November 29, 2011

Why I Can’t Buy Reference Books Anymore

Electronic reference books are a great step forward.  For institutions with far-flung campuses or online courses, they make great sense.  Even traditional undergraduates living on campus benefit when reference material is free of the traditional “library use only” and one-user-at-a-time limitations.  Reference books were some of the first books to go online, and for good reason.  Even though they cost more than print, they offer much more.  It is especially painful, then, to see our reference collections dispersing into the ether, invisible to librarians and patrons.

Lost in the shuffle
And this is exactly what is happening.  Partly through a decade of purchasing them individually, and partly through package deals, reference collections are bigger than ever before, and growing fast.  We have far too many to list on libguides or similar title-by-title displays.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has already lost sight of most of their reference collection, or works at a very cash-strapped library.  We have added 120,000 e-books to our catalog in the past year and a half, most of them costing less than a dollar per volume.  If your library doesn’t have as many, it will soon.  Naturally, the institutions that are most in need of e-reference are also the ones most likely to be flooding their catalogs or discovery systems with e-monographs.  A single catalog record for a wonderful, expensive, 4-volume reference set can’t compete successfully for attention in that environment.
Limited to memory
And sadly, we librarians will be less able to point the way.  In the days of print reference, the librarian at least walked past the some of those books every day, and most reference librarians were in the collection enough that they were pretty familiar with them.  If not, they could always lead a patron to a certain call number range and see what they had.  The collection was at hand, and classification made it easily findable.  But our print reference collection is becoming a relic of old editions, superseded by online ones—not to mention the many online titles we never owned in print.  We are hiring two new reference librarians this summer.  How will they know what we have?
An embarrassment of riches
We warn students about Wikipedia in instruction sessions, and may even devote some time to telling them about subject encyclopedias, and what they have to offer: unlike Wikipedia, you can cite them without rebuke from your professor; they provide up-to-date, easily digestible overviews written by experts in the field.  But how is a student writing a paper on, say, rare earth metals, supposed to come across the 5-volume Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, published just this year?  It won’t show up in a catalog search for “rare earth metals.”  Perhaps she remembers a librarian’s presentation showing Credo Reference, or Oxford Reference Online, or Oxford Handbooks Online (that’s a separate platform), or Gale Virtual Reference Library, or Salem Press, or Sage Reference Online, or, or,-- but this set may have been purchased through EBL or MyiLibrary.  Our best content to compete with Wikipedia is becoming the hardest to find.
Help is on the way…maybe
I know of only one product that tries to fill this need, but it’s so clunky that it should perhaps be limited to librarians using it in a back room, like the old days of carefully guarded DIALOG access.  Reference Universe, from Paratext, lets you search the indexes and contents of thousands of reference books, print and online.  By uploading your ISBNs from the last twenty years, you apprise it of your school’s reference collection; we had almost 4,000 matches (including all sorts of handbooks and companions that we put in our circulating collection), and we’re a small university.  It’s wonderful to type in “rare earth metals” and see every reference book listed that has an article on it.  That’s twenty-some e-book platforms, and our print collection, all in one interface and searchable at the index entry level.  But usability remains a major hurdle.  It takes multiple clicks and re-executing the search to get to the article you want.  To offer this would result in more complaints than accolades, because every student would feel the frustrations, and few would appreciate the great advance that it actually is.  Requiring students to navigate through all that is no way to compete with Wikipedia.
So I remain on the horns of a dilemma.  I can’t buy print reference, because it just doesn’t make sense anymore.  Returning to those restrictions is not the answer.  Yet I have an increasingly difficult time bringing myself to pay top dollar for reference books that possibly nobody will ever see, and that not even my colleagues will remember.
What am I to do?

August 25, 2011

Dude, Where’s My Consortium?

To my fellow Orbis-Cascade Alliance members:

I thought a shared ILS was a good thing to investigate. It may be a great for some institutions. But I would hate to see it imposed on the unwilling. The opt-in model has served the Alliance--and before that, Orbis—very, very well. A diversity of practices, purchases, and experiments has been a healthy environment for all. In fact, one of the attractions of switching to OCLC for consortial borrowing was that non-Innovative libraries could participate in Summit borrowing. It has been rare that any library felt forced into doing something against its interests by the consortium. But the consortial environment has been changing dramatically, first with the CDMC mandate to adopt a single vendor (YBP), and now with the intention to put everybody into the same ILS. We have enjoyed cooperation without centralization for a long time, and I would be sorry to see centralization replace cooperation.

