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The Digitized Book Corpus and the Cracking Dam

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Constance Malpas, Program Officer at OCLC, has just published an excellent report entitled “Cloud-sourcing Research Collections: Managing Print in the Mass-digitized Library Environment.”

The whole report is essential reading, but I’d like to pull out two points that particularly struck me, the first from page 14:

The emergence of a mass-digitized book corpus has the potential to transform the academic library enterprise.

I would put it much less cautiously than that — the emergence of a mass-digitized book corpus cannot fail to transform the academic library enterprise. The extent of the transformation will depend on several factors, of course, including the content and accessibility of the corpus — but  librarians’ opinions about the mass-digitization program will have no effect at all.

What should cause concern for academic libraries is the fact that such a corpus already exists, and is growing by the day; the dam holding it back is fragile and cracking. There is already a steady flow of water through the breaches in that dam (existing search functionality in Google Book Search; the quickly growing Hathi Trust collection), and the dam will give way entirely when some version of the Google Book Settlement is approved.

Not to belabor the analogy, but the time to begin “renovat(ing the) library service portfolio” (p. 14) is not when the foundation of our work is being washed away by the floodwaters.  It is now, while the dam still holds and our patron still perceive some relevance in that portfolio.

Malpas and her team make the same point more politely in their executive summary (p.11):

It is our strong conviction . . . that academic libraries . . . should mobilize the resources and leadership necessary to implement a bridge strategy that will maximise the return on years of investment in library print collections while acknowledging the rapid shift toward online provisioning and consumption of information. Beyond the obvious operational efficiencies of consolidating low-use, digitized print volumes into shared service collections there is an important strategic advantage to reconfiguring collective inventory that is increasingly devalued as an institutional asset.

I confess that I giggle and shudder simultaneously at the thought of referring publicly to books in our collection as “inventory that is increasingly devalued as an institutional asset.” That kind of business-school-flavored language will, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly freak out significant segments of any university faculty, not to mention library staff.  And it won’t only be the sentimental, dewy-eyed humanists — it will be the mathematicians, the social scientists, and even some researchers in the hard sciences.

But this is a matter of politics, not reality — actual usage patterns have little bearing on the feelings that are stirred up whenever faculty members think they are hearing books being disparaged. The simple fact is that the romance of the printed book outlives the demonstrable usefulness of printed books in any particular discipline, and it dies very, very hard. (To be clear: I’m not saying that printed books have outlived their usefulness, only that when they do outlive it, the romance lingers on.)

After reading this report, my confidence in the long-term viability of traditional collection-building has been undermined even further. The library of the future is not going to look much like a library. We librarians need to swallow hard, let go of some of the things we love most about our jobs, and prepare ourselves — now — for the inevitable (and probably precipitous) arrival of what is behind that dam.

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About Rick Anderson

I'm Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “The Digitized Book Corpus and the Cracking Dam

  1. What specifically do you want people to do? Stop buying books? Quietly sell off the collection while it still has value? Sell the building? All the endless talk of “get ready” and “act now” is empty revolutionary rhetoric without specifics.

    Posted by David Wojick | Feb 28, 2011, 7:42 am
    • Well,

      There is plenty to do. If your collection will be digital (instead of paper based) – you need to change your services. Change from lending books to drawing patron’s attention to new relevant books, for instance.

      Posted by Ronald Snijder | Feb 28, 2011, 8:29 am
      • What do you mean by “if your collection will be digital (instead of paper based)”? We are talking about big existing libraries full of paper books. Are they supposed to sell off the paper books, close the building and go digital? It doesn’t take a five story building to provide a service desk.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 28, 2011, 9:32 am
    • Hi, David –

      I’ve actually been talking in more specific terms in other forums recently, though you’re correct to imply that most SK readers would have little reason to know that. My recommendations include, yes, buying fewer books — or at least ceasing to buy books in the absence of clear and specific patron demand; reapportioning space formerly occupied by books to study and work areas (which, unlike our print collections, are in great demand); eliminating not just the Big Deal but also the journal subscription, in favor of per-article purchasing; preparing for the obviation of our general collections by shifting staff time and focus to the digitization and promulgation of truly unique holdings; supporting Hathi Trust and similar initiatives; taking on the management of data sets; and becoming a broker for textbooks.

