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Monthly Archives: September 2006

I’ll be leading ‘Ad-hockfest’ at Access 2006. This was organized for the nearly 30 people on the waiting list for Hackfest and we’ll choose from the same list of projects as the regular Hackfest groups. We might even work on the same projects as the ‘real’ Hackfest. I’m not sure how we’ll present the outcome, since I have to fly back to Atlanta Friday night, but I’m sure I can convince Dan to work it into his schtick.

This is pretty cool, and shows the ‘spontaneity’ (you know, a month off — these are libraries — baby steps, baby steps) of Access and Hackfest.

Library Geeks #4 is out. I’m back (instead of being the ‘Poltergeek’ of episode 3), and Dan set this one up in kind of a neat way. He certainly leads and guides the dialogue, but it’s much more of a roundtable and informal discussion. No doubt this is largely due to the fact we’re all pretty good friends. Still, I learned a lot about Ed that I didn’t know — pretty amazing since we hang out every day and work on so much together.

Bobby McFerrin, eat your heart out.

I have been thinking a lot this week about how libraries are skirting ever closer to a precipice they generally refuse to acknowledge.

While certainly a cynic, I’m not generally a Cassandra, so before proclaiming last rites on the library, I wanted to make sure I had thought about this some. This was probably spurred on by the “Murder MARC” thread on NGC4Lib.

And I got to thinking about travel agents.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was nigh onto impossible to book a trip anywhere without a travel agent. My mother worked part-time for a travel agent; travel agents were everywhere. It seemed as much a part of travelling as does a real estate agent seem part of home buying today. It’s technically possible to work without them, but life is going to be a whole lot easier if you do. Travel agents held the keys to your vacation; you were at the mercy of where, when and how much your vacation was to be.

Then, sometime during the dot-com blitz, up popped sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Suddenly, the consumer controlled his or her own travel. The traveller could waste as much time as he or she wanted looking for the perfect getaway; setting up fare watches to places they might randomly want to go; researching the hotel on the receiving end. All this without hassle of somebody trying arrange the trip for them. Sure, you might not have found the best rate or gotten a free meal thrown in at your destination, but the merits outweighed the costs. You began to know fewer and fewer travel agents.

For a long time librarians viewed Amazon.com and the other online booksellers as their primary competition. It made sense; both parties were hawking roughly the same physical wares. For a very long time, booksellers and libraries have coexisted. There was an understanding of the differences between the two models and, despite attempts to make the library catalog act more like Amazon, the market for each seemed fairly well intact.

Search engines, however, were happy to freely give away information indiscriminently. As the Googles and Yahoos indexed more and more content and the information grew freer and freer, libraries began to seem more antiquated and backwards in comparison. With more and more information available — preprints, Open Access, book digitization efforts — the need for specific content began to wane. Users began to lose interest working with arcane brokers of information when the information they were finding on their own met their needs. Librarians, in response, chastized the users’ choices and maintained that a steady diet of hard work and piety was the only way to achieve scholarly salvation. Dogmatic adherence to preservation of metadata took precedence over improving the user’s ability navigate and discover. After all, we know better than the user how to find the best fares, right?

I’m not a Cassandra, I’m really not. Disruptive technologies can lead to revolutionary changes, after all.

However, these thoughts came to a boil today. I have been given a lot of criticism about the way I rely on the search engines to provide a lot of functionality in the mlaut. How, despite the money we pay for our licensed resources, I still prominently display free web search results.

The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible for me include our precious resources for anything useful, while including Google, Yahoo and Amazon was a piece of cake. The best I can hope to give our users from our collection are links to lists of databases or subject guides; without considerable work on my part and the librarians all I can hope to get them is a generic link to all of our databases or a list of subject guides. With the search engines I can at least narrow down the information as to be somewhat useful. And if it’s not? They don’t have to use it. There’s a link to the library, that’s one link away from the databases or subject guides.

At this point it’s important for us to empower the user; not with arcane searching techniques in hard to find resources, but by leveraging our systems so they can be integrated easily into wherever the user is looking and by exposing our content and services in ways that fit into the user’s sphere of control and comfort. If we don’t, the user will still find information that is ‘good enough’ for their needs and more will be added every day. Then, we’ll not only have lost our control, but our relevance as well.