Category Archives: Commercialization

Top Ten Assumptions About Future

The ACRL Research Committee has released a list of what they are calling ten assumptions about the future that would impact academic libraries and librarians. The Committee has already solicited a lot of input, and they are seeking further comment by Monday April 30. Here is the list in brief format, for more see the ACRL News article and the podcast .

Although the Committee has said they didn’t want to produce a list of predictions, it seems that this is what they have in fact done, regardless of what they call them. I would have called them Ten Sundry Issues That Need More Discussion and Fleshing Out, which is why I’m not on the Committee.

I appreciate how hard it must be to produce a list like this, but some of the brief statements are so vague and general as to not really do much work, so it’s hard to respond to them. What is this list really for?

The two that have generated the most discussion on the listservs have been 6 and 7, which deal with applying a business model to higher education and viewing students as customers or consumers. As this makes many academic librarians retch, I think the committee needs to spell out more exactly what this means, why they think it will come to pass, and why they seem to think we are powerless to do anything about it.

In general I think we need to be both more humble about our attitude toward the future (face it, we have no idea what’s going to happen) and be more rigorous when we do think about the future. Assumptions or predictions can sometimes seem as if they are being offered by those whose true aim is to turn assumptions in to self-fulfilling prophecy (look at #5 for example). Or perhaps there is no hidden agenda but assumptions turn into self-fulfilling prophecy anyway (this is the way things are going so we better go along with it.) I’d like to see more clarity and transparency about who thinks what may be happening and to clearly distinguish that from what it is that we want to have happen. When thinking about the future, let’s not give in to determinism or give up our agency. I thank the Committee for their work, and hope this list leads to an ongoing discussion about what the future may hold and what we want to do about it.

1. There will be an increased emphasis on digitizing collections, preserving digital archives, and improving methods of data storage and retrieval.

2. The skill set for librarians will continue to evolve in response to the needs and expectations of the changing populations (student and faculty) that they serve.

3. Students and faculty will increasingly demand faster and greater access to services.

4. Debates about intellectual property will become increasingly common in higher education.

5. The demand for technology related services will grow and require additional funding.

6. Higher education will increasingly view the institution as a business.

7. Students will increasingly view themselves as customers and consumers, expecting high quality facilities and services.

8. Distance learning will be an increasingly common option in higher education and will co-exist
but not threaten the traditional bricks-and-mortar model.

9. Free, public access to information stemming from publicly funded research will continue to grow.

10. Privacy will continue to be an important issue in librarianship.

Help Wanted: Book Review Rescue

Scott McLemee brings to academia an issue that has been burning in publishing. The amount of space given to book reviews is endangered in newspapers. Many papers rely on a smallish number of canned wire service reviews that don’t reflect the local community’s interests, and with change at the LA Times, shrinkage at the SF Chronicle, and disappearance from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution extinction is a possibility.

Perhaps online media will take up the slack? Let’s hope so. But the destruction of the remaining “reviewing infrastructure” at American newspapers is a bad thing for authors, for readers, for booksellers, and for publishers.

So I am addressing academic librarians and university-press folks, now, because they – because you, rather – seem well-situated to grasp an important point.

We have something in common: It is very easy for others to take what we do for granted. As far as most civilians are concerned, printed matter is generated by parthenogenesis, then distributed across the land like the spores of a ripe dandelion, transmitted by the wind.

We know better. We do what we can with our shrinking budgets – secure in the knowledge that the work itself is worthwhile, if not always secure in much else.

He urges us – naming especially academic librarians – to act, and points us to the National Book Critics Circle blog on the crisis. Find more at the NBCC’s site on the crisis.

Siva Vaidhyanathan Questions Google Book Search

Friday at the Drexel University Libraries’ Scholarly Communication Symposium, Siva Vaidhyanathan raised some serious questions about the partnership between libraries and Google in a powerful and provocative analysis of Google Book Search.

Siva is unique in that he combines an in-depth knowledge of copyright, a reasoned appreciation for new technology and a clear love and deep respect for libraries and librarians with a strong sense of social justice and the public good. He is a skilled presenter and powerful speaker. Others wear suits, he wears a black leather jacket. He tends to raise difficult questions. Either we should feel very lucky that he has chosen to cast his critical eye on our issues, or we should feel slightly nervous.