      But the main point of my posting was to encourage people to read the OCLC report, which includes several specific recommendations in its closing section.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 28, 2011, 10:23 am
      • Thanks Rick, much better. So you recommend that scholarly libraries immediately cease buying books (absent specific demand) and also cease subscribing to journals. Very interesting for SSP.

        I can’t speak for books but on the journal side it is very inconvenient, not to mention horrendously expensive, to research a topic by buying one article at a time.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 28, 2011, 11:32 am
        • David, let me clarify: I recommend moving as aggressively as possible in the direction of patron-driven purchasing rather than librarian-driven purchasing–recognizing that such a shift will take time (partly because many publishers are not yet ready to support it) and that _some_ amount of librarian-driven collection-building will remain necessary into the foreseeable future.

          On the journal side, bear in mind that effective research doesn’t depend on preemptive buying. In an ideal environment, you’d be able to search everything and download whatever you want, as if the library had purchased all of it preemptively–but the purchase itself wouldn’t happen until the download happens.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 28, 2011, 12:04 pm
      • Rick,
        I don’t want to interpret your comment about canceling journals in favor of per-article purchase as being absolute.

        Surely you’ve noticed that there are some very highly-consulted journals in your collection that cost you pennies per download.

        Posted by Phil Davis | Feb 28, 2011, 12:00 pm
        • Hi, Phil –

          In principle, I do mean it to be absolute: it’s dumb to buy something that may not be wanted (even if the price is low) where alternatives exist.

          And there’s the rub, of course: where do (reasonably priced) alternatives exist? Ideally, I don’t want to buy articles in huge batches even if the resulting cost-per-download is low; instead, I want to download only desired articles at a very low price. In practice, for now, I’m willing to put up with buying huge batches of low-cost articles where that model is the only one that’s both affordable and available. But the problem is that even at a low per-unit price, that model isn’t sustainable in the long run. As long as publishers keep raising prices and my budget keeps getting cut, I’m going to have to ration access. Right now I ration at the journal-title level, which doesn’t make sense. In an article-based economy I’ll have to ration at the article level–which will be no less painful, but will be arguably more rational.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 28, 2011, 12:10 pm
  2. Rick,

    Thanks for a nice post and kind comments.

    Your point about vocabulary is well taken, but, but …. a couple of points.

    The main focus of the report is the library community and its more effective systemwide organization of collections. In this, as you suggest, I think it lines up quite well with your own public positions. Which does prompt the question: do you speak to faculty audiences in the same way as you speak to library audiences :-) If so, do they wither and quake?

    And, second, I think it is actually useful to occasionally speak in this way to the library community. A central part of the library challenge is to effectively manage institutional resources (people, space, collections, etc) to meet institutional goals (better research, learning and service) as the environment changes. It is useful to be reminded of this in language which makes you think this way. We perhaps too often think of the challenge as unique or overly special?

    Lorcan

    Posted by lorcan | Feb 28, 2011, 11:54 am
    • Hi, Lorcan –

      My clumsy point about vocabulary wasn’t intended as a criticism of the report–I actually meant it to point out that we librarians (and many faculty) tend to be hypersensitive about the use of language that sounds “businessy.” I’m sure you’ve noticed what happens in a roomful of librarians if the word “customer” is used to describe a patron; similar things happen when we talk about the value of books in financial terms, or about “efficiency,” or about “surplus value.” I have sometimes tried to point out, to various audiences, that by any meaningful definition of the term the library really is a business: it’s charged with using limited resources as efficiently as possible to provide desired services to a market upon which it depends for its long-term viability. But I’ve found that using such language tends to derail the conversation; we end up bogged down in easy and emotionally satisfying “should” pronouncements (“the library shouldn’t be treated like a business!”) at moments when more difficult “is” discussions (“should we decrease the French Lit budget in order to maintain the Physics budget?”) are the ones our stakeholders really need us to engage in.

