Battle lessons

August 21st, 2007

The right path is not always instinctive, obvious, or well-marked… and it often requires more work, more explanations, more advocacy.

Ignore the dazzle and read the fine print.

Base your actions on your values.

And last, my mantra and my warning: possession is not nine-tenths of the law… most of the time, it is the law.

LOCKSS on our bagels

August 21st, 2007

Random question #2: Why do we need to pay an organization an annual fee to give us temporary access on a remote server to the content we already bought?

I’m speaking of Portico, one of two major competing preservation methods for e-journals; the other is LOCKSS, for Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. I know — because I do, just trust me — that I’m now going to get email and phone calls from Portico people explaining to me why Portico works that way. That’s fine. Portico is a model, and it has its arguments; you can read pros and cons in this Library Journal article, written, in the ultimate form of nepotism, by me.

Portico isn’t heinous the way that Google Book Project is heinous. In fact, Portico isn’t heinous at all. There are even good arguments for hedging your bets and doing both Portico and LOCKSS. But it still bugs me that I’ve watched librarians wave Portico agreements as if they were sprinkling powder on a baby’s bottom. We need to put more thought into our decisions and not assume that the decision that involves writing a check and moving on to whatever we think is really important equals practicing strong professionalism.

But back to LOCKSS. This preservation method is a librarian-grown innovation designed to protect the interests of librarianship. Like OCA, LOCKSS is community-built and operated. Its sliding scale is very affordable, and it’s extremely easy to set up a LOCKSS box.

CLOCKSS — or Controlled LOCKSS — is a version of LOCKSS for copyright-controlled content.

The technical design of LOCKSS assumes strength in numbers and the need to repair content from time to time. A LOCKSS network has at least six nodes. The LOCKSS network audits its content and fixes it when it breaks.

The philosophical design of LOCKSS as an organization places content in the stewardship of the common librarian trust — or firmly back in the jurisdiction of collection management.

You do not have to drink the Kool-Aid

August 21st, 2007

The choice is not paper or Google, Ludditism or selling your stuff to The Man. You have other options for entering the online age.

One such option is the Open Content Alliance. This is a project of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organized as a library under California law.

OCA emphasizes free membership, sweat equity participation, and librarian-driven decisions. OCA has eight regional scanning centers, all located inside libraries. OCA is scanning 12,000 books per month at ten cents per page.

A few months back I privately despaired that OCA was being overshadowed by the glitz and glam of the Google Book Project. But Brewster Kahle is on the move, and whenever he speaks, he’s taken seriously. I recently sat through a meeting of the Association of Southern Research Libraries (ASERL) whose leaders seriously discussed a digitization project, and I know that was just one of many. Among other issues, now that the irrational exuberance has begun to deflate, and people are asking just how one company can digitize the world in a decade, valid questions about the quality of Google’s scanning are finally being heard.

Library Journal has a great interview where Brewster says some of the things many of us have been thinking (with some of the best minds prudently selecting discretion as the better path to valor). So among OCA’s many benefits, count the joy of speaking truth to power.

If you’re interested in OCA, you can contact tehm at or visit the OCA in San Francisco’s lovely Presidio.

A few googly questions

August 20th, 2007

Random question #1: Why are we helping Google build a proprietary book depository created from public goods?

Google is a company with over 10,000 employees. Its corporate motto is “Don’t be evil” — which is dangerously far from “Do be good.” Visiting the Googleplex requires signing an nondisclosure agreement.

None of this is wrong or bad — for a company. But Siva Vaidhyanathan has asked the astute questions we have been hesitant to pose to the ARL directors leaping into bed with Google one after the other:

Is it really proper for one company — no matter how egalitarian it claims to be — to organize all the world’s information? Who asked it to? Isn’t that the job of universities, academics, and librarians? Have those institutions and people failed in their mission? Must they outsource everything?

Not only is it proper, but is it strategic? Google will not disclose its scanning methods, the nature of its contracts, or how many books it has scanned so far. As Library Journal noted, the Google contracts with University of California and University of Michigan state that the university “can redistribute no more than ten percent of scanned material to other libraries or schools, even for educational purposes.” So when some professor requests the book that pushes the contract into 10.00001 percent, we turn him down — because we had a commercial company digitize our books?

Take another look at the Google book contracts and note what isn’t there: public access, open formats, putting a library search box on the book search page, or quality standards — which as Mr. Simpson might put it, range from questionable to craptacular.

And we agreed to this. We’re flocking to it. We’re acting glad and grateful. Did I miss something?

The long slow boiling of the frog

August 20th, 2007

Against this modestly halcyon picture of small-press publishing comes the contrast of how librarianship has given away its collections — its memory work — to commercial third parties.

Andrew Abbott wrote, “Every profession has a heartland of work over which it has complete, legally established control.” Our management of collections is one area over which for a long time librarianship had almost unchallenged jurisdiction, particularly in the area of large public and scholarly collections. Yet we have yielded so much in this area it is hard to say where we actually exert any control any longer.

A timeline of key events: Early 1990s, serials prices begin sharp increases; mid-1990s, the Internet filtering battles begin (and in part to reduce the ick factor of dealing with content unfamiliar to libraries, librarians were often very willing to hand collection decisions to filtering companies); late 1990s saw the consolidation of big online databases, with leasing an increasingly popular option and accompanied by continued steep rises in serials.

We also saw the Hawaii outsourcing fiasco of 1997, the emergence of Apple’s proprietary AAC format in 2001, the Disney copyright ruling of 2003, the launch of the Google Library Project in 2004, and in 2007, the Time-Warnerized ruling on postal rates, favoring huge publishers over the rank and file.

Major trends here are ephemeral, vendor-controlled collections; leasing versus buying; buckets of stuff versus title selection; access versus ownership; users versus publishers; provisional versus perpetual access; the narrowing definition of the public user; private contracts for public services; the new and disturbing concept of post-cancellation loss of access; and — most significantly — the diminution of our abstract skill base. If we hand over our collections and our selection to third-party entities, what are we? How do we conduct memory work without the feathers and twigs we need to line its nest? What is our purpose?