Monthly Archives: January 2011

Selective Perceptions (on Ebooks and the New Resource Management)

I went to a packed panel at Midwinter sponsored by the ALCTS Collection Management and Development Section called “Is Selection Dead?” Rick Anderson (University of Utah), Steve Bosch (University of Arizona), Nancy Gibbs (Duke University) and Reeta Sinha (YBP) all concluded (with varying levels of acceptance) that, yeah, it is. (For an excellent summary of their comments and the Q&A that followed, see Josh Hadro’s report in Library Journal.) They confronted the audience with the big issues, but the audience’s questions reflected where we’re at on the ground – our discomfort with leaving preservation to vendors and Google, our frustration with changing patterns of research, our unwillingness to discard our professional traditions, and our enduring belief in that perfect source.

Anderson pointed out that now, between Google Books and HathiTrust and other, similar megasites dedicated to digitized content, we’re getting closer and closer to what he’s defined as libraries’ “unattainable ideal” – to make it possible for patrons to find every piece of information and be able to obtain it right when they find it. There’s no need to select when it’s so easy to access and append content, and when information about content (as well as harvesting and ingesting that information) is cheap or free.

Besides, no one thinks about starting information searches with local library collections anymore. Cathy De Rosa emphasized this in her presentation of the 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey at Midwinter on Saturday. Instead, we start with Google or something like it – something global, sometimes (but not necessarily) focused on a particular facet of the world of information (Amazon.com, IMDB, Wikipedia). Bosch called this “network level discovery,” and showed us a graph of the top-used internet sites: no .edu or library-related site (including WorldCat.org) even comes close to the network traffic of sites like Google and Yahoo!.

I do this, too: when I’m looking for something, my first action is to open a browser and do a keyword search of a huge, free database of information. Then I drill down to specific items I want to locate: things in my local library, or in a database which requires me to authenticate if I want access. I do this both because it’s easy and because it works: if I started with my library catalog I’d be confronted with arcane database software that fails miserably when asked to provide reasonable results for known items and topical searches alike.

If this makes us uncomfortable, we should remember that we as librarians have had a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with local collections for years now: we have advocated for bigger and more from database vendors (Gilbert 2010) and encouraged our users to go beyond our local collections with statewide resource sharing and interlibrary loan (“fuzzy walls,” Anderson called them). Many of us have started cutting local collecting to rely on shared content when possible, too.

There are good economic reasons behind this, and not just related to the skyrocketing costs of materials. Cut budgets mean less for books but less for people, too. Sinha pointed out that librarians who do collection development are often assigned half a dozen or more departments, some in which they have no expertise whatever, on top of being expected to work reference, do instruction, and, in many academic libraries, pursue their own research agendas. Such librarians are merely guessing what to buy, said Anderson, and, in many cases, guessing wrong. Big deals and approval plans began the end of selection, Bosch said; patron-driven acquisitions and print-on-demand will kill it entirely.

Anderson, Bosch and Gibbs said they still do some kind of collection gatekeeping, where librarians choose subject areas and other parameters for ebook metadata, create approval plan profiles, and evaluate packages even if they don’t evaluate individual titles (Nancy Gibbs called this “pre-selection”). So selection isn’t completely dead, but only areas like Special Collections will continue to engage in traditional selection, according to Gibbs.

One of the big surprises from this panel for me was that the big research libraries have already embraced electronic as the preferred format not just for journals, now, but for books. Meaning if a faculty member or selector asks that a title be added to the library’s collection, these libraries automatically buy the ebook if that format is available, unless the print book is specifically requested. Some libraries even require selectors to submit written justifications if they request a title in print.

The 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey shows that even more people equate libraries with books now than in 2005, and I asked the panelists what implications this has for our transition to primarily electronic content. I was told that “Ebooks are books, too” and that students don’t really read books anyway – they “interrogate” them, like databases, so having them electronically is actually better. The only way to do a full-text search of a print book is to read the whole thing, Bosch said. Anderson, in his presentation, said that we need to move towards ebooks as quickly as possible, despite their drawbacks. In response to my question, he said that the Perceptions survey was recording exactly that – perceptions. People want to see books when they walk in to libraries, but a lot of the volumes they see are reference books and bound journals, not the kind of books they might actually use.

So instead of selection or collection we’re moving to what Bosch called “resource management” – managing metadata and authentication for delivery at the point of discovery. After the panel, a colleague pointed out that this approach to library collections really only works for certain kinds of institutions and certain kinds of library users. I suspect she’s right – that it only works for people with a certain type of academic information need who are used to formulating sophisticated searches for specific information. Others still need physical browsing and the safeguards against information overload that local collecting can provide.

