Update on Cushing’s all-digital library

Update on Cushing Academy, the school that ditched its print collection for Kindles &c — worth knowing about now that the academic year is underway. Some pros, some cons, not a lot of detail. Interesting that a wide variety of administrators, including a library administrator, are quoted approvingly (I wish I could’ve been around for that decision-making process). Depressing money quote:

Sophomore Elsie Eastman says she’s here all the time now. “I remember last year I barely went to the library,” she says. “I loved the library — I just barely ever went.”

Thing-ology on the library ebook market

Thing-ology has an interesting post on the economics of ebooks in libraries. They argue, essentially, that libraries need site-licensed copies of ebooks rather than ones tied to specific physical devices; this will split the library and direct-to-consumer ebook markets and allow for runaway rental/licensing costs for library ebooks. There’s an apt comparison to runaway journal costs for academic libraries.

I think this argument has a lot of merit to it (although I do think the markets aren’t entirely split, and the existence of the consumer market puts a cap on the licensed market; your site license for 25 simultaneous uses can’t cost much more than 25 direct-to-consumer, device-linked copies before buyers start fleeing). It also reminds me of the horrible angst that is the textbook market — it points out that for many books prices are held down because used books compete with new, and this downward pressure stops holding in a rental-based model, because there is no secondary market. There is, of course, a thriving market in used textbooks, but one which publishers vigorously combat via incompatible new editions, included software, and (soon and increasingly, I’m sure) digital textbooks on a rental model — just like the ebooks picture Thing-ology paints for the library.

out-of-print books

Google has rights to a gazillion out-of-print books, people freak in expected manners, Globe article here.

One of the things that came up in my library automation class is the place of database aggregators in the marketplace. There are lots of databases out there, and it’s not realistic for every library to negotiate contracts separately with every database it might want, so you get these organizations with the clout and capacity to negotiate these bulk deals and resell them to libraries, who then only have to (and only get to) negotiate with one vendor.

The case of out-of-print books seem similar: many of the people and institutions who might be interested in having access to some of them don’t have the know-how, time, money, etc. to negotiate those rights. So one of the few organizations that does have the ability to do so on a grand scale, does so — and immediately you fall into problems of monopoly.

Which raises the question of whether there’s anyone who actually *can* get those orphan books to the light of day, some entity living in a narrow slice between practicality and regulation.

why is serials recordkeeping so problematic?

I’ve been reading this post, from the charmingly named In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

The part I’ve been munching through: apparently it’s really, really hard for libraries to keep track of their electronic serials and database usage. If you want to know which of the things you’re subscribed to are actually getting used and how (and what it’s costing you), strap yourself in for a long ride, because ILSes don’t have rich enough functionality to harvest that information for you. Some people buy additional systems on top to help, but even those require a lot of work if you want to extract useful data.

There are some good reasons for this. Libraries frequently subscribe to databases or journals as bundles (and may be required to do so by the publisher), and the usage codes may not disaggregate resources within the bundle. Libraries may subscribe as part of consortia, but need to extract data for their individual institution.

Still, though. This seems like a pretty obvious thing to want to do — keep track of your actual use! So why do the tools not support it? I welcome ideas from people who actually know something (which is not me!), but in the meantime, I’ll brainstorm some possibilities…

  • It’s a genuinely hard technical problem. (And there are a lot of problems that need to be solved here — not just capturing the data, from subscription systems that apparently don’t natively provide it, but organizing it into a database that answers users’ questions, has a usable front end, and spits out data in formats useful for budgeters and other decisionmakers. That’s not one system — that’s multiple interacting systems, possibly produced by different organizations — and potentially problems that have to be re-solved for every database vendor and ILS combination. OK, it’s even harder than I realized when I started this bullet point and was just thinking about algorithms.)
  • Libraries don’t prioritize recordkeeping and review of their serials and databases enough to exert pressure (market, social, cultural) on companies to develop this feature.
  • ILSes offer a tremendous number of features; while libraries might want better serials tracking, they care more about those other features, so it’s those things that ILSes are competing on. (Although this doesn’t answer why an ILS that does well on those things, *and* on serials, doesn’t emerge and stomp on its competitors. But maybe it’s too hard (algorithmically or monetarily) to do that.)
  • This is a place where the culture clash between librarians and programmers is showing; maybe they just aren’t talking to one another enough for the user needs to become apparent. Again, you’d think this would be a place where the company (or open source project) that does do a good user needs analysis to eat its competition — and there are niches where librarians and programmers overlap — but all too often they don’t seem to even have a common vocabulary.


why even the future needs librarians

So I was watching the new Star Trek movie and… (bear with me here).

At the end of the movie, offstage, we’ve got 10000 Vulcans on some colony, bereft of their planet, trying to rebuild their culture. And what’s one of the first things they’re going to do? Re-establish libraries. And hand out research grants to anyone who wants to fly around the galaxy combing libraries and archives and museums for vestiges of Vulcan culture. (Because, come on. Even the ten thousand Vulcans remaining are sure to be ludicrously wealthy, due to their skills with Science, and the Banking System of the Future has to be massively distributed, or it’d be incompatible with widespread spaceflight. They’ve still got access to their cash.)

So why (I think to myself) do they not sit at their awesome future computers, with their faster-than-light internet and digital libraries, rather than handing out all these research grants to people, going on long trips to interact with physical objects?

Well, they do that too, of course. But the future — while it may boldly go where no one has gone before, having toppled racial and species barriers — has probably not toppled bureaucracy, and funding shortages, and backlogs. Museums which have five copies of something have only gotten around to digitizing (or uploading) one, because they have more pressing things to do than be comprehensive, and it’s probably one of the other four that has some marginalia of suddenly crucial importance. Or they’ve digitized (and uploaded) all five, but it’s in some cruddy format that’s hard to search, like today’s jpgs of pages of text, or utterly obsolete. Or they had enough cheap interns from Starfleet Library School to get everything online in whatever the cutting-edge format is, but their indexing systems can’t keep up. Or weren’t designed for the kind of queries that a nearly-extinct civilization on a sudden cultural heritage binge is going to generate. (Because, seriously, what are those? I can’t even imagine.)

Doubtless I’m projecting the present too much into the future here. Maybe the future has robots that digitize everything for you, and seamlessly cross-platform file types, and automatic indexing so perfect that unicorns and rainbows pour forth from the servers.

And yet…I doubt it. I doubt that even the Gene Roddenberry utopia is free from everyday logistical constraints.

And even if it is, in the present, those everyday logistical constraints are hard. And indexing is desperately hard, and even more desperately underappreciated. You can’t connect people with information if you don’t have findability, per the Peter Morville book whence my tagline comes. And one of the best tools for bridging that findability gap is between our ears. (Even if they aren’t pointy.)