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.