When I got back from Midwinter I talked to a friend of mine, a graduate student, about the shift to ebooks. His response was, hey, I love books, but things change. Books haven’t been around forever. He’s right: the idea that we can’t adapt to ebooks or that something inherent will be lost without physical volumes is absurd. But he doesn’t have an ereader and has no intention of buying one. The reality is that for most people, for most collections, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to support the wholesale transition to ebooks, “resource management” and delivery at the point of discovery. Our catalogs don’t adequately support online browsing, and ebook platforms don’t support the kind of engagement with texts that people need: the ability to annotate, share, and hoard or the ability to print when it’s desired. Keyword searching is not the same as skimming or flipping. And sometimes when I have a book I don’t want to interrogate it – I simply want to read.

ACRL Update: Change Ahead

Before getting to the core of this column, how about a round of applause for the newest winners of ACRL’s top awards, Academic/Research Librarian of the Year and the Excellence in Academic Libraries Award. They are:

2011 Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year
Janice Welburn, dean of university libraries at Marquette University

2011 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award
Luria Library at Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, Ca.
Grinnell College Libraries, Grinnell, Iowa
Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.

ACRLog congratulates all the winners on their amazing accomplishments.

When ACRL isn’t doling out awards, it’s busy trying to advance the association into the future. At ALA Midwinter I heard more about these initiatives, and now is the time for members to share their thoughts about two important developments. First is the new version of ACRL’s strategic plan, the Plan for Excellence. This plan is currently in draft format and input is being sought from the academic library community. The first thing you’ll notice about the Plan for Excellence is that it’s far shorter than its predecessor. Whereas the old plan had quite a few goals and multiple objectives – and went on for several pages – the new plan is streamlined. It consists of only three goals, and each goal has but four objectives. This is a welcome change, and our colleagues who developed the plan should be applauded for coming up with a document that will likely be more practical and realistic to implement.

I’m not going to rehash the goals and objectives here; you can link to the ACRL Plan for Excellence and look it over. In brief, the three goals are (1) Value of Academic Libraries (2) Student Learning and (3) Research and Scholarly Environment. I don’t think any ACRL member would argue with the importance of these goal areas. The related objectives leave plenty of room for innovative project development. Where I am somewhat disappointed is with dropping membership growth as an ACRL goal. What I heard is that membership and some other prior goals were dropped because they are now perceived as the routine work of ACRL, and are no longer considered truly strategic in nature – and that ACRL needs to have a manageable set of goals and objectives that are within the scope of what we can actually accomplish with our limited (and potentially decreasing) resources.

I agree that the association needs to be careful about how much it takes on, but you only need to take a look at pg. 633 in the December 2010 issue of College & Research Libraries News where you’ll see a chart in the ACRL Annual Report that shows the percent change in membership from 2009 to 2010. There are many more minus signs then I’d like to see. It’s true that total membership is only down a few hundred members but this is a trend we can’t afford to ignore by eliminating its strategic value. Retaining existing members and recruiting new ones is the lifeblood and future of ACRL. When you bring into this picture the reality that many newer-to-the-profession academic librarians can build their own professional support system through social networks or seek newer alternatives such as SLA’s new and growing Academic Libraries Division, it seems to me that we do need a strategic approach to growing ACRL’s membership. My suggestion is to add a new fourth goal called “Organizational Sustainability” with the following four objectives:

* increase the membership by 5% by 2014
* study association needs of academic librarians with fewer than five
years in the profession and identify strategies for developing next
generation leaders
* identify strategies to make association membership and conference
attendance more affordable for new members
* continue to build opportunities for virtual membership

By adding this fourth goal ACRL keeps the retention and recruitment of members firmly in its vision as a vital issue that does require a well thought out strategy.

And speaking of membership, the other big change being advanced by ACRL is a Bylaws revision that would change how a dues increase would occur. Currently, the timing and amount of a dues increase is somewhat arbitrary. Dues only change, typically upward, when the ACRL Board decides that it needs to and by what amount. Then the full membership must vote on that increase. The whole process is time consuming, and the increases are usually approved. As a result, the ACRL Board has only moved to increase dues, because of its unpopularity, sporadically and it results in less frequent but larger increases. For example, the last dues increase was in 2005. Dues went from $35 to $55 for a 57% increase which is pretty substantial. The new proposal seeks to eliminate this from happening again – and after five years we might be due for an increase – by shifting to having the Board consider a dues increase annually. The increase would be tied to the HEPI meaning that the Board could only increase dues by the percent amount increase in the HEPI. Over the last 20 years if ACRL dues had been tied to the HEPI the maximum annual increase would be $3 (and less in 2009 and 2010). That doesn’t mean the Board would increase dues annually. The revision would just give it the power to do so without a vote by the membership. A vote would be required only if the amount of the increase needed exceeded the HEPI. According to my calculations, between 2002 and 2008 the HEPI averaged 4%. The obvious advantage to the revision is that it will allow the Board much greater flexibility in increasing dues as needed so that we avoid these huge bumps every 5-7 years.

