Searcher
Vol. 10 No. 1 January 2002
SEARCHER'S VOICE  
Now or Never!
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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The trouble with lemons-to-lemonade advice is that it assumes everyone getting the advice has a ladder and the will to climb a tree. Actually, the ladder is optional. If you can find a long stick, you can swing at the lemon-laden branches until they drop their golden load. If you have athletic ability, you can clamber up the tree and knock the lemons off. If you're really athletic, you can leap for a low-hanging branch and swing your way from limb to limb. But even if you're earthbound in a wheelchair, you can buy an ax from a hardware e-commerce site and chop the tree down till the lemons come within reach.

The will makes the way. All you really need is the vision of the possibilities, the desire to attain them, and the will to make them happen. Thirst is all when it comes to lemonade.

All of which brings us to this month's editorial. If one reads the daily paper or listens to the nightly news, it would seem we are all hip-deep in lemons. The on-again-off-again recession, the 9-11 crisis, the war against terrorism, the collapse of the "New Economy," the "dot-gone" era enough negative developments to "depress a goat," as they used to say. But when it comes to the economic and e-commerce downturn, this observer can see lemonade in our future.

What have all of us information professionals and librarians been complaining about for the last 5 or 6 years? Web developments, right? Not the fact of the Web, not the revolutionizing potential, not all the yummy good information it had brought within online reach. But we have complained and whined and sometimes howled about the way the changes have occurred. They were too fast, too sloppy, too commercially motivated, too expensive, too myopic in strategy, too hyped in marketing, too casual by half in implementation. In summary, they were too unprofessional and the profession they ignored was ours. They didn't heed our warnings. They didn't meet our standards. They didn't serve all our clients. They didn't provide a stable base for the services promised. While we loved the Net and its Web, we still came to each search session with an "Oh, no!" waiting on our lips for another Web transgression. Not that it would do any good, because in the roar of the dot-com economy, nobody listened to us.

Well, the roar has become a whisper. Many, if not most, of the dot-coms are dot-gones. Sobriety has returned to the world of information, along with a sense of reality and an appreciation of prudence. As the glow of the dot-coms has dimmed, the steady beam of the dot-govs, dot-orgs, and dot-edus can again be seen in all its glory. The staff we trained on HTML coding for a library Web site who left us after a mere 6 months, lured by some dot-com waving stock options, has come limping back, meek and humble. Not only that, they have brought along a pile of resumés from Web-compatible ex-colleagues. Managers who would only look at revolutionary concepts with dot-com potential written all over them are now asking for solid, reliable, fundable, feasible innovations. Time to reach into the bottom of our desk drawers and pull out the proposals they turned down before. 

In other words, our prayer has been answered. We asked the world to slow down so we could climb aboard and it has. 

So now what? Well, now we climb aboard and start steering. Because if we don't, then everyone will know that our complaints were just so much hot air, that we failed to be heard because we really had nothing to say, that we have no viable alternatives to offer. If we as a profession want to take our place in the new Web universe, now is the time to do so. Now or Never.

The Web slowdown is not the only prayer of librarians that the gods have answered. How long, oh Lord, how long have academic librarians cried to heaven for vengeance to smite commercial scholarly publishers and their extortionate pricing? How long have they bemoaned the resistance of scholars to information technologies that could rescue library budgets and, at the same time, create an environment offering better, faster, cheaper alternatives to the current practices of scholarly communication? Well, the Day of Redemption has risen at last. Read this month's cover story by Myer Kutz, "The Scholars' Rebellion Against Scholarly Publishing Practices: Varmus, Vitek, and Venting." Finally, scholars themselves AKA authors and readers have begun rebelling against the high prices and resistance to open digital access of commercial publishers. New alternative electronic publishing opportunities have arisen. Major funding agencies have joined the fight. The balance is shifting in our favor finally.

But a shiny, new future does not come without a price. And the price is Will commitment, dedication, and most of all Action, Action NOW. More scholars must join the fray. The scholars already in the field need support and succor. Alternative publications need widespread marketing and distribution. More effort and resources are needed for archiving as well as the building of access tools. Advanced post-Boolean software could help increase access to the new data. Managements at academic institutions, from the president to departmental deans to the head of university presses, need full education in the issues and prodding to take supportive actions. Librarians on-site are in a unique position to fill these needs.

This is the best chance librarians will ever have to break the chains that have bound them and their budgets. No one knows better than the wise information professional how inevitable the final victory of the Web is. It's not a question of "if," but of "when." The only other question is, "Who?" Who will step up and help to create a better process of scholarly communication? Who will do the hard work and take the risks? Who will put their money where their mouth is? 

If academic librarians do not step up to pay that price and right now, they could find themselves blocked out of that future and perhaps of any future at all. Think about the future 5 years or even 10 years ahead. Scholarship will have largely moved to the Web. Publishers will see their profits dwindling and their futures threatened. What will they do as their world goes digital? 

They will start looking for new revenue models to replace the ones that no longer work. If history is any judge, they will start looking to divert someone else's money to their advantage. 

Library budgets would seem a logical option. The next thing you know, we will see a consortium of publishers with publications all linked through PILA's Xref approaching a college president with an offer to provide a complete digital archive, an archive that constitutes a library in and of itself ("Sign here and all your troubles are over."). They may even have accrediting agencies pre-clear their master digital collection as satisfying library-focused accreditation standards ("Subscribe with us and that's one less accreditation committee visit to worry about."). Where is the president to get the money for this wonderful, one-stop, virtual library in a box? By closing down existing physical libraries, of course, and diverting their budgets to the publisher-sponsored products. For a few dollars more, the publisher might even provide a virtual reference desk service staffed by "headset librarians" to cover any interactive public service needs still remaining.

What's that I hear you saying? "Oh, they wouldn't do that. We've worked together for years." Well, the emerging standard practice for commercial publishers' Web sites involves giving away bibliographic citations and, usually, abstracts to attract customers ("Search for free. Pay for use."). How do you think the secondary publishers with their abstracting and indexing services feel about that? For years, they have provided the tools that guide researchers to the output of publishers. But when push came to shove...publishers started to shove them over.

And speaking of "shoving over," there's another problem posed for academic librarians who just sit and watch the war from the sidelines. The spoils of war go to the visible victors. Despite the fact that academic librarians have been struggling with commercial scholarly publishers for years, if the laurels for victory are awarded to the rebelling scholars, they will get the loot. Already, a leader among the rebel forces has been quoted as looking forward to all the research staff he can hire with the money recovered from overpriced subscription payments. That's research staff not library staff, research budgets not library budgets.

Act now. Read the Kutz article, particularly the sidebar on what librarians can do. Follow its advice. Follow its leads. And ACT Now or Never.
 

...bq 
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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