      None of this is to say that the report shouldn’t use such language; only that I anticipate particular responses, for better or for worse, when passing it along.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 28, 2011, 12:27 pm
      • Agreed.

        ‘easy and emotionally satisfying “should” pronouncements’ is a nice formulation.

        Posted by lorcan | Feb 28, 2011, 1:04 pm
  3. Just jumping in here: I have had 3x or more questions about “group meeting space” than I’ve had about print materials at the reference desk -but I’m still constantly surprised how many print-related questions there are. All the same, I think the metaphor of the dam is appropriate as there never really feels like a “sustainable” amount of questions coming my way, reference or otherwise (not that this is the only job librarians do, obviously, so don’t chase me on that). I find it interesting that so much is focused on U.S. copyright law (in regards to mainstream/underground digital books availability in the U.S.), when in China or Russia, for example, it must have already “happened” to some extent (possibly apples and oranges, but hopefully you get the idea).

    Posted by Dale Larsen | Feb 28, 2011, 2:51 pm
  4. One aspect of this situation – is getting at what faculty do and do not know about the transformational change that is taking place. Specifically, do they understand that anything approaching a cohesive, let alone relatively stable base of scholarly knowledge is going to be the first major victim of the change? I’m skeptical that we have the tools to support “cloud-based” scholarship, and I’m even further concerned about the nature of academic culture and organizations in terms of there capacity to shift to a form a scholarship that lacks a permanent form of stewardship – which the cloud based model is not likely to have….the new era will come (as the water over the dam), but that doesn’t mean it will come with any degree of stability – but it will come with many potential risks and a high degree of instability in terms of access to knowledge.

    Posted by Rod Henshaw | Feb 28, 2011, 5:04 pm
    • Rod, you’ve touched on several interesting questions. One is whether faculty members are aware of the coming “flood”; the other is what they think about its likely effect on “a cohesive, let alone relatively stable base of scholarly knowledge.” Not everyone will agree with you that the base of knowledge you refer to is actually threatened by, for example, the opening up of the Google Books corpus — it seems to me that there are pretty good arguments to be made that such opening-up will have more salutary than deleterious effects, but that question is separate from the question of how aware our teaching faculties are of the looming radical changes in the knowledge ecology.

      As for stability, though: are you familiar with the Hathi Trust project (http://www.hathitrust.org)? Stability and cohesiveness are at the core of that large-scale collection of digitized books, and it already contains over 8,000,000 titles — the collection is projected to hit 14,000,000 by the end of next year. While Hathi doesn’t exactly constitute a “cloud” solution, it does fit that bill to a real degree — and permanent stewardship is its core mission.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 28, 2011, 5:36 pm
  5. As Rick knows, my main worry about the move to PDA is its likely negative effect on the economics of university press publishing. Rick argues that libraries shouldn’t be making their decisions about what is best for their future in relation to what is best for the future of university presses. But since the issue of faculty interests has been raised here, I’d like to point out that many scholars in the liberal arts will be mightily concerned about the fate of university presses since their survival is directly related to their own career advancement. So libraries will have a PR problem on their hands if it appears that PDA is undermining university presses. I wonder how Rick thinks libraries can handle that problem?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 2, 2011, 3:00 am
    • It’s not that I think libraries shouldn’t care about the future of university presses. It’s that I think continuing to buy the wrong books is a bad way for libraries to support university presses. And yes, I guess I’ll go one step further: to the degree that a university press is staying in business by publishing books that no one actually wants to use, that press needs to change its publishing behavior — rather than insist that libraries have the obligation to help it continue publishing the wrong books.

      As for PR problems: since libraries are working with severely limited resources, we face many potential PR problems with the faculty we serve, and there’s no way to forestall all of them. What I’ve found is that my faculty’s most pressing concern is that we give them access to the resources they need in order to do their work. To the degree that we do that well, our other failings tend to be quickly forgiven — and I suspect that will include our failure to support a UP that is publishing books in which the faculty have no interest.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Mar 2, 2011, 10:10 am

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