Thursday, January 19, 2012

Something's Happening Here...

A bit longer post than usual on some things rumbling through my mind.

“Do you still think you are about collecting books and journals? If so, you are so toast.” — Roy Tennant, Senior Program Officer, OCLC Research

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of comments like this. Roy is a respected voice in the library profession; the quote comes from a longer posting in his blog, Digital Libraries, and points to a number of changes currently rumbling their way through the library and information professional terrain. The landscape is shifting, somewhere on the order of an upper level Richter scale disturbance. It is an interesting, and for some, frightening time to be a librarian. According to Roy we are in a time of “the long night for libraries…beset from all sides, both programmatically and financially” trying to get into the requirements of a “new program” that puts content our users want “when and where and how they want it” and in “a place they want to be.” And all of this is happening in an environment of staff change, retirements, and retooling, “to inculcate in them [library staff] the motivation they require, the perspective they need, and the skills they should have."

At the same time, January 18th, Wikipedia went dark. If you ventured to the English version of the Wikipedia site on that day you were greeted by a stylistically blacked out page with the message “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge. For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia. Learn more.” Clicking on the “Learn more” link led one to a page that advocated Wikipedia’s positions on the two bills currently in the United States Congress, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” (PIPA) in the Senate. The action of a blackout is itself interesting to contemplate given that Wikipedia is a communal activity, created by “tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world.” According to one of the pages still accessible on the site
Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a "blackout" of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.
And so, with the blessing of the Wikipedia Foundation, the blackout took effect at 11pm Central Time on January 17th. At this point I find myself humming the words of a Buffalo Springfield tune: “There's something happening here / What it is ain't exactly clear…”

In another article entitled “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book” from The Chronicle of Higher Education Andrew M. Stauffer, an associate professor of English and director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship at the University of Virginia, writes
In most cases, pre-1800 books have been moved to special collections, and, under the 1998 copyright law, post-1923 materials remain in copyright and thus on the shelves for circulation. But academic libraries are now increasingly reconfiguring access to public-domain texts via online repositories such as Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library. As a result, library policy makers are anticipating the withdrawal of less-used print collections of books that are not rare in favor of digital surrogates. Large portions of 19th-century print materials will fall into that category….

Of course librarians have always "weeded" the stacks; it's part of the process of maintaining a healthy library system. But we are now facing a much larger and more sudden transformation. The movement of circulating collections to off-site storage has become standard practice at many academic research libraries. One gets the impression that librarians are deliberately encouraging trends already in place, getting users accustomed to digital formats, and effectively ensuring the reduced call for and access to the physical objects they hold.
In other words, the books are going to disappear from the regular library shelves and end up either in special collections or an off-site storage site. The first signs of such a move are already here. We’ve moved much of our own materials, mostly uncataloged but with some level of intellectual control or inventory, to off-site storage. Big Ten library directors are discussing and acting on other strategies such as a central repository for single copies of long periodical runs and other materials. In a recent newsletter for the Big Ten (otherwise known as the CIC—Committee on Institutional Cooperation—because it includes the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago) I read
Launched in July of 2011 with ten participating CIC libraries, the CIC Shared Print Storage initiative is progressing on schedule. The program’s first host site, Indiana University, has already secured over 70,000 journal volumes published by Elsevier, Wiley and Springer, and is testing a call and response process with a few CIC schools to fill in missing volumes and add titles to which IU does not subscribe. It is expected that the shared collection at IU will exceed 100,000 volumes by the end of 2012, and 250,000 by July of 2016.
Given such numbers I have to make an educated guess that a quarter million volumes representing duplicates of those titles held at Indiana will disappear from the other Big Ten library collections. If you’re here in Minneapolis and you want to see a volume represented in this collection a “call and response” will get it to you in the not too distant future (we hope).

I post all of the above here because these rumblings are causing me to ask, like the Buffalo Springfield song, “what’s going on here?” I’m happy to get a lot of our material online, available to researchers who will never have the chance to travel to Minneapolis and see the real McCoy. The difference, at least for the material under my care, is that we’re not going to get rid of the originals. They’ll stay here, safe and sound, in case someone wants to inspect them in person. We’re about the business of access and preservation.

Stauffer ends his article in The Chronicle (in another happy and ironic twist, available to me online) with these words:
The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered for the screen. There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies. Such evidence is necessary for us to understand what books were, how they functioned, how they were produced and consumed across time, and what they meant to past cultures and other readers.

Moreover, in the case of Google Books and HathiTrust, the emphasis has been on quantity over quality. If our academic research libraries replace large swaths of 19th-century artifacts with hastily executed scans, they will be trading away irreplaceable legacies and gutting disciplines that rely on the evidence of the past, especially history, bibliography, textual criticism, and the history of the book. They will also be putting the real world of the historical book ever farther out of reach of students, even as they are ostensibly providing access to it via surrogates. In such a future, 19th-century books as things of paper and ink will be truly forgotten.

Humanities scholars have a vested interest in lobbying for the retention of the printed record in the general collections of academic research libraries. Such collections are places for discovery and the foundation of entire disciplines. This archive of the history of the making and consumption of books cannot be replaced by single-copy scans; and new scholars of the historical record cannot be trained on simulations.

Such projected deaccessioning raises larger definitional questions that should engage us all: What are academic research libraries for? To what extent is the university invested with the stewardship of the past? How will the humanities change in a digital age? What was a book?
Such, then, are my ponderings, prodded on by the writings and musings of others in the profession. “What was a book?” Will it come to that in the not so distant future? And am I really toast, as Roy Tennant suggests, because it is my job as a special collections and rare books curator to think about collecting books and periodicals? I don’t think so. I think I’m here to stay (albeit in a slightly modified form). And, besides, I like toast!

Yet, to quote a few stanzas from a Bob Dylan tune, “the times, they are a changin.”

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'….

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Where, in the end, does all this (and more) lead me? I need to retool. I need to stay fresh. I need to be active and informed. But I cannot forget the past, nor leave it to the digital dustbin of easy access devoid of historical context. There has to be some middle way between the extremes of a wholesale destruction of important (if sometimes irrelevant—for the present) texts and an ethereal information cloud beyond our care, control, and institutional boundaries. “Libraries,” Tennant writes, “are a societal good, even in these days of what seems like ubiquitous access to digital information. Access to information is not ubiquitous, nor equal, nor (still) as easy as it can or should be.”

Libraries are a societal good. The question, perhaps, is how good? And it seems, in part, that we’ve ventured over this ground before; it has a familiar ring to it. Anyone conversant with Nicholson Baker’s argument in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper recognizes the seismic fault lines: libraries, enamored by the new technology (as it was back in the day) of microfilming, used this tool to manage collections, discarding original materials once they were filmed. This, along with other library programs, resulted in the loss of a part of our cultural heritage. Librarians and professional organizations responded to Baker’s arguments with some of their own, framed in terms of preservation and access strategies. (See here for a sample of reviews and responses.) Digital tools have supplanted microfilm in our professional (and cultural) practices (and arguments) over preservation, access, and intellectual property.

Something’s happening here....

No comments: