Monthly Archives: March 2007


Here’s an interesting development. Wouldn’t it be great if we weren’t devoting so much time and energy to multiple licenses? Wouldn’t it be neat to have a common understanding of what’s acceptable (including things like interlibrary loan and e-reserves) when acquiring e-content for our libraries? Aren’t scholarly publishers and libraries potential allies? Can’t we all just get along?

Maybe so. Check out the Shared E-Resource Understanding project. And feel free to comment on the document in development. This is exciting!


Some people seem to think that serendipity and digitization are at odds with each other. For example, here’s a reviewer commenting on the newYale Book of Quotations:

I suspect that the continuing digitization of libraries will diminish the number of serendipitous discoveries made by those of us who now spend hours sifting through stacks of dusty documents in search of factual gold.

In my experience, however, research serendipity is more a function of how items are displayed, a user’s patience, and an open-to-anything attitude than digitization or technology per se.

For example, recently I had a number of students contacting me in a pre spring break panic. One was looking for primary sources on the United Fruit Company’s dealings in Costa Rica, but the sources had to be in a library somewhere in Boston, because she was going there for spring break. Her initial idea was to try the Boston Public Library. This student had already sat through a class with me on finding primary sources, so I was particularly interested in helping her find the resources on her own rather than just finding them for her. We sat together and I probed and pushed and made suggestions. It was apparent she had read a lot of the secondary literature and was quite knowledgeable and even passionate about the topic. Nothing seemed to be working though, until after 45 minutes, she stopped me and said,

“Wait. Go back.”

She noticed the cover of a book she had been reading displayed on a web page. There was a paragraph around the book that explained how the book was written using 78 boxes of photographs from the United Fruit Company Photograph Collection at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School. I froze and felt my eyes get really wide as I realized we had just hit the jackpot. Some students though, like patients looking at x-rays, don’t realize what they are looking at even when it’s staring them in the face.

“Do you know what this is?”
“This is it. This is what you need for your paper.”
“It is?”
“Yes. Let’s look at it together.”

Eventually we both got more and more excited about the find, and she wanted to call her professor to let him know. She called but he didn’t answer. Then, I spotted him (synchronicity!) walking through the library. I stood up and pointed at him.

“Hey! Look at this,” I said.

He looked at the screen and started smiling and jumping up and down. Then she started smiling and jumping up and down. Then I started smiling and jumping up and down!

What a bunch of geeks! I held back a bit, however, because I knew that she still had a long way to go, like getting to the library, getting there at the right hours, and getting into the library. Not to mention fitting the resources into her paper in the right way. Still, it was a magic moment that will keep me going for a while.

Technically I guess it wasn’t serendipity, which is setting out to find one thing and finding another. Yet it wasn’t exactly precision searching either. Perhaps we need a new word, digidipity–digitally stumbling upon something that you would have had very little chance of finding otherwise.

Trial Databases

Spring Break is behind many of us and the end of the semester is rapidly approaching. It is a time when everyone looks forwarded to warmer weather, graduation, and days out on the quad. Also, for some reason, it is also the most popular time to trial databases from publishers. Over the course of my first year, I have received offers to trial a new product or a database that we currently do not subscribe to at least once a week. In the past two weeks, however, I have had calls from representatives to trial 13 different databases. I think that trial databases are a great opportunity to try new products and show faculty and students the different types of sources available to them. To promote trials in the past, I have sent emails, posted notes to the message boards, talked to individuals and provided short demonstrations. However, I do not think that the trials are reaching their greatest potential. Any suggestions?

I Want it Now.

Dang! I just saw this perfect book for my paper, but the library doesn’t have it. I could wait several days for it to come through interlibrary loan, purchase a downloadable e-version for thirty-five smackers (yeah, like that’s gonna happen), or . . . forget it, I’ll just change my topic.

Ouch. If we could only read your mind, that book would have been on the shelf when you needed it.

Peter Osnos has an idea we should think about. He’s been serious about books for a long time. That’s why he left the WaPo to go into publishing, and left a big house to start his own – PublicAffairs. He’s a friend of the indie bookstore in DC, Politics and Prose, and wants to figure out how to solve a pesky problem: bringing books and readers together without destroying small booksellers in the process, because a bookstore like Politics and Prose is a little like a library – a community resource and a cultural space that brings people together and helps them encounter new ideas. So with a grubstake from the MacArthur foundation he came up with a solution. Put e-books in the bookstores.

