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Magazines > Searcher > January 2006
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Vol. 14 No. 1 — Jan 2006
The Home Guard
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastWhat would you do if you had a personal home library numbering in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of books? Hire a librarian, right?! Well, that’s just what every Web user has as the mammoth book digitization projects by Google, the Open Content Alliance (OCA), Microsoft, Yahoo!, et al., open up their public domain collections. Project Gutenberg has offered tens of thousands of such texts for years. The U.S. Government Printing Office continues to load documents born in public domain, promising eternal archives for them. The open access movement has put masses of scholarly content, similar to what one would expect to find in an academic library’s periodical collection, into the line of sight of Yahoo! Search, Google Scholar, Scirus, and other free Web search engines. And that’s only the material that resembles the traditional content formats that people expect librarians to handle — books and magazines. Then there’s all the content out there on the open Web from authoritative or semi-authoritative or hit-or-miss Web sites. How is a user to tell the wheat from the chaff, the plums from the prunes, the true from the false? Hire an information professional, right?!

Well, we know they need us, but do they? We need to establish turf for our profession, to make it clear to patrons or potential patrons everywhere exactly what we do and why they cannot do without our services except at great personal risk. But to prove our worth, we must go where the problems are now and where they will arise tomorrow. The problems are not walking into traditional libraries and standing in line at reference desks. The problems are not even in the public access computer rooms (though some of the solution centers may start there). The problems reside in every individual user’s collection of downloaded texts or, in the case of "only-while-connected-to-us" Google book displays, user browser landings. If we information professionals, we librarians, want to serve users, we have to bring our services to where and when the user needs us.

And problems abound. In-copyright material has the obvious problem of limited and contentious delivery options. Amazon begins its offer of per-page pricing for copyrighted content this year, but maybe users would do better buying a print copy with a small surcharge for electronic access. Hmm. The user might even donate the printed book to the library and then just rely on the electronic version for their personal use. (Hmm. I wonder if offering users donation certificates for their tax deduction records would encourage generosity.) Or maybe the books that users want — or even better ones — are already available through the library’s licensed book vendors such as NetLibrary or eLibrary. (We have to find some way to intercept their requests by publicizing these offers. Maybe we should add an online ordering link to our library Web site for books and have the link first check library holdings, both in-print via our online catalog and electronic for our licensed content.)

Come to think of it, maybe we should be making more direct relations with vendors. After all, look how wonderful it is to have an OCLC Open WorldCat link available for all the books coming into Google Print via arrangements with five major research libraries. What a convenience! What efficiency! All the work librarians have done through the decades to contribute bibliographic data and holdings information to a common union catalog now puts our services into the line of sight of all those millions of Google and Yahoo! searchers. Well, almost all of them. Turns out that if a book comes into Google Print from a publisher connection — and, despite the copyright lawsuit by the Association of American Publishers, Google Print claims direct relationships with a significant majority of publishers — then the link to OCLC Open WorldCat does not appear. To find library holdings information for Google Print for Publishers content, users of have to trek back to the main Google service and re-enter the request for the book information ("Find in a Library"). What a drag!

Naturally one would hardly expect the giant bookseller to carry library holdings information. Hmm. Wonder how we could get Amazon to do so? We’d need some leverage. How could we make it to their advantage to help us find users who have already "bought" the book with their tax dollars or their student fees or their corporate employment? Well, offering them — or their competitors — links to people who want to buy books direct might work. That’s one lever. And that tax deduction donation idea, that might be another. If we could work out arrangements to assure Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Alibris or whomever that buyers who donate book purchases to libraries after reading the books would have tax deductions available to free up, potentially, more book purchasing money — well! that could motivate a lot of accommodations. Of course, it would take a fairly detailed plan and complex support system to start. Hey! No problem! That’s why God made library consortia and OCLC, right?!

Well that takes care of moving the acquisition librarian’s services into the new desktop/laptop library venue. No, wait, what about selection? The new Open Content Alliance, with its commitment to hassle-free copyright policies, promises to produce a platform of accessible books that can be integrated with other collections and augmented by advanced features. Guiding lights at OCA, such as Daniel Greenstein of the California Digital Library, rhapsodize about a future filled with value-added versions of files, some worth money, some worth restricted access, some still available to all. The open access movement in scholarly material already challenges catalogers and indexers with multiple versions. Looks like the "versioning" problem is about to explode into the online book world. Only solutions to versioning problems can guarantee that users get the best available and/or the best they can afford.

And then there are all those other functions that librarians perform — reference, cataloging, periodical collections, instructional services, ready reserve, management, community centers, etc.

Let’s start with three basic principles and one overall goal. Principle One: Our solutions operate on Web time and in Web calendars, i.e., 24/7/365 (366 in leap year). Principle Two: Our solutions conserve our time, energy, and expertise by solving problems as Web-wide as possible. Principle Three: Moving a vendor to provide a solution constitutes a successful solution for us. Goal One: We need to get credit for our solutions, if only in order to get enough influence and resources to make more.

Time to roll up our virtual sleeves and get to work. Ready? Set? GO!!!


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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