Let those who want to embark on a shared system do so, and if it’s good, those initially unconvinced will join. If some never find that it is advantageous for them, let them remain outside. The Shared ILS Team Final Report says any system will need to work with Navigator. That should enable some libraries to keep working with Navigator, and maybe paying for it, if that’s warranted.

The choice of an ILS is particularly momentous, because it affects every patron and every staff member, and it affects so much of what we do. My two main concerns about joining a shared ILS are a loss of autonomy, and a loss of agility.

Local autonomy is not just a luxury we enjoy, but a critical part of our success. Local decision-making enables us to be relevant to our users. George Fox has multiple sites and a high percentage of distance students, so our need for e-books was urgent. Some libraries are facing severe budget pressure and need to reduce costs. Others are pulled in other directions, for valid reasons. Inevitably, any individual member will find its own wishes overruled more and more as the number of decisions made centrally increases. George Fox faithfully sends in its feedback and preferences when asked, but one little push doesn’t much affect the direction of the whole ship. Nor should it, even if we push with all our strength. But it argues for keeping decisions local as much as possible.

Unintended consequences also proliferate when decisions are centralized. Here’s an example: one of our main sources for e-books is MyiLibrary. The Alliance’s move to a single vendor meant the consortium would not consider a shared e-book proposal from MyiLibrary, because they are owned by a competitor of YBP. That is different from deciding we as a consortium weren’t interested in MyiLibrary’s platform and content. Another example: when the e-book pilot was about to launch with EBL, it was discovered that every library had to have EZProxy. Those of us using Web Access Management (WAM) could not use EBL, and so the Alliance had to set up instantiations of EZProxy for some of us. That’s different from deciding EZProxy is better than WAM (and WAM has saved us a lot of time and money over the years). One decision drives another. We will find that operating with 36 libraries in lockstep is clumsy, and breaks things we didn’t anticipate breaking. What is an isolated decision at one library may have significant implications at another. We will be making decisions we don’t know we’re making.

I also fear a loss of agility. The environment is changing fast for libraries. It strikes me as a particularly bad time to climb into the straightjacket of group decision-making. Consortial decisions are slow, especially if they’re important. They have to be—haste would be worse. If they affect every single library, they tend to be slower than the opt-in package deals we’ve put together so often in the past. Witness the shared e-book pilot: after three years of task forces, it is just now beginning. Even that was too rushed, because the proxy problem was discovered only at implementation. But the real loss was born by the libraries that waited for a consortial approach to e-books. We at George Fox broke harness early, and have added over 100,000 e-books while the Alliance was deciding what to do. Several thousand have been used by our patrons already. There would certainly have been a cost to us for waiting, though we may never have realized it. Plodding uniformity is not a way for us to remain competitive.

The Alliance will seem unresponsive compared to what we are used to. Working with a vendor is one thing. Working with a vendor through the Alliance is another. This is not a complaint about anybody, but an unavoidable consequence of the system. My experience with the Summit transition has taught me that it often takes time to get someone to even understand the problem. Local configurations and local arrays of software make this unavoidable. Whether the problem will be deemed severe enough to merit resources, or whether all libraries affected can agree on a solution, is another question. Communicating directly with a vendor, or with someone in-house who can make the change, is much more nimble.

The ILS market is also changing rapidly. There are many paths to simplified workflows, reduced cost, or cloud services. There is variety and ferment in this area like never before. In this environment, I don’t want to become slow, or give up our freedom. I suspect different libraries want different things from a move to a shared ILS; therefore some are bound to be disappointed. EOS could save us the most money (somewhere around 70%), while still offering a sufficiently robust system. SerialsSolutions’ new ILS has the most capacity to simplify our operation and save staff time. Innovative’s Sierra replaces all their old code with modern and open architecture, yet remains safe and dependable. OCLC’s Web Scale Management offers the largest database of sharable print material, for those who still find that compelling. I don’t envy those making a one-size-fits-all decision on this.

Becoming less flexible, less local, and less nimble might be the right thing to do, if the advantages are great enough. I don’t see them. The vision strikes me as outdated; something it made sense to support five years ago, but not now. Summit borrowing was a great boon for a long time. But it’s importance will decline. With few exceptions, e-books are not sharable. We are not going to get ILL rights like we did for e-journals. The pendulum is swinging back toward local collections. I expect we will be passing around print books for a long time, but it will be a less and less important part of our business.

So even though nobody means to do this, I fear we are moving toward sclerotic bureaucracy and distant control. I prefer healthy libraries that work together whenever it makes sense. I prefer a consortium that invites rather than commands (no matter which side of the decision I’m on). Let’s recapture that vision.