Monday, April 30, 2012

Proposition: Libraries are Obsolete (update)

Here is the video of the entire debate...I'm listening to it now, so I'm interested in seeing how it came out...

Harvard will host "an Oxford-style debate" on this proposition: Libraries are obsolete.  This proposition appears to be a continuation of the dialogue that was started by the Harvard Library Reorganization Plan, which caused an Occupy Harvard movement.  It is also interesting who will be debating in favor of the proposition: R. David Lankes, the author of The Atlas of New Librarianship, the controversial new textbook.   Lankes will be joined by the Headmaster of the Cushing Academy, a private prep-school focusing on leadership.  Speaking in opposition are James G. Palfrey, whose focus is on intellectual property and access to knowledge, and Susan Hildreth, whose blog posting, Libraries Succeed by Constantly Evolving, was re-posted on the Huffington Post.

It is hoped that the event will be recorded and video of it made available in the near future.  I hope will be interesting to hear what issues will be raised by both sides.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fighting the high cost of scholarly communication

There are two items that I have read recently that provide specific and targeted responses to the rising costs of developing library collections, specifically related to scholarly communication.  SPARC just put out a "Now what?" follow-up to the Elsevier Boycott initiated by scholars themselves.  The document, "You've signed the Boycott, now what?", provides some "Next Steps" for researchers to take that address the overall problem beyond just Elsevier.  Foremost among these steps is, of course, considering publication in Open Access journals (no surprise, given the source).  Listed second, interestingly, is a link to the libraries that serve the intended audience. Too often, these discussions become segregated with researchers working separately from librarians.  This is, after all, how the Boycott originated - not from the library community, but from the scholarly community.  Thus, advising those who have taken the initiative to sign the boycott and who have shown their concern for the problem to see for themselves the scope of that problem, can help unite these communities into a single voice.  While other steps do involve the domain of influence that the researchers have (as creators of knowledge, editors of journals, and referees of articles), the final step recommends getting involved in the "larger policy debate".  It is necessary for this community to see that the problem extends well beyond Elsevier.

The other item that has come to my attention is the Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing from Harvard University.  It is very forthright in its first statement, describing the situation as "untenable".  This coming from Harvard, one of the most well-funded higher educational institutions.  Giving such facts as the 145% increase in costs from two providers over six years and 35% profit margins as background, the Council clearly states that the "costs are prohibitive" to continue the same contracts with at least two major (and unnamed) providers.  Also poignantly stated is how these increases "would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised," (what's missing is how much the costs may have already eroded these efforts).

The Council memo then provides a list of specific "options" that both faculty and librarians could take in response to potentially changing the subscriptions, including many of the same recommendations mentioned in the SPARC document mentioned above.  First in the list for faculty is making their own papers accessible in the university's institutional repository.  Also in the list for researchers is to encourage the professional organizations in their own fields to "take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations" (emphasis added).  Interestingly, of the 9 options listed, only three are addressed to librarians, none of which are possible without united efforts of both the scholarly and library communities.  Few publishers offer "pay-per-view" to libraries at a reasonable cost, or contracts that can be made public, or un-bundled packages.

Refusing these "untenable" conditions will bring pain to the users and the librarians, who must deal with declining collections and frustrated clients.  But like those who fought the untenable labor conditions of manufacturing, farming, and transportation, we are beginning to see that uniting our efforts against the unsustainable practices of those who control the the capital of scholarly communication will stabilize the delicate balance of powers and enable the progress of knowledge.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Fourth Law

Save the Time of the Reader.  That is S.R. Ranganathan's Fourth Law of Library Science.  Unlike the first three laws, this one "makes its approach from the side of the readers."  While he initially states that the Fourth Law is demonstrated "from the moment he [the reader] enters the library," he later discusses the importance of saving the time of the reader to get to the library by appropriate placement of library buildings, branches, and mobile libraries.  A more modern approach would include online manifestations of library resources and services.

