Build It and They Will Build Another One

Heads up, everyone: Scott McLemee has discovered Zotero and is spreading the word. You might get some questions about this at your reference desk, and you might start having some conversations about the library’s role in supporting pricey subscription-based citation management systems that can be tricky to teach – though chances are, you have already.

We are certainly living in interesting times. As we take a stride forward (often paying a lot to do so, and putting in plenty of sweat equity), we sit back to wipe our heated brows, then get busy designing instruction, trying some marketing, dealing with the technical glitches that surface. Then take a break to for a refreshing moment of banging-head-on-wall therapy before returning to the job at hand. Meanwhile, someone says “hey, why don’t we create some way for people to do this?” And before long there’s a solution that doesn’t require the library.

This is not a bad thing – solutions are good, and free is great. But it makes for a somewhat chaotic world, where we raise funds to build a bridge to get somewhere – and then people start inviting others to hop on the free ferry service they just organized. Passengers get excited. The bridge took them too far out of their way, or seemed designed for other people – or maybe they didn’t even know it was there.

This occurred to me yesterday as I looked for an article on the New Sanctuary Movement in the current issue of Sojourner. It’s in our library, but I was at home, on my living room couch. I knew it was in our library because our nifty SFX system told me so, and it also told me the article I wanted wasn’t full text in any of our databases. On a whim I checked to see if the magazine offers free access on the web – and sure enough, they do – though the article that looked interesting was not on the first page of a Google search for “new sanctuary movement;” I only found it because I searched a database. Then had to leave the library’s website to find it online. The route I took to actually read the article reminded me of how confusing this emerging mesh of free and subscription resources is for novice researchers, and how frustrating it can be for us to teach students how to become resourceful and critical about information.

This clever YouTube clip showing the flight of the harried database user makes the same point – humorously – but I have a feeling the old “here’s how” instruction will get harder and harder to provide simply because the map of where it is and how to get there is constantly being redrawn.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “Build It and They Will Build Another One

  1. These developments can put librarians into an awkward situation when we have to defend allocating resources to something that people will point to and say “yeah, but that’s free and you are paying for the same thing” – even if the added value of the paid product may be greater. I think that under closer examination the funds spent are worthwhile. We’ve had a good number of RefWorks success stories and I’m sure others have as well. But then if we promote it, do we run the risk of seeming that we are overreacting to the freeware product. I made a comment to the article at IHE, and I was surprised that no other librarians had done so. I merely suggested that readers keep an open mind to RW, but other readers were quick to point out that the library could save its money and just let people use zotero. So then we are in a position to have to justify the expense of the vendor product, and explain to students and faculty why they should use it (using refshare we have two faculty who have created a searchable database of articles in their narrow disciple
    and they now share it with others). This is a sitation that we’ll need to work our way though.

  2. At our college, where A LOT of students are using different computers throughout the day (the campus computers, their own, and maybe even their parents, or friends machines) RefWorks makes the most sense.

    I don’t see how using Zotero would help them when they’re logging on to multiple computers throughout the day.

  3. Here’s another example: the British Library is digitizing over 100,000 books to supplement EEBO and another digital collection. (This collection will be in Microsoft Live Search Books and on the BL’s website.) According to the article:

    “The new category of digitised titles will supplement other early historic printed books which the British Library has already made available for viewing online through previous projects.

    “Those are included in two commercial resources: the Early English Books Online and the Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

    “Both collections are freely available to higher education institutions in the UK.”

    I’m not sure how accurate this is – I know we agonized about cost before adding EEBO – but it makes me wonder if there’s some strange synergy at work here … we build it and others think “that’s really valuable, we should do more of it.”

    It’s an intriguing phenomenon.

  4. Jonathan, I think Zotero intends to move toward an online and sharable version – at least, I’m guessing that’s in the future. From their site:

    “In 2007, Zotero users will gain the ability to share and collaborate on their collections with other users through an exchange server, and receive recommendations and feeds of new resources that might be of interest to them. In short, over the next year Zotero will expand from an already helpful browser extension into a full-fledged tool for digital research and collaboration.”

  5. Jonathan – I have my Zotero database running on a usb drive running portable Firefox. I can plug it into any Windows computer and use it. For other systems, (like Linux, which I use at home) I can set up Zotero to use the database stored on my USB drive. I actually think RefWorks being ONLY available online is a drawback- my data is mine, stored locally, so I can still access it if the internet is down.

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