by Barbara Quint
The other day I wrote one of my semiflammable Viewpoint columns for our sister publication, Information Today newspaper. That’s the venue in which I focus on helping out information industry vendors—whether they want it or not—with succulent notions of what would appeal to Searcher’s readers. As we all know, the secret of success in designing or marketing any service is to build on what the customer wants and/or needs—in librarian terms, that’s a reference interview.
The title of the May Viewpoint is “E-Find in an Elibrary” and the column calls on the information industry, specifically OCLC, to spend at least as much effort on tracking electronic resources as print. The arrival of ebooks has left pbooks the last man standing when it comes to library collections. Now books are going the way of full-text journals and reference works. A library’s primary collection is no longer primarily print. Print may be more visible, but it is not the lion’s share, not even the lion cub’s share, of a library’s collection.
In fact, when you think about it, all libraries have been primarily digital for decades. I can remember the first time the nickel dropped for me as to the “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” change in traditional reference collections with the arrival of online. The Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) sent us a notice back in the day that it just knew we couldn’t live without its Permuterm Subject Index. So for our own good, it would no longer deliver just the other portions of the Science Citation Index (SCI). We had to take it all and at the full price. Now SCI already ate half a shelf of sparse reference shelving each year with the segments we had. Adding the Permuterm Subject Index would have eaten another whole shelf more. And believe me, no one—but no one—would ever use it. The monster linked every word in every article title for every article in thousands of scholarly journals. The type was so small in the multiple column pages of a 2'-high print pub that you’d have gone stone blind doing one serious search. So what did we do? We canceled the entire subscription and shoved the money saved into a slush fund for searching SciSearch, the digital version on Dialog.
Sound familiar? It should. My library made that decision in the 1970s. By the 1980s, we were looking at full-text online archives of periodicals and newspapers. By the 1990s and 2000s, everyone was looking at huge archives of traditional sources on the web. And then there was Project Gutenberg and full-length government reports, etc., etc. Now we face the prospect of all books migrating to the ebook format.
But why do I say that all libraries have been digitally dominated for decades? Because the same transformation that altered the delivery format for all the items our libraries previously ordered in print also gave libraries access to tons of sources they hadn’t and maybe never would have bought. Licensing access to a database aggregator such as Dialog guaranteed the availability of hundreds of abstracting and indexing tools. Licensing LexisNexis opened up thousands of periodicals. And today, the “library” can consist of any room in any computerized individual’s home or office. Just the public domain, pre-1923 side of Google Books is massively larger than all but the biggest research library collections in the world. And you never have to buy a kick stool to reach those books.
So since our collections are primarily digital, we should probably concentrate on identifying, evaluating, and promoting them to our clients. The bare identification offered by traditional cataloging hardly seems adequate. For example, it doesn’t identify the $%@#$% licensing restrictions under which individual items struggle to reach users. Access to pbooks primarily operated under one restriction, namely whether someone else was already using it. And for walk-in traffic, such restricted items were pretty easy to spot—well, actually not to spot. If the book was out, it wasn’t available because it wasn’t available. Even visible reference books were “out,” because the library staff had them in hand. But accessibility and the lack of it has become a lot more fluid with ebooks. Are ebooks restricted to on-site usage only? To website access but only to authorized users? To today’s users but not tomorrow’s if tomorrow’s user happens to reach the quota number for that publication? Does the ebook operate under “circulation” time restrictions?
And how about features? How searchable is the ebook? Can it be searched full text by itself? As part of a larger search of multiple ebooks? Does one user count as one usage when that user stops reading one day and resumes the next? Or could one or two users suck up all the allowed usages by—have you ever heard the like?!?—not wanting to read the entire book at one sitting? Oh yes, if the user comes back to the book, will the book remember where the user left off? Can users make notes and export those notes when they have stopped reading the book?
These are all the kinds of things that library patrons may want to know when they are checking out a title. And one more thing: Maybe library patrons will end up wanting to buy a book for their own collections. If such is the case, make sure they have the option to buy it through the library connection. And make sure the library gets something from that sale—revenue, discounts on future purchases, credit for extra copies, etc. And if the supplier has a program by which libraries can get ebooks, make sure that your patrons learn if they can donate their own purchased ebooks to the library.
It’s a new world order, guys. You’ve got to go along to get along.