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Collections in the Cloud?
January 7, 2010 - 11:08pm

Thanks for the great response to my questions yesterday for academic librarians? My hope is both for a dialogue and a method that people like me who work in computing or come from academic departments can better understand the academic library world.

I'll be the first to admit my ignorance, so I appreciate the indulgence of my colleagues in explaining the realities, constraints and goals of academic libraries.

Some more questions and ideas:

Proposition: academic libraries stand on three legs: librarians, space, and collections.

Question: Can the growth of cloud based collections allow us to shift resources away from purchasing/housing/managing collections and towards investing in librarians (people) and our library spaces?

This question mimics what we are asking in technology - namely can we leverage the services available in the cloud to invest more money in people? It is people (librarians or computer professionals) who provide the real value-add services, and given that it does not look like budgets will be increasing can we use the development of the cloud and other technologies to shift money to people?

First, a quick question:What percentage of the library budget, on average and across institution types (research and teaching libraries) is spent on each element of librarians, space and collections? Is this sort of information public and discussed - known within the community?

Many of the comments in my post yesterday about academic libraries made the point that research libraries provide "an archive of the scholarly record." Agreed. What I'm wondering is why this archive needs to be physically housed in the main library space, or purchased by one academic library. Can't this archive exist in the cloud - either in the shared holdings of library consortiums or in the supply chain of large booksellers (Amazon / BN) or publishers? Does this scholarly archive need to be built around physical books when digital books may be a reasonable substitute (and can exist in the cloud)?

It seems to me that the model for library book discovery has been built around a "browse and find" approach. Either browsing in the library stacks or browsing in the library course catalogue. Is this model antiquated? I find it a better experience to browse for materials either on the Amazon or BN site, or browse through the curated "LibGuides" (you can find yours here) that academic librarians put together.

The value add is not having the physical book on campus, but the smarts and hard work that the subject specialist librarian has done to aggregate and annotate the list. There is no reason that the librarian should limit himself to developing discipline teaching/research metadata around existing library holding if the book can be delivered once selected as fast as we get it from Amazon (either shipped from the central consortium or vendor - or downloaded as a digital file).

In a comment to yesterday's post, Dr. Pepper wrote: "I've discovered many books that I used for research by looking next to the books that I found in the catalog (doing keyword searches)." So have I. But maybe the improvement in search/browse technologies such as we find at Amazon can offer an experience that is nearly as good without needing to have all these physical books on the shelves? Or maybe the manually created and annotated guides made by our subject specialist librarians, from records of books not owned but available to library patrons, can serve this serendipitous book finding objective? The question I'm asking is if the tradeoff in dollars saved, by not having to pre-buy, store and manage the book, would be worth the cost of not having the book locally? Has the game changed?

What I'm hoping is a saving can be realized in buying, storing and managing books (are there estimates for the lifetime cost of this activity?) that can than be re-invested in our academic librarians and our library spaces. As Michael in a comment said yesterday: "Academic libraries are indispensable for teaching, learning, and research." The most important aspect of our academic libraries is our librarians. We need to have resources to recruit and retain the next generation of professional librarian. We need to have resources to invest in professional development.

On the library space issue, I'm also wondering if it is possible to leverage the cloud for collections and acquisitions to invest more money into our environments? I'm not saying we should have spaces without books. But maybe the idea of "stacks" could be scaled back (although I do love wandering around the stacks), and instead resources could be put towards thinking about how the books are displayed and interact with library users. Can academic libraries learn from how a beautiful large bookstore displays its books, with book laden tables or shelves curated around specific topics (or courses) prominently displayed next to group study areas? We love going to great bookstores for their juxtaposition of tons of amazing books with comfortable spaces to read, socialize, and work.

I have no doubt that these conversations are occurring all the time within the academic library community. For Monday's post I'll provide links to some of the people, blogs, and sources that I follow to better understand the changing academic library and the interaction between academic librarians and learning technologists (any ideas or suggestions would be great!). I'm looking for opportunities to learn more about how academic libraries work and how the profession of an academic librarian is evolving.

What are the big debates that you are having? Where are the fault lines of disagreement? Who are the personalities who are both deeply challenging the academic library status quo but are also respected in your discipline?


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