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The Library Vanishes - Again
August 20, 2012 - 9:06pm

Thanks to my membership in the Library Society of the World, an anarchic group of librarians who pay no dues and have no rules (my people!), I get useful information (and many moments of laughter and delight) on a regular basis. Two bits of recent news made me think about how quickly things can change in the mostly-digital library.

News item number one: EBSCO, provider of the Academic Search Premier databases that is commonly available in libraries, got into a contract dispute with The Economist and no longer provides the full text of articles from that publication (though indexing will continue). For whatever reason, that particular publication popped up as the most downloaded full text publication in ASP in 2005 and 2006 at 14 liberal arts colleges when some colleagues and I studied the way undergraduates used large aggregated databases. (In case you’re curious, US-based newsweeklies also made the top ten, as did newspapers and two book review sources, Library Journal and School Library Journal. These are likely among the most-downloaded titles because they all publish short items frequently with metadata and keywords that match student searches, even if they don’t always pay off in terms of useful content. Foreign Affairs and Social Work rounded out the top ten publications downloaded. A whopping 40 percent of publications included in full text in the database had zero articles downloaded at any of the 14 schools in two years.)

How big of a crisis is this? Well, it's not that big a deal. We happily still get the magazine in print, though the odds are high that students will choose another full-text source rather than trek into the stacks to find an article in The Economist. It’s a bit disappointing that they will have less exposure to a magazine that does a better job than Time or Newsweek of covering world events, but it's not a huge dent in the 4,000 or so publications that are still full text in that catch-all database. It is, however, a reminder that what the library thinks it has is just a contract dispute away from vanishing. Most of the time, we don’t even know it’s gone.

News item number two:  The ERIC database, a fabulous education resource which had 346,562 full-text documents online, has taken them offline because of a “privacy concern.” There’s nothing on the site explaining exactly what that concern is, but some speculate that documents that once were distributed to libraries on microfiche (if the library could afford it) are much more exposed on the web, and it may be that someone discovered that one or more of the documents contained sensitive material  that identified subjects in a study or possibly revealed a social security number. Ironically, a brochure encouraging people to contribute to the program says “If your work is in ERIC, you don’t need to worry about updating your Web site or handling requests for reprints—your work will remain available as full text in PDF format with no further effort on your part.”

This illustrates an interesting if vexing issue: materials that were publicly available in a pre-web state tended to evade notice; web access  is wonderful, but it exposes things. As an example, libraries that have digitized their college newspapers and made them available online have found most alumni delighted, but a few perturbed that their immature editorials written decades ago are so easily available to the public. In this case, libraries that used to have microfiche ERIC documents may well have discarded them, now that so much is online. Except when it isn’t.    

Of course, if my friends weren’t telling me about these things, I probably wouldn’t know – not until I was helping a student find something that was there last time I looked. At least I will not be caught by surprise - this time.

 

 

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