2021, allowed us to build a data set from the back office and present PIS as a special collection on a dedicated page of the Minerva discovery tool. The virtual path of the display, created by re-aggregating the titles marked by the note, runs in two directions—from the titles to the general catalog of the University and vice versa—and is updated monthly by the librarians with the new arrivals and the titles selected by the research group.²

The special collection is supplied with a paratext in two languages, Italian and English, which, in addition to identifying it, illustrates its contents through a graphic background component, where results can be sorted by title, author, or date (oldest/most recent).

The work on the PIS collection is ongoing and constitutes a highly interesting example of a collaboration between librarians and scholars. Through technical expedients, the research project is enhanced, and its progress can be tracked to some extent, keeping it “live.” The display page, moreover, creates a stable link, convenient for use on the social media channels of the Library or the Department to promote it or to publicly present (even remotely) sources and bibliographic tools related to the project. For most of the recent volumes, the book cover is displayed. 

Given the timing of its launch, the PIS collection has served as a model of enhancement for the bibliographic heritage of the library, similar to that of the virtual exhibitions dedicated to the closed special collections. This is an important added value, achieved thanks to technology at a time when access to libraries was still limited and third-mission initiatives had dropped off significantly due to the pandemic. During that period of organizational challenges and constantly changing relationships with users, we still felt the need to reorient ourselves toward the institutional public, to interpret its needs and find answers. 

In addition, the current thinking is that the model path of enhancement “for use” undertaken by PIS could be replicated by the library, with specific customizations, in other research contexts and on other thematic profiles. 

The challenges of the coming months relate to the development of the hybrid PIS collection and the evaluation of solutions for integrating materials in other formats into the display, in compliance with copyright and with particular attention to the documents’ accessibility, including for non-institutional use.

Moreover, we are currently weighing the possibility of using the identifier PIS—Performing Identity Studies also to mark books selected by the research group but housed in other libraries of the University, thus strengthening the interdisciplinary nature of the PIS bibliography and the topics covered. 

This would enrich the virtual display and, at the same time, further expand the boundaries of the physical library.

Translated by Samuel Fleck

1 For further discussion and a selected bibliography, see M. Cassella, Biblioteche accademiche e terza missione, Milan, Editrice Bibliografica, 2020.

2 In this case the note PIS—Performing Identity Studies is transcribed in a predefined field of the bibliographic description.