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.

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

5 thoughts on “Selective Perceptions (on Ebooks and the New Resource Management)

  1. Thanks for this interesting summary of an important topic.

    I have to ask however, why is absurd to think that something inherent will be lost without physical volumes? On the contrary it seems to me that changes in technology always involve both gains and losses. It may be that access to ebooks will on balance be better than a world without that access but it will also be a different world. A world with cars is very different than a world without.

    I think you are on to something when you suggest that reading and interrogating a book are different activities. I suspect the different technology contributes to which one is seen as the norm.

  2. The only way to find information in a printed book is to read the whole thing? I thought only undergraduates thought that.

    I really like this: “Others still need physical browsing and the safeguards against information overload that local collecting can provide.” Yes. This is why I think bookstores will continue, too. When you don’t really know what you want, having someone provide a browseable and well-chosen but limited set of options is helpful. Walking into a bookstore (or library) and expecting them to have a particular book – not so much.

    I am a tad aghast that at some libraries print has to be justified as a purchase in the case of books. I just don’t find the online alternatives in most cases ready for prime time yet. And if their users are like ours, they’ll want to print out anything that they want to actually read.

  3. Matt – you make an important point: that “changes in technology always involve both gains and losses.” Maybe that’s a better way to think about it. But I am also trying to let go of the idea that our changing relationship to language – printed, spoken, blogged, book vs. chapter and journal vs. article, ereader vs. cellphone – is either good or bad. It’s still hard for me! I feel like the printed book is still the perfect medium for the novel – but there was a time before novels, and a time before written culture in general, and there will be a time, now, after, and we will still have ideas and communicate them. Gains and losses.

    Barbara – yeah, I thought, well, geez, what about the index and the table of contents?

  4. I’m trying to figure out the same thing Amy and its definitely hard. Totally agree that “the sky is falling” response isn’t real helpful but want to avoid the “its no big deal” response as well. I’m very intrigued by McLuhan’s insight that the medium is the message and think as a profession we would do well to (continue to) reflect on this.

  5. The book is one medium that people identify as both the thing contained and as an object. Music is not an object. Film is not an object. A painting – yeah, that one’s an object, but the thing is contains is art. I don’t think it’s the same to say the book contains stories, or long-form text, or words, because the first two have many containers and the third is more Engfish than English.

    But as Amy says, the book has only been defined in quite the way it has been in the last 100 years or so. Remember those old books in which seven or eight short texts would be randomly bound together? Or the novel that was a serial in a newspaper before it was between boards?

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