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Magazines > Searcher > June 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 6 — June 2005
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Tithing
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

There's an old saying in the world of nonprofit organizations, "Do good and do well." The most desirable outcome in any situation is to be able to do the right thing AND make a profit — or at least a living — while doing it. To make this happy dream come true, however, one must first and foremost keep one's eyes peeled for the opportunity to achieve the optimum, the best, the most desirable consequence. Depressing reality has a fine track record when it comes to catching up with people. You don't need to speed that encounter. Instead, if and when it comes, let it find you gazing through your binoculars, searching hopefully for good luck, good timing, and strategic opportunities. And if you need a stick as well as a carrot to motivate a concentrated search for good fortune, think of how grim life would become if someone else finds, too late, what you missed and blaringly blames the failure on you.

Let's look for that strategic opportunity. Today, solutions to problems seem automatically to emerge at global levels. Economies of scale join with the fluidity of digital technologies to create worldwide healings. What else can explain the success of free Web searching tools, the explosion of free Internet-based sources? Now imagine how much more could be achieved if we added even a little steady money to the process.

All libraries begin as purchasing consortia. Acquisition of expensive material — whether the expense stems from the price of its acquisition or the cost of creating it — demands careful budgeting. The acquisition or creation of access tools to maximize the use of the expensive material further adds to the expense. Librarians see themselves as custodians of not just resources for their clients, but of budgets that generate those resources.

But what if we look at the problem from another angle? Try to imagine the most desirable outcome. In the best and kindest of all imaginable worlds, what would constitute the most desirable outcome for information professionals? Well, clearly, universal access to universally accessible, high-quality data. Every user a CEO! Every user a university dean! Every user the mayor! Every user getting the best information every time, every question.

Well, of course, that's impossible within today's budget constraints. Good heavens! You'd have to offer quality online service round the clock — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (366 in leap year). No one could afford ... hmm. Well, you'd have to have authoritative, high-quality material. The ordinary college or public library collection wouldn't do. You'd need the combined research libraries of the largest ... hmm. Well, the price for universal access would have to be free. Someone would have to find some way of delivering the material without charging the user a cent and we know that's imp ... hmm.

See! Miracles can happen, here in the Third Millennium.

Now let's try to see if we can accelerate the miraculous. Wouldn't you love to see scholarly information made available and accessible to all? No library budget today can absorb the cost of providing every possible journal and book — offline or on — that institutional clienteles might need. And while costs continue to grow, budgets continue to decline. So things are not good and getting worse when you look at library budgets from the view of a purchasing consortium.

But look around. Clients think things are getting better as Google and Yahoo! and, soon, MSN continue to deluge them with "good enough" data. And more quality information is heading their way as the open access movement continues to march across the scholarly landscape. But trouble lies ahead, trouble that information professionals can see clearly, even though some open access advocates appear blind to it. Sooner or later, as open access encroaches upon scholarly publishing, commercial publishers will start to contract their operations, concentrating on the more profitable, better-selling titles and shutting down smaller, niche-oriented titles. In itself, this is not troubling, because the content will continue to appear in open access repositories, though someone needs to make doubly sure of this. The problem arises from the loss of editors and a structured peer-review process and the loss of continuity in access tools linking the past with the present. Besides such medium- and long-range problems, we also have the present burden of making sure that the repositories and archives for open access content are as robust as we can make them.

In other words, dear reader, open access will need money and I mean smart money — money spent for the right tools and the right people with the right goals in mind. Sounds like library budget money to me! But where is the profit to our institutions? How can a purchasing consortium justify its existence when it produces a free good for people who do not belong to the consortium's constituency? How can you succeed as a bartender with a policy of "Drinks on the House"?

Depends on what you define as success. Remember, your clientele drink in that bar, too. In fact, if we're talking the corner Google, it's their regular watering hole. If it costs no more to buy booze for all than to buy booze for the A-list, what the heck? In this case, however, a clear-eyed look-around will show that the only way to get your clientele all they want and need is to open access to all. Open access offers the only serious challenge to the stranglehold scholarly society publishers have had on library budgets for decades.

How can we accelerate change in the right direction? Tithe. Set aside a portion of each year's library budget to support the future you want instead of the present you're stuck with. As Rick Johnson, executive director of SPARC, urged, " Invest in change, not in an unhappy status quo." How? There must be lots of ways. Johnson suggested that libraries might want to adopt a scholarly society or local resource. Offer to digitize their data on the condition that it goes open access. Work with JSTOR. Peter Suber of Open Access newsletter fame suggested that JSTOR might negotiate with publishers to at least open older material in archives to open access, promoting the idea as representing no loss of revenue while promoting the brand name of journals for current subscriptions. Or maybe you and some colleagues could get together and buy out an abstracting mega­base fallen on hard times. Whatever you do, make sure Google Scholar and Yahoo! Search and MSN and whomever else you can think of see that the material has been freed by librarians using their budgets to break down barriers and their professional judgment to target quality sources.

In case you think this idea would never fly, a major test of the concept begins July 1. This is the date OCLC has set for libraries participating in its Open WorldCat experiment with Google, Yahoo!, and other partners. After July 1, all OCLC member libraries who want to stay in the Open WorldCat project will have to subscribe to FirstSearch. In other words, to keep Google-using patrons able to find books in a library's own collection, libraries will have to pay for a system that lets nonpatrons find books in their system, too. And why not? After all, does your library have a policy of calling security just because a walk-in nonconstituent uses your card catalog? Of course, only interlibrary loan could actually let aliens check out a book, but then how long before someone starts to set up some instant, digitized ILL system? Oooooo. Instant ... digitized ... ILL. Wouldn't that be sweet — thinking as a recipient?

Books available to one and all. Journal articles available to one and all. Quality content everywhere available to one and all. And to make it happen, we should all extract one from our all and plunk it down in our budgeting for a better future. Let's stop considering outside users as expensive budget busters and start considering them as our new invisible clienteles.

...bq


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