The author starts with a review of the "Closed System" of library stacks, which required readers to scour catalog books or cards, fill out slips with the required information precisely transcribed, submit those slips to the appropriate person, and wait...and wait...and wait...from an average of 30 minutes to upwards of hours.  Just to receive the books, or to be told that they weren't available or that the information was not correct.

Of course, Ranganathan was very supportive of the Open Access system.  Indeed, I think he would also be very supportive the 21st century version of Open Access - having books and articles freely available, at least online.  In addition to supporting the Fourth Law, he advocated Open Access shelving "on the grounds of national economy", given how much time is wasted by the researcher or assistant waiting.  He calculated 36,000 man-hours were wasted at his Madras University library, based on number of visits and average time waiting.

Another development that Ranganathan cheered as in support of the Fourth Law was the arrangement of non-fiction books on the shelf by subject.  Again, he supported his claims by providing calculations of time needed to locate books on a topic if the shelves were arranged by author.  He also advocated having the most heavily used subjects located closer to the front of the library for easier access (think the opposite of grocery stores, which put their most wanted items in the back forcing us to walk by things we wouldn't otherwise think about). My concern with this idea is that it is not predictable and thus could be consider not user-friendly.

Interestingly, when discussing charging systems and staff efficiencies, Ranganathan heavily advocates using the then-modern card-based systems rather the more common log-based systems.  This was new at that time, using cards to hold a set of information about a book or a reader and then filing the cards for easy retrieval.  The examples he provided clearly demonstrated the beginnings of databases, with each card a record which included a number of fields (boxes and lines).  It is no wonder that Ranganathan was an early advocate of computer automation of library-related tasks.

Like the other 3 Laws, the Fourth Law can be applied to all aspects of librarianship and library service in a variety of ways, including:
  • Collection Development - Ranganathan focuses largely on improving the efficiency of procedures and tasks in order to get the books to the readers more quickly.  His suggestions were largely technical, with examples of cards for improving the tracking of book selection and acquisition.  I would add that proper book selection itself saves the time of the reader by having the right books available in the first place.  It also saves the time of the reader to sort through a more limited set of resources that have already been selected for their quality and usefulness.
  • Cataloging & Technical Services - As mentioned in previous posts, Ranganathan strongly advocated for proper subject analysis in the catalog record.  This was particularly important for books that had interdisciplinary content or critiqued works from other authors.  He provided some examples that demonstrated how time-consuming it would be for a reader to find the right books by scanning them individually, rather than find the cross-reference cards for the desired topic or author.  
  • Reference - The author notes that reference staff should acquire greater familiarity with the bibliography tools and the library's collection more rapidly than most users, given their regular use of this material.  However, there is a reluctance to hire a sufficient number of staff to meet the needs of the community.  This most apparent in universities, where "academic libraries seem to be lacking in their power to perceive the value of time and are hence halting in appreciating the need for such staff."  He mentions the two basic types of reference services provided in libraries - Ready Reference, which requires quick thinking and good memory, and Long-Range Reference, which requires specialization in a subject area, as well as ability to approach and interact with a range of reader experiences and knowledge.  It would be interesting re-examine this issue today - in this day and age of greater self-service and online Ready Reference sources, are library reference services properly staffed?
  • Programming & Marketing - While not explicitly mentioned by Ranganathan, the programming and promotional efforts of libraries also demonstrate the value of the Fourth Law. He does advocate for proper placement of libraries, strongly supporting centralized locations for urban areas, and strategic placement of branches for larger areas.  He also mentions the growing value of mobile libraries, using motorized and animal-driven vehicles, when necessary.   
  • User Training & Education - While not specifically mentioned by Ranganathan, I believe that user training and education can have the greatest effect on saving the reader's time.  By teaching the users to fish, these librarians save them their time of having to wait in line for assistance and explain their need (often multiple times before their need is correctly expressed and communicated).  This is especially true for students and researchers who would likely need to find similar resources many times.