A story in The Wall Street Journal today announces “HarperCollins Plans to Control Its Digital Books.” They plan to spend seven figures to digitize their backlist by mid-2006 and open this “digital vault” to search engines rather than allow Google to scan their books. Though they found Amazon’s Search Inside program boosted sales, they are not too happy that Amazon is talking about selling content and see this as a chance to control their ditigal future – even at a cost.
This looks like one of the unforseen consequences of Google’s library program. Here’s a publisher who, thanks to all the fuss, has bought into the idea discovering book content through the Web is good for business – so good they’re willing to pay their own way.
Library Journal has noticed it’s not that easy to find it in a library – at least, if you’re in Google Book Search.
I got the same answer from Google when I first asked about it around a year ago. They don’t want to add “find in a library” links to publisher-submitted books since, well, publishers don’t want their customers to find it in a library, they want them to buy it. But what I found odd, looking at the first texts announced as being part of the library program, was that some of those didn’t include the “find in a library” link, which I thought was part of the deal with libraries, who don’t mind if people buy books but who really wanted people to discover libraries.
What’s up with that?
That’s the name of a campaign that Royal Philips Electronics began a few years back to require that any product designed by the company had to have the end user in mind and be easy to experience. The tension between simplicity and complexity is one with which our profession is familiar. By their very nature research libraries can present complexity for their users. That complexity is no doubt behind the familiar “the library intimidates me” refrain often heard from the inexperienced college student. In an age when the quality of an information-seeking experience is judged against Google’s simplicity it’s critical to recognize that there has to be a balance between “more features, more functions, more power – and the demand that it be easy to use.” That quote comes from the article that inspires me to continue what will likely be an ongoing thread here at ACRLlog – “Good experience vs. Google experience,” which attempts to encapsulate a debate within academic librarianship about what it will take to both prevent marginalization and bring the user back to the library’s higher quality research content. Titled “The Beauty of Simplicity” from the November 2005 issue of Fast Company, it discusses what several companies, including Google, are doing to make simplicity the new competitive advantage.
For academic librarians this is a quandary with no simple solutions. In some ways we are in the middle. The products we provide the gateway to for our user communities are designed by external providers. Though they create advisory boards that seek our imput I’m not sure how much good that does because librarians have no training in design. How do we know what makes a database interface simple to use? While our profession has actively researched web usability, creating simplicity within a database that needs a fair amount of sophistication goes way beyond figuring out that a “Find Articles” link is easy for end users to grasp. We might even debate that making library databases simple isn’t in the best interests of our end users, and that our objective should be to invest in user education programming (e.g., information literacy) that will enable them to make effective use of the research library. Should our thinking about simplicity vs. complexity be influenced by the fact that students are at our institutions to learn, and learning to use library databases, even if they present some complexity, is part of that process.
At the end of the podcast with George Needham that was mentioned in ACRLog last week, he relates an anecdote in which a colleague states that “convenience trumphs quality every time.” How much attention must we pay to that line of thinking? In light of the OCLC “Perceptions” report perhaps we ought to make “sense and simplicity” more central to our information resources, and whatever else we might be designing for our user communities. While “sense and simplicity” may strike you as one of those “easier said than done” platititudes, providing high quality resources and services will do us no good if we can’t get anyone to use them.
This comes from an interview with Ed Colligan, CEO of Palm (maker of the Treo device), on current trends in the hand-held marketplace. He is asked about the next “killer-app” in hand-held technology. His response:
When you see our next-gen product, it has a high-speed radio in it, literally bringing kind of broadband connection speeds to the device. It totally changes the dynamic of how accessible the Internet is as an information access point wherever you are and whenever you want to get access to it. Everything from looking up the meaning of words, booking a table at OpenTable.com, to doing a Google search on my family history in Ireland as I’m driving through the Irish coast. It is going to become so much more accessible as the performance of those networks continues to improve that a whole new set of applications are going to be delivered via that. I believe you will suddenly see some of the promise – like not only information access, but commerce and other functionalities – that had been promised a while back relative to cellphones will finally come to fruition.
I’m sure many of us have considered the promise of hand-held devices and the possibilities for allowing access to our resources through them. Excepting some isolated experiments this is one area where academic libraries are behind the technology curve. The medical libraries appear to be doing much more in providing resources for hand-held devices. Admittedly, the difference likely is owing to the publishers of medical texts who are able to capitalize on the hand-held market to create a new medium for delivering their content. So what are the more mainstream database aggregators that offer products to academic libraries doing? What plans do they have, what products are in the pipeline that academic librarians can acquire that will allow them to be a part of what will certainly be a new wave in information access? I did see recently that the CAS division of the American Chemical Society is making content accessible by hand-helds. We need more innovation like that from other content providers. When you see your vendor reps make it a point to bring this up, or otherwise we’ll be unable to connect with our users whenever and wherever they want to connect with us using their hand-held devices.