While I support this revision to the bylaws, my opinion is that we need to look at restructuring the dues all together. Right now we all pay the same, and this is true with ALA dues as well. This puzzles me because it would seem to make more sense to connect dues to salaries. This is the method used by most state library associations. Why am I paying, after 30+ years in the field, the same amount as the new academic librarian who is making far less than I am, and is no doubt loaded with student debt? For me, dues and membership are intertwined. If dues are keeping new-to-the-profession librarians from joining ALA and in turn ACRL, that ultimately weakens the organization and is threat to its future sustainability. There was a similar conversation recently concerning ALA conference attendance, and I made the point that I’d be willing to pay more so that attendance would be more affordable for our newer colleagues, especially those lacking employer support. By no means is this a simple issue, and I don’t doubt that even considering it would cause some organizational turmoil. It’s complicated by the fact that ACRL dues are connected to your ALA dues payment. But even a modest step in this direction would make a statement, and perhaps encourage current non-members to consider joining. Would a change in this direction be more likely to encourage you to join ACRL – or do you support the current dues structure?

Whatever direction the change in ACRL takes us, I hope that more of you ACRL readers will consider being a part of that change (if you are not already positioned to do so), by becoming an ACRL member and helping to guide the association into the future.

OA: Just Another Business Model

Steven Bell kindly pointed me toward an interview published in InformationToday with Derk Haank, former Elsevier executive who now is CEO of Springer. I wrote about it earlier at Library Journal’s Academic Newswire, but now that it’s available online, I thought I’d share it here, in case you’re having trouble staying awake or suffer from low blood pressure.

Haank helped organize Springer’s acquisition of BioMedCentral and has introduced some open access options for authors publishing in Springer journals. But even though these moves have made Springer one of the largest OA publishers, he thinks it’s a tiny tributary to the glory that is STM publishing, a minor revenue stream, a sop to the cranks who oddly enough care about access to research. These are mostly in the biosciences, and won’t have much effect on the future, which in his crystal ball looks very much like the present. Scientists will continue to produce more and more publications (and Springer is happy to oblige by increasing their publishing program); scientists will need to access the literature to do their work, and libraries will simply have to find ways to fund access. Subscriptions will continue to power scholarly publishing because … well, the system we have now works just fine. Publishers have recognized that libraries are strapped, so they have given up highway robbery are no longer insisting on double-digit increases annually. But since they’re publishing more, libraries will have to pay more; that’s just the reality. And all that fuss we make – that’s just a negotiation strategy.

Some choice quotes:

“e-products are much less expensive to handle [than print]: They have no storage costs, the data comes with a catalogue, and our books come with MARC records.” (No muss, no fuss … hey, can’t we just have the business office run this thing? Think of the money we’d save.)

“The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread. I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem; I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it . . . it corrected everything that went wrong in the serials crisis in one go: people were able to get back all the journals that they had had to cancel, and they gained access to even more journals in the process.” (All the journals that we don’t need that you can shake a stick at! Too bad it hasn’t worked out for anything the library used to buy that isn’t in the Deal.)

“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit but not like in the days of the serials crisis. We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.” (Hey, at least you’ll have company. Welcome to Flatland!)

“I am absolutely convinced that the traditional subscription model delivered through the intermediary services of the library or information department will remain the dominant model. You might be forgiven for thinking that the OA movement is a lot bigger than it is. That is because those people who want to change something are always more vocal than those who are happy with the way things are.” (Happy … like us? Oh, that’s right, our opinion doesn’t matter. We are but handmaidens.)

“Our first priority is to continue as we are.” (We’ve noticed.)

What’s interesting – and worth thinking about – is that he feels mandates are a genuine threat to business as usual, particularly those imposed by funders who provide billions of dollars for basic research. One more reason to agitate for FRPAA and to urge our colleagues in other departments to consider mandates, even those of us who are not at research-centric institutions.

More discussion is happening at the Library Society of the World’s online water cooler.
Image courtesy of Bob Fornal.

