These Foolish Things
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
It’s an old song, but a good one. The recurring line runs, “These foolish things remind me of you.” As we head further into the second decade of the third millennium, I’m thinking maybe we should shed the burden of past mistakes by extracting the wisdom that only experience — even negative ones, maybe especially negative ones — can provide.
When I was just a toddler in the information profession, the obvious sillinesses that all us young ’uns could spot involved structured subject tools. Puh-leez! The Library of Congress’ Subject Headings! My favorite was, “Holy See. See See, Holy,” but I have to admit, “Bill, Buffalo” was a close contender. Looking back, however, the whole idea of inverted headings seems odd. Clearly, the utility of inversion derived from the scarcity of access points, a condition that evaporated in the presence of ever more powerful and more extensive computer retrieval. Retrieval moved from an economy of scarcity to one of affluence. If you don’t know what someone’s middle initial stands for, enter the name with and without it. If you don’t know whether someone goes by a nickname (Bob, Rob, Bill, Will), put in multiple versions. And, in such a flexible environment, the idea of sticking to a “lastname, firstname” protocol seems kind of silly.
But stick to it we do, even today in library catalog services, and it does look kind of silly. Thank heaven that Amazon will still accept the format or we really would look out of it. Of course, Amazon will process author names whatever way you enter them. It really wants to make that sale.
So what’s the lesson to be learned here? Conventions of any sort need regular review applying the standards of user functionality and technological opportunity. The new discovery services becoming popular in academic settings take advantage of extensive computer power and networking to provide access in styles already familiar to users. (Can you say Google-y three times fast?) The grand goal here is to shove the right data into the user’s line of sight rather than train the user to ferret out the right answer. It’s our job as information professionals to get users what they want and need, not their job to meet our conditions.
Another lesson that the history of our profession — or at least my experience of it — comes to mind. Way back in the 1980s, after online access from expensive search services had already established a limited but alluring appeal, a technology arrived that let us info pros cap expenditures for prominent databases. Actually, capped pricing such as annual subscriptions had been tried by some search services but the market rejected it as too restrictive, and the search services worried about overuse. CD-ROM databases appealed to database publishers who wanted to maintain direct connections with their market and maybe not split their take with search service vendors. But they still didn’t want to cannibalize their print sales. So publishers charged about the same price — sometimes even more — for the CD-ROM as they did for the print. Many even set up contract conditions requiring the return of purchased CD-ROMs if the customer ever canceled their subscription.
And most of us stood still for this unreasonable imposition. As a profession, we failed to point out that nobody ever required return of printed product, so why should the convenience of slipping a CD-ROM into an envelope mean that we could be robbed of something for which we had paid the same price as the print? At the time, I thought that even if one had signed a contract with such an abominable clause and then had to cancel a subscription, one might try telling the seller that if he wanted his @%$#$ disks, he could @$@#$ come out and get them. I’d be @#%$#@$=d if I’d spend my time packing and shipping his product around.
In time, vendors shifted to web-based online services, ones that didn’t require them to mail out disks and that kept patron usage off the vendor’s system. Well-mannered vendors who shifted to web provision of database service would even guarantee subscribers permanent access to what their subscription money had already bought, even if the subscription had been cancelled.
So what lessons can we learn from this? Get mad fast. Share your anger with other victims. Avoid signing nondisclosure agreements when it comes to making deals with vendors. By the way, if you are scrambling to find comparative data for negotiating with a vendor, remember that some states have laws requiring disclosure of contract details with public institutions. For example, Google Books had the veil ripped from its contracts with the University of Michigan. Now the University of Michigan didn’t mind posting the contracts, but, even if the state-supported institution is a little more discreet, a diligent researcher should be able to pry it loose.
And diligence is the key factor here. Librarians are paid to protect their parent institution’s pocketbooks, to spend the least to get the most. When we don’t negotiate vigorously and cunningly, we fail in our duties. When we can find a free source that does a job as good as an expensive one, we should shift to it. I was talking to a pistol-packing colleague just the other day who had switched to Amazon entries for enriching his book cataloging. For patrons who might end up buying the book direct, he was preparing to add a plea for donating books to the library.
A parallel situation to the old CD-ROM experience seems to be arising in the growing world of ebooks. It’s time to bargain hard and shout and stomp. The other day, I bought a Kindle version of a recent publication and the price was about 50 cents less than the print version would have cost me. Puh-leez! The publisher and Amazon only have to store one version of the book, no printing or shipping costs. I can’t give the book to anyone after I’ve finished it, even though Amazon will now let people join a book club and get 14 days of access (humph!). But I’m paying the same price as if it had paid all the hard-copy costs and getting less use potential out of it. Shout and stomp!! Get a rope!!
Smart shoppers for ebooks would look for built-in usability and resist publisher fears of cannibalization. For example, the ebrary service provides central access to ebook collections for patrons from subscribing institutions. The access is not limited to one book at a time. Its pricing policies could allow libraries to promote ebooks in ways that they never could to limited, finite collections of print books. Promotions in a multiple access environment would not run into the “fear of success,” where your commitment to getting everything they might want to every user is stymied by the worry that you’ll run out of copies as well as the budget to buy more. With the access burden on the vendor supplying the ebook service, your promotional efforts could lock and load!
Well, that’s all the past follies I can think of for now and all the lessons those follies teach for the future. I’m sure there are lots more both you and I, dear reader, have committed and from which we could derive useful wisdom. The only fatal folly, after all, is failing to learn the lessons our experience, or the experience of others, can teach us.