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The Illogical Complexity of the Walled-Garden Library
September 19, 2013 - 3:56am

Yesterday I had two very different experiences that speak to two of Ranganathan’s laws of library science: Every book, it’s reader; every reader, his or her book. To put it in less format-centric terms, scholarship should have readers and readers should have scholarship.

The first thing on my calendar was an 8:00 am conference call with a group of people who are exploring the feasibility of a group of liberal arts college libraries starting an open access press. The research is just at the beginning stages, but whether or not we actually start a press, our findings should be interesting and useful for others who are thinking about the future of scholarly publishing. One of the images that came up during our discussion stayed with me after the call ended. Someone likened publishing a scholarly monograph that has a tiny print run and is available in only a small handful of libraries to throwing years of work down a well. Yet when speaking with authors, the need to be published is often far more on their minds than what will happen after publication. When a writer’s concerns are all focused on being published in an authorized manner, open access isn’t a priority, and every book doesn’t find its reader. Far from it.

A couple of hours later, I met with students in a political science methods class that has a weekly lab in the library. In our first meeting we talked about research as a conversation and how databases represent and offer entry points to those conversations. This week was hands-on practice tracking down sources. Groups of students had four citations: a mix of books, journal articles, essays in edited collections, and conference presentations. I knew this would be a challenge for some. I underestimated how much of a challenge, and it’s not because these kids today don’t work hard or know enough. It’s just plain hard.

Is it a book? Use our catalog, look for the location and call number, figure out what floor it’s on, and find it on the shelf. Several teams said this was the easiest of their four tasks. I was sort of pleased by that, since we’ve worked hard to make books easier to find, but also a little dismayed because if that’s  easy, everything else is much too hard.

If a book is not in our catalog, use Worldcat to request it through interlibrary loan. Worldcat isn’t just books, though, so be sure when you click on the interlibrary loan link (which is mysteriously labeled “find it @ our library” even though you are clicking on that link precisely because it is not @ our library) make sure you are requesting the book, not a review of the book. Also, we have two different versions of Worldcat, because we librarians can’t agree on which one is best, so it will look different depending on which link you click.

Is it an article? Type the name of the journal it was published in into our journal list, unless it’s an article in a book. (Yes, that happens.) Our journal list will tell you which volumes of that journal are in any of our databases or in print at our library. Be sure to read the fine print about embargoes. Some of the journals we get electronically withhold articles until they are more than a year old. (It’s a long story. I’ll tell you later.) Once you choose a database with the content, find the place where you can click on the volume or year that you want and drill down to the article level. You could trying looking the article up in a database, but you might end up working your way through 80 databases before you discover it’s not in any of them, so I don’t recommend it.  (Some libraries have discovery layers, a technology we aren’t sold on and can’t afford – but from what I hear it isn’t very good at locating known items anyway, though it will search for books and articles using a single search box, like Google, only not.)

If don’t have the journal you need, or not the volume of the journal you need, you can fill out an interlibrary loan form, but first you have to find the link to log into your library account. (That’s part of our catalog, which you probably thought was for finding books! Ha ha!) Use the barcode on your ID card. Oh, you replaced your ID card a few months ago? We have to fix that in our system, since it’s not automatically updated. Then you have two more clicks after you log in before you can get to the form. (Seriously, it’s so well hidden I made a 10-second video for the course website showing where to click.)

The surprise was the conference papers. Often, a citation to a paper means you’re out of luck unless you can get a copy from the author or find published proceedings somewhere in a library, but fortunately for these students, the American Political Science Association archives papers from its annual conference at SSRN. A simple Google search by title did the job, though one group got a little sidetracked by finding an abstract for a subsequent article published in a journal we don’t have. 

By the end of the hour I was depressed – not by the students, who did a great job and were wonderfully patient and curious and good-natured about it all, but by all of the work and money we put into systems that are supposed to help people find stuff but which, in spite of our best efforts, remain bizarrely complex. Every academic library has some staff FTE devoted to trying to make these systems work at the local level. We spend small fortunes not just on access to content but on content discovery systems that don’t work very well. We’re replicating this work over and over and it still takes far too much time and effort to know which route to take and to click enough links to get from “where is this thing I need?” to “Here it is.”

The complexity involved isn’t just a function of digital versus print or book versus article. The most significant difference is between open access versus toll access. We throw years of work down wells, and librarians spend a lot of time and money helping readers find the well and learn how to rappel down its mossy sides to retrieve it.

Dale Askey has just written a persuasive argument that libraries are wasting too many resources trying to make library content discoverable, and I think he’s absolutely right. But that’s just part of the problem. It’s also exacerbated  by scholars and their peer evaluators who don’t care if scholarship finds readers or if readers find scholarship, who see it only as a thing scholars do. Once it’s on the CV, it's work is done.

I have said elsewhere, and I still believe, that the greatest challenges student researchers face is not finding sources, it’s framing good questions, scanning the landscape of the literature, interpreting the evidence, weighing other people’s interpretations and coming up with their own conclusions. But it sure would be nice if finding wasn’t so artificially convoluted. It sure would be nice if we actually were preparing students with skills and habits that served them after graduation rather than teaching them arcane processes before we usher them through the gates of our walled gardens, waving cheering before we lock the doors behind them.

 

 

 

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