They Need Us, They Really Need Us

Yesterday morning a friend’s retweet caught my eye. Apparently last week the productivity blog Lifehacker ran a survey in which readers were asked whether Google’s search results seemed increasingly full of spam and less useful. About 10,000 Lifehacker readers took the survey, and the top responses were eye-opening:

  • Nearly 34% of those who replied chose: “Absolutely. The spammers have gained a significant foothold.”
  • And almost 44% voted: “Kind of/sort of, but it’s still the best way to get at the good stuff.”

Of course this is a huge and open-ended survey question — exactly what kinds of information are users searching for? Looking at the comments (and the general content published by Lifehacker) it’s clear that most of the respondents probably use Google for typical, everyday searches: looking for news, weather, directions and travel, reliable product reviews and recommendations before purchasing, health and medical facts and advice, etc. I’d wager that most of the users who answered the survey weren’t referring to searches for research or scholarly information.

But I found these results especially interesting in light of Brian Sullivan’s satirical piece recently in the Chronicle reporting on the end of the academic library. The second factor he noted that contributed to the death of the academic library? “Library instruction was no longer necessary” because databases had become so easy to use, just like search engines.

(I should note that, while occasionally frustrating, I generally enjoy speculative futuristic scenarios about libraries and librarianship — they’re fun to read, and can be genuinely thought-provoking.)

Leaving aside issues of usability in library databases for the moment (because I think there’s still a long way to go), it doesn’t seem like instruction and reference librarians should strike out in search of new jobs quite yet. If Google and other search engines are increasingly not cutting it for even the basic, everyday searches for most people — usually the easy stuff, right? — how can we expect students to come to college already fluent in finding quality research information on the internet?

I was also struck by one of the Lifehacker commenters who wrote: “Part of the problem could be that people expect Google to read their minds.” We see students struggle with choosing and using appropriate search terms at the reference desk and in our classes, and we know how different the results list can be. What goes in determines what comes out — last semester I helped a student who was surprised to see that when she included the words “research paper” along with her topic in a Google search, her search results were dominated by websites selling term papers (which was, I hope, not what she was looking for).

So while I do hope that search engines and library databases continue to become easier to use and to give us better quality, more relevant results (and that seems likely to happen), I’m not at all ready to call it quits. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before our students won’t need library instruction.

Your To-Do List: Print, Digital, Hybrid

The start of a new year is a time for resolutions, and getting more organized and getting things done (GTD) is right there at the top of many resolution lists. For many of us, the common “to-do” list is our go-to indispensable tool for accomplishing both tasks. There are lots of different approaches to compiling and maintaining a basic to-do list. You can simply write things done on a piece of paper and tape it to your computer monitor or pin it on your bulletin board, or you can try to be more systematic – and there are more sophisticated (and sometimes fee-based) programs and software out there to aid in the process.

A colleague recently shared wanting to get back to a more rigorous GTD regimen, and I provided some supportive words on the value of making that commitment. It’s easy to get overloaded with things to do, and it helps to have a systematic approach to staying organized and on top of projects. So I shared this photo:
A look at StevenB's approach to the to-do list

You can see that I employ a hybrid approach, using both paper and digital. But there is a system at work. Paper is for more immediate things I have to do – today or in the next few days. My iGoogle to-do widget is where I keep upcoming projects that are broader in scope, such a paper or presentation. That helps me to keep those bigger projects on my radar screen. I can modify them by low, medium or high priority, but it would be nice to have something a bit more sophisticated for tracking the progress of each project. Do I need to get started or have I already done that? Which projects are near completion? I will add deadline dates when appropriate.

I sent this photo to my colleague to show him how I’m approaching my to-do list. He replied to let me know he’s no longer using paper at all, and is totally digital. Indicating that since his iPhone is a constant companion, it made sense to keep the GTD to-do list there using an app made just for this purpose. It looks (at least one screen) like this:

An all-digital approach to a to-do list

An all-digital approach to a to-do list

I think this looks like an interesting system, and I imagine it has some of the sophistication I’d like to have. But as I shared with my colleague, for my to-do list to work for me – it really has to be in front of my face all day. My Droid is also a constant companion, but I don’t have it sitting on my desk all day, and I find it much faster to use a pencil to modify a listed item or cross out a completed project. I’d get bogged down having to constantly get into the software to edit or add to my list.

The bottom line is that it’s a good thing to have some sort of systematic approach to your to-do list for GTD. Whether you prefer paper or digital or some combination is up to you – as long as it’s a system that works for you and keeps you on top of your projects so that you control them and not the other way around.