It’s too soon to know if something like Caravan will work. It’s a way to retail new books in whatever format the customer wants – printed, audio, large print, and any variety of digital format. So far a handful of presses are in on the experiment, including some university presses. You want a book on X? I know just the thing. Hang on a minute while we download the version of your choice.

Will academic libraries ever plug into an idea like this? Could we help our readers discover what they’re interested in – and get it for them right now, in the format of their choice? We’ve made interlibrary loan so efficient, we sometimes forget it carries a price. But it’s quicker to borrow a book from another library than to go through the traditional acquisitions and cataloging process. (Come back next semester, maybe it will be on the shelf by then.) Maybe we should try something different. And maybe, if publishers can help us think this through, we can come up with ways to sell digital books to libraries in ways that make them both usable and reusable.

Peter Osnos tells me that Overdrive is currently partnering with Caravan and NYPL as something of a testbed library market. But how many academic libraries use Overdrive? It’s primarily marketing audio books to public libraries, and while a report by Tom Peters says it’s more useable than NetLibrary, it has met with patron resistance because the format is incompatible with iPod (not the fault of Overdrive, but patrons tend to think the library is incredibly out-of-touch and stupid).

Academic libraries have different users with different needs. Handling a university press book the way a big publishing house handles its popular bestsellers doesn’t really make sense. What if we could purchase a bundle – a digital copy in .pdf format tied to our IP range for a limited time to fulfill the immediate need, and a print order to be available and browseable on our shelves? This way publishers wouldn’t print and stock inventory in warehouses, hoping libraries will order it; libraries will put books on their shelves that they know people want, and readers will be able to get the books they’re interested in right now.

And as times change, we could adapt the model to whatever format makes sense. But right now, we’re saddling e-books with DRM that makes them nearly unusable. (What? I can’t print this section? This library is incredibly out-of-touch and stupid!) Academic publishers are missing sales. We’re buying books in hopes they’ll get used. And our users aren’t getting what they need unless we’re clairvoyant enough to buy it before they know they need it.

Peter Osnos has an idea for indie bookstores. What’s our idea?

What Students Think Of Authority Figures In Facebook

In researching an article about Facebook use that appears in the latest issue of University Business, the author interviewed college students about Facebook and their use of this social network. Some of the answers are revealing. When asked if they think college faculty or administrators (librarians could fit into either category) should use Facebook or MySpace here is what students had to say:

“No. College faculty and administrators are there to be professional and, well, administrative. Facebook and MySpace, to me, are seen more for fun and a way to keep in touch with people that you don’t see every day or to find old friends. If our professors need to get in touch with us, they should e-mail us.”

“I don’t think it is appropriate for them to try very hard to be buddy-buddy with me, or know my personal business.”

“Facebook is primarily for me, my friends, and occasionally cruising purposes. It’s not for my enemies, it’s not for my parents, and when I get on Facebook I don’t hope that my logic professor, or the president of the college, saw my status today.”

“For the most part, no. I’d much rather they stay out of it. However, I do have one professor who is known for being fairly hip. He’s on Facebook and I have no problem with this because I know he’s not going to abuse that position.”

Whenever I’ve directly asked students this same sort of question – do they think I should have a Facebook page – I’ve received similar responses. It can range from a flat out “don’t even go there” to a “You can create a profile but I won’t look at it” reaction. This leaves me puzzled because according to a number of library pundits I should be in Facebook, MySpace or both, and the reason is because that’s where the students are. So who am I to believe? The students or the pundits? I’ve been thinking about this since I first blogged about where academic librarians might fit into the student social networking scene.

I think neither group may be all right or all wrong. My thinking is that a librarian profile in Facebook will like work best when some form of personal contact has already been made, and there is a working relationship with the student(s). In other words, if a face-to-face connection has been made, it could be extended to a social network. But just going in cold with no student connections – that’s not likely to result in much serious attraction to the profile. In other words, if you want to give this a try, first find out if your students are likely to pay your profile much attention at all. Otherwise you might end up with a few “friends”, but none that really would want to develop the type of working relationship we’d like.