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Magazines > Searcher > February 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 2 — February 2004
The Great Divide
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

As seems to happen so often lately, the other day I found myself musing on the future of libraries, librarianship, and librarians. As my musings continued, words from the Bible came to my mind — never really a good sign — lines from Matthew (25:32-33): "And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left." That word "but" tips the reader off that the "lefthand" side may not turn out to be the best seat in the house. A little later in the chapter, we find exactly how un-usherably miserable the left-handed spot can become (Mat 25: 41): "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."

Meanwhile, those right-handed sheep are living large!

A combination of forces is putting pressure on the information profession. Oddly enough, one of the pressure points is ourselves. The "Open Access" movement for freeing scholarship from commercial control has now spread across continents. It has moved from the offices of angry librarians to the laboratories of indignant scientists. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) [] urges its members to support Open Access and gives extensive details on just how to do that. The Public Library of Science [] presses scientists around the world to publish in its "OA" journals, the first of which it has loaded onto Biomed Central []. Legislators have joined the fray. In the U.S. Congress Rep. Martin Sabo has proposed legislation, the H.R. 2613 Public Access to Science bill, which would remove copyright protection for any work based substantially on federal scientific research funding. Parliament seems poised to join Congress. In the U.K., Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, has scheduled an inquiry into a whole range of concerns from costs of scholarly publications to electronic access. From sea to shining sea, librarians raging against publisher prices and contractual rigidities constitute a major lobbying force in these developments.

But let's look down the road a bit, shall we? It's not only publishers who rely on a universe based on the write-once-print/publish-many model. So do librarians. The economic justification underlying the existence and continuance of most libraries lies in the expense of information. Libraries serve as buying and sharing consortia for communities of users, generating efficiencies by eliminating the necessity for multiple readers to become multiple purchasers. Of course, we know that, without libraries, a lot less reading would be done, and a lot fewer people would be readers. Nonetheless, we buy expensive material and increase the efficiency of its usage by creating a sharing/access platform. That's what we do. That's what people pay us to do.

But what if the cost of distributing the material drops precipitously? What if it becomes, to all extents and purposes, free? What if, at the same time, the access to the material rises exponentially, becoming available 24/7/365 worldwide? And, just to top off the three items on every quality checklist (Better, Faster, Cheaper), the material also arrives with most of the same quality checks as the earlier, printed formats plus new quality aspects never available before, including more and multimedia content, attached threads of discussion by readers of the material, opportunities for authors to do ongoing corrections, etc.?

So in this Best, Fastest, Cheapest of all possible worlds, who needs a purchasing consortium? Who needs access sharing consortia? And who needs the information professionals trained to run them?

Of course, the archiving issues and some access issues remain. Quality material would need extra protection, e.g., multi-site archiving, authoritative "notarized" copies, etc. One would need special access tools to identify quality material and maintain the links between items born in the Brave New Digital World and all material generated in the formats of previous millennia. But such activities would only require the action of a few large operations set up to handle it.

Who would run those outfits? Well, publishers hope that it will be them. Considering the poor reputation publishers now have among the current purchasers (librarians) and the sharp decline their reputations have undergone with authors/readers, it seems borderline that today's scholarly publishers can make the transition. Factor in profit expectations and the likelihood seems almost impossible. Database aggregators like ProQuest or Gale might have stepped up to the task, but seem to find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. To move to support the new publishing routes, e.g., by direct negotiation with authors, these aggregators would have to offend the publishers supplying them with the mass of their current content. That the aggregators cannot — or will not — do. And, once again, the aggregators have high revenue expectations to meet as well as feeling very comfortable with the limited costs involved in selling to libraries, rather than dealing with large end-user populations.

What about the Net Newbies? Well, there's certainly movement on that front. Strong rumors circulate that Google is undertaking major archiving as well as access work with scholarly collections. Biomed Central already handles the PLoS journals. But dot-coms might not seem to have stability or history enough to satisfy the comfort factor needed.

Who's left? Libraries. But not all libraries. BIG libraries. BIG libraries led by BIG librarians. Librarians with vision and imagination and resources and connections. In other words, the nation's large research libraries, the same kind of libraries that join the Association of Research Libraries. These large libraries most often serve prestigious universities that have plans underway to use the prestige of their names to expand into distance-learning programs. Most distance-learning programs have to rely on strong digital library service. A strong enough digital library service could probably pay its own way by serving a network of distance-learning operations, even those outside its own institution.

So what does this all mean? Fewer, Better Libraries run by Fewer, Better Librarians. And what about the rest of the profession? Where do they go for employment? Do they retreat to battle lines against the oncoming forces? Do they cling to children's reading rooms? Do they end up penning anti-digital diatribes for publication in print issues of the Flat World Monthly?

Well, in this moment of crisis, let us turn once again to the New Testament for guidance. What exactly did those Goats do to end up on the list of Eternal Losers? "For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat. I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink. I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not," accused the Lord. When the Goats protested that they never saw the Lord in any such difficulties, he answers, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." On the other hand, the only time someone hungry, thirsty, and partially clothed couldn't hit up the Sheep for a hand-out was when the Sheep were out visiting the sick or imprisoned. The Sheep were good guys whenever they got the chance.

The criterion for the Great Divide remains what it has always been — the service ethic. Whatever serves the best interest of the client constitutes the duty of the information professional. The trick for the future of the profession lies in finding new tasks that need doing, new ways to do them, and ways to convince clients everywhere that they need us.

Don't worry. We'll find them.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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