THE FATE OF NON-DIGITIZED SCHOLARLY RESOURCES
Have you been paying attention to how your journal collections are being used these days? How many loose issues are you reshelving? How many bound volumes are sitting next to the copy machine at the end of the day? How many reels of microfilm are you having to re-file each day? How many people are asking for back issues that you store elsewhere? Are these numbers going down?
They were at my library in the last couple of years I worked there -- and I worked at a university library, where students are expected to make use of scholarly literature. To give them credit, they did, at least as long as we could steer them to scholarly articles available full-text on our databases, where all they had to do was push a button to print the articles. But if all the students found were citations, they weren't interested, not even if the journals were on shelves six feet away from where the students were sitting.
Their attitude was, why isn't it available full-text on the net? Isn't everything worth having available on the net for free? Why should I have to go to the trouble of checking our holdings list to see if we have the journal? Why should I have to go get the journal, and then pay to photocopy it? Why should I only have access to it when the library is open? Why shouldn't it be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? And if the stuff you want me to use ISN'T available on the net, I'll use the things that ARE.
It's easy enough to dismiss this as laziness on the part of students who aren't particularly motivated anyway, students who go through the required motions not because they want to learn but because they want the degree.
We can argue that this is the result of students' unawareness of what constitutes good information for specific purposes. We can blame them for failing to realize that databases mostly reflect simply the last twenty years worth of human knowledge, and that serious research requires them to draw on several thousand years worth of books, journals, conference proceedings, dissertations, and other scholarly documents that have not as yet been digitized for their convenience.
We can insist that students must be taught good research method, and taught about the structure of information. We can tell students that research was being done on their topic before 1980, and insist that students find it, the old way, slogging through ancient physical volumes of Psychological Abstracts and International Index to Periodicals and the like.
I don't think it will work, though.
It's like insisting that students do their shopping at small shops, with limited stock, open from 10-5, Monday through Saturday, when they know perfectly well that Wal-Mart and internet stores have lots more selection and are open all the time. It's like refusing to install copy machines and insisting students take notes by hand. In a world ruled by customer convenience, of course students will opt for research material that is convenient over research material that is appropriate -- especially when they don't have a really well-developed sense of what appropriate research material looks like.
Their expectation that everything worthwhile will be on the net is unreasonable. On the other hand, who in 1990 would have thought it anything but a science fiction fantasy to suggest that in the year 2000, hundreds of millions of documents would be available for free at the click of a button? No one agency could have accomplished this. The data is there is because millions of people have chosen to share their own private stashes of information.
What this means, I think, is that universities, libraries, publishers and professors have only one option left if they want to keep the idea of scholarship alive: they need to digitize the past several hundred years worth of scholarship and make it available on the net, or at least by way of the net.
It would be a massive undertaking, of course, and no individual organization could do by itself. Some of the work is already being done, in individual projects, by the Library of Congress, and the Making of America sites, while other projects like Bartleby and the Gutenberg project are putting longer, non-copyrighted works into digital form.
It's also a project that would run into the copyright law, which is why copyright owners -- publishers and scholarly organizations -- would have to be convinced that the only way to assure the future of their journals is to make their backfiles easily accessible by way of the net. The profit involved in backfiles is probably minimal, but if it represents a revenue loss, the material, once digitized, could be sold to aggregate databases like EbscoHost. Or the scholarly community could create its own aggregate database of the world's scholarship over the past few centuries and sell it to libraries, or sell page views on a per-article basis to individuals. (The first option would probably work better, since people are unwilling to pay for something whose value is unclear to them.)
So, who's going to pay to do this, and who's going to do the work? I think it has to be the stakeholders. Publishers and scholarly societies could digitize their own backfiles. Library consortiums could divvy up responsibility for orphan journals, medical library consortiums digitizing medical journals, state historical libraries digitizing their own states' publications, newspaper libraries digitizing their own complete runs, etc. Nobody has the time and money to do it all, not even the Library of Congress, but we all could be responsible for a hunk of it.
Once the material is digitized, the only question becomes access. Do we put it out on the net and leave it to the search engines to enable people to find it? I would prefer not, because neither the search engines nor the students are likely to distinguish scholarly documents from all the other junk available on the net. What we would need at that point is an aggregator, whether a commercial database or a free web site that would catalog, cross-reference, and provide author, title, subject and keyword access to all the scholarly resources on the net -- a site professors could send their students to for hassle-free, one-stop shopping.
The cost of doing this would be enormous. But so are the costs of not doing it: in valuable resources left to mold on the shelves, untouched by human hands; and in the loss of understanding of how ideas and knowledge are built, piece by piece, over centuries. In the words of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, it's too much to expect -- but it's not too much to ask.
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A CAUTIONARY TALE
I realized recently that I have made the complete transition from librarian to library user. Guess what? Our interests are not identical.
I first noticed it last Christmas season, when about the 28th of December I needed to check a reference book at my old library, and realized, "Oh, no, they're CLOSED between Christmas and New Year's!" -- which was not my reaction when Christmas meant a welcome eight days off from work. I realized it when I went to my Catholic university library on Good Friday, only to see the sign on the door that the library was closed for the Easter holiday. As a librarian, my reaction used to be relief; as a user, my reaction was, um, not polite.
As a library user, I am grateful for the full-text databases my public and university libraries allow me to access for free, any time I happen to need to check a fact. As a former librarian, I care about the accuracy of the fact, so I prefer the databases over the Internet -- ever try to check a quote on the net and found variant forms of the quote and no source other than the author's name?
But if I wasn't trained, both as a scholar and a librarian, to CARE about accuracy, and if I wanted that piece of information when I wanted it, whether at 7 in the morning or midnight, I'd prefer the Internet over libraries, too.
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COOL QUOTE AND CAUTIONARY TALE
Chopping down trees get seas of print
Not a soul can read
Midnight Oil. "Who Can Stand in the Way?"
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.