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.

Library as Place-With-Books

A member of the ILI-L discussion list pointed out an interesting article in the May issue of Harper’s that I finally got around to reading. It profiles the Prelinger Library, an idiosyncratic personal collection made public that provides its own classification system and allows for unexpected discoveries. (Here’s the non-digital link: “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper’s [May 2007]: 47-57.)

In passing, the author criticizes librarians’ devotion to all things technical, especially slamming the “roomy and bookless” SFPL in which “reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degreed ‘information scientists,’ stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printers to work.” Hey, they haven’t ditched the reference desk – that sounds positively old fashioned.

Anyway, the conclusion of the piece raises an issue I’d like to see discussed more by academic librarians.

The executive director of the digital-library initiative at Rice University is quoted as saying that “the library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared.” This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many, many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.

So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality – a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?

Apart, of course, from computers, comfy chairs, and good coffee.

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.

Are Academic Libraries Ready For Kids Who Read?

Uh oh. Now that we’ve dumped all our books and installed wireless everywhere, it turns out that kids read! Call them the generation born with Harry Potter in their head. Is your library ready and do your librarians have the skills to deal with them?

“Kids are buying books in quantities we’ve never seen before,” said Booklist magazine critic Michael Cart, a leading authority on young adult literature. “And publishers are courting young adults in ways we haven’t seen since the 1940s.”

All of which leads Cart to declare, “We are right smack-dab in the new golden age of young adult literature.”

OA Made Simple . . . and Not So Simple

Want a quick way to explain open access to your faculty and students? This article from Auntie Beeb can help. It’s short and to the point.

A tad more complex (and required reading for academic librarians) is the statement on open access from the Association of American University Presses. The idea of taking pricey for-profit publishers out of the loop that produces new knowledge (through often publicly-funded research) and makes it publicly available (through often publicly-funded library collections) is easier to grasp than when open access risks dismantling a disinterested and public effort to select, edit, design, market, and promote the fruits of scholarship – which is what university presses do. They add value, but they’re forced more and more to turn to the commercial publishing sector for business models.

Here’s a simple fact: university presses are not like Random House. Like libraries, they are not profit centers. They are cost centers. And they need support, because university presses are a necessary part of bringing scholarly work to the public, for the public. Faculty depend on them. Libraries need them. And so does the public.

So here’s our homework for today:

Any decision to switch from a market to a gift economy requires very careful thought and planning. The AAUP and its member presses welcome the opportunity to collaborate with university administrators, librarians, and faculty in designing new publishing models, mindful that it is important to protect what is most valuable about the existing system, which has served the scholarly community and the general public so well for over a century, while undertaking reforms to make the system work better for everyone in the future.

This is a group assignment. Each member of the group must contribute equally. It’s worth 100% of the grade.