He began by dismissing both Kevin Kelly’s overenthusiastic embrace of the universal library and John Updike’s nostalgic defense of the traditional publishing world. He agreed with Kelly that digitization was a worthwhile goal but asked if Google Book Search was the right way to do it, if now was the right time, and if copyright was up to the task. He also disagreed with Kelly by countering that books are linear for a reason. He conceded that people of the book are racked with anxiety about the future, implying that this may have been a motivating factor pushing libraries into too hasty deals with Google.

Among Vaidhyanathan’s concerns about Google Book Search include some nitty gritty quality issues about the improper ranking and the inadequacy of some search results. He pointed to a search for “copyright” in which the first hit is a book from 1912, and a search for “Copyright Law” that does not pull up the most recent and relevant books. This suggests that despite Kelly’s claims, users would still be better off if they consulted with a librarian. He also searched for some famous literary quotes (“it was the best of times”) that did not turn up their sources, but he did admit that at least one search (“Karl Rove”) turned up two good books at the top of the list and that led Vaidyanathan to information that he previously did not know.

Vaidhyanathan then reeled off 5 questions each for Google and the Google Library Partners:

For Google:
1. What will be the guiding principles for inclusion, exclusion, and rank within the index?
2. What will be scanned first? What order?
3. What safeguards are you taking to ensure user confidentiality and privacy?
4. What will be your metadata standards? Why would one book outrank another?
5. Will you omit certain titles from the index if a government demands it? Or will you merely present snippets to indicate the book’s existence?

For Libraries:
1. Did you insist on assurances that Google would protect user confidentiality and privacy?
2. Did you insist that Google’s index include input from your librarians about quality control, order of inclusion, order and metadata standards?
3. Did Google restrict your use of the digital files in any way? (no obvious restrictions in Michigan contract.)
4. Did you consider the harm to potential markets for publishers who have been selling and leasing digital files? What is the copyright justification for receiving an electronic copy as payment for a transaction?
5. What’s the hurry?

At one point, Vaidhyanathan compared Google Book Search to the Human Genome Project. Here, he claimed, a for-profit company named Celera demonstrated it could do the work better and faster, but governments declined, recognizing that this information should not be privatized. Now Vaidhyanathan became animated, stating that it should be the same for knowledge and asking, “since when is expediency one of the core values of librarianship?” (Ouch. I was taken aback when he said this.) He basically accused some of the world’s top research libraries of rushing into deals with Google in which they did not realize the true value of their holdings, failing to insist on quality control, failing to guarantee user privacy, and damaging their relationships with publishers.

These are serious charges, some of them have surfaced in a previous ACRLog post. As for the Google Library Partners side of the story, their public statements do point to the public good as a motivation for making their collections more widely accessible, and it’s hard to fault them for that. Vaidhyanathan’s comparison to the Human Genome Project seems unfair–no governments were willing to step up to digitize books on anything like the scale of Google Book Search as far as I know. According to the University of Michigan, it would have taken them more than a thousand years to digitize their collection on their previous pace of digitizing. New York Public Library strikes a cautious tone in their statement and hardly seems to be rushing into anything. As for quality control and metadata issues, I don’t know, but the FRBR Blog has reported that a Library of Congress working group on bibliographic control has recently met with Google. It’s an interesting point about library’s relationship with publishers–however there is an argument that GBS will help publishers to sell more books from their back catalogs.

But what about privacy? What were the discussions between the Library Partners and Google on privacy? Vaidhyanathan reminds us that Google is not just any company, but a humongous company with ambitious aims “to organize the world’s information.” Do we want all our information needs to be met and filtered through a lens that utimately has profit as its main aim?

In other interesting thoughts that Vaidhyanathan did not fully expand upon, he said he thought the issue of the libraries receiving an electronic copy as payment for the transaction could be the silver bullet that would lose a court case for Google. I think he also said that that if the project succeeds it will ultimately weaken fair use.

I don’t remember one session at ACRL Baltimore on Google Book Search. If Vaidhyanathan tells us one thing, it’s that as a profession, we need to know more.

UPDATE – A writer at the American Historical Association blog confirms some of Siva’s worries.