2011 UKSG Conference, Harrogate : libraries and the ‘discovery deficit’.

photo In 1931 the critic Walter Benjamin described in his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ the intimate side of collecting books, how each book brings with it a particular memory or association: ‘the whole background of an item adds up to a a magic encyclopedia’. He goes on to develop this idea further in the influential Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction(1936), where he describes how modern works of art (such as photography, film) lose this unique ‘aura’ of association, once they can be copied over and over again,

image credit:Nesster

whereas older forms (such as painting, sculpture) still keep their ‘authenticity’ intact. As a result of this changing mode of production, new relations between author and public develop, the artist loses their separatedness, and readers turn into writers.

This struck me as a good thread to follow through the talks at the UKSG conference I recently attended. In his keynote address, John Naughton (The Open University and Cambridge University Library) referred to what he called the disruptive innovation’ of capitalism, and its effect on markets where ‘the basic unit of communication is shrinking’. He gave as examples both Amazon, that now sells Kindle Singles alongside books, and also iTunes where individual ‘tunes’ are now downloaded instead of ‘albums’ (this is where some of us get misty-eyed and reach for our vinyl). The digital age creates new, sometimes temporary, forms of consumption that have shattered artistic ‘auras’ long ago. What would Benjamin have made of the enhanced e-book, I wonder?

Many libraries and publishers have not yet fully woken up to this yet. Andy Powell’s talk Open, social and linked – A ménage à trois of content exploitation’ showed how Web 2.0 has revealed new forms of social relations that challenge our ‘academic inertia’. He drew on work by Dave White of Oxford University on ‘Visitors and Residents‘,which moved beyond concepts of ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to identify new categories of student users.

Whereas the web is social and-behaviour changing (see The Machine is Us/ing Us‘ video); libraries are still content-centric, and we often show a ‘mis-match between repository architecture and real-world social networks’. (And to add to that, I would say we still manage library systems that were built on the book, or a list of books, rather the article or the chapter; publishers still bury content for us in large, unwieldy aggregated e-resources, and some of them even build ‘discovery tools to help us discover their own content – which is nice).

Publishers face similar disruptions, and as Philip E. Bourne pointed out in Digital research,analog publishing : one scientist’s view , even the PDF (that ‘irreducible’ commercial unit) is being open up to semantic tagging of PDF. So researchers are suddenly commenting on, and sharing texts, as scholarly  communication is socialized, and there is a corresponding flurry of new pricing models for students – the most obvious of which is ’patron-driven acquisition’ (PDA) for e-books.

Terry Bucknell’s review of current e-books practice at Liverpool, Buying by the Bucketful advocated a mixed economy but also advised caution in getting the best deal. Sarah Pearson’s session on KBART showed how it was difficult to achieve consortial agreements with publishers on common knowledge base standards for link resolvers. KBART is making steady progress here, and that means sharing publisher metadata at the micro-level .If you look beyond the comfort blanket of a standard model license, the fragmented nature of the e-journal market with all it different pricing mechanisms is all that you see. That effect is multiplied the more we deal with agents, and agents of agents.

Multiple market-led technologies are still driving this change, so the question is not just whether or not It’s a Book, but how many formats is this ‘stuff’ available in? As Rick Anderson put it, in The Future of the Collection Is Not a Collection : before the Internet,libraries were an ‘information temple with the librarian as high priest to grant the sacred knowledge, now they are ‘one of many store fronts offering access to information at a price’. The key word here is many : theplatform fragmentation’ that so bedevils the mobile world (versions upon versions of apps and software that don’t always work together) is rife in other media too, such as  Blue-ray v. DVD.

That’s where us librarians come back in, helping to navigate our students through the format jungle. We need not only to develop tips and tricks ourselves (like the ones Tony Hirst talked about) but also be aware of how many different ways there are to search for, and to comment on, an ever expanding universe of texts. (see for example my comment on a quote from Benjamin which I recently tweeted from my Kindle : the ‘plurality of copies’ he talks about in his essay looks forward to our digital age ).
The ‘magic encyclopedias’ have gone – but the ‘discovery deficit’ (as pointed out by Cameron Neylon) is still with us. This ‘stuff’ is still buried within institutional and commercial silos, and we need to shine more light on it.

Or as Groucho Marx put it :
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read’.

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