UKSG 2010 : two tribes ?

desk fan from UKSG

desk fan from UKSG

The programme for the recent UKSG conference that I attended covered a fascinating mix of topics from across the entire spectrum of e-resources.  Many of the sessions were blogged about ‘live’, and a constant stream of delegate tweeting with the hashtag ‘#uksg’ ensured debates both on and off the main conference platform.

Why my title ‘two tribes’ ? Some of us might remember the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video of ‘Two Tribes Go to War‘ – and there certainly were two ‘tribes’ of librarians and publishers in evidence upstairs on the conference platform, (whilst downstairs the real horse-trading was being done over coffee!). But there have been other more complex divisions : a librarian called Meredith Farkas blogged recently on whether EBSCO was the new ‘evil empire’ over its practice of exclusivity (‘you can’t have the journal if you’re not in the club’ approach) – a practice which earlier this year drove Gale/Cengage to publish an open letter to EBSCO.

A time of war is usually a time of increased technological consumption and certainly the librarian-technologists were out in inspirational force: Richard Wallis (Talis) flagged up early on in his talk that that the ‘student doesn’t care where resources come from’ & we should be using technology to bring the resource directly to them; a theme taken up by Tony Hirst (Open University) and Lucy Power(Oxford Internet Institute) as they showed how researchers use social networks and other Web 2.0 tools for resource discovery.

Looking ahead, Richard Padley also pointed the way to the benefits of the ‘semantic web‘ of open, linked data (highlighted by the recent release of free government data – an event significant enough to draw comment from EDINA, who in a recent press release seem to be holding back details of their new DIGIMAP deal whilst they absorb the impact of this.) In this session, Richard spoke tellingly for me about how commercial pressures could lead to an  ‘arms race’ as each publisher creates ‘big silos of content’, with a different interface.

In terms of resource discovery, though they are all looking much the same: from what I saw of  Proquest’s new interface (for all CSA and Proquest databases) it adopts the standard ‘one search to rule them all’ ; facets down the left and a googlised ‘did you mean’ search.  The market is still dominated by the big deals, the big aggregators & their even bigger business lawyers. Ted Bergstrom spoke of the case last year when Elsevier attempted to block public release of license terms by taking Washington State University in court. Closer to home, we’ve had Murdoch’s paywall leading to titles being taken off Lexis- Nexis. It’s a shame Denis Potter is no longer with us – I would have like to have heard him respond : he was good on Murdoch.

Where are librarians in all of this? Do we retreat to the warm, comfortable bunker of the catalogue cave, to measure, count and classify? Sue White and Graham Stone gave an excellent presentation on how they had used statistics at the University of Huddersfield to ‘maximise use of their library resources’ – showing how good results correlate to good use of e-resources. One starting point for Huddersfield was their logins to ExLibris’ Metalib (doing this sort of stuff is so much easier when an institution has a login-point for e-resources).

There were other useful debates on metrics – and it was said more than once that statistics achieve a kind of ‘fetish-like status’. Hugh Look (Rightscom) drew on  Claude Levi-Strauss (the ‘father of modern anthropology’), and linked his theories of the  ‘raw and the cooked’ in early societies to the ‘unmeasured’ and ‘measured’ in the world of  library metrics. He spoke of the ‘rise of the managerial class who are the main beneficiary of a measurement culture’.

It struck me that the losers in any such Cold War are the students : and the few sessions that focussed on their experience were immensely valuable. Alison Brock from the Open University looked at e-book readers – though even here the publisher’s favourite weapon  (propietary format control: you can download library content on a PC not on a Sony reader : put me in mind of why I don’t like Apple but that’s another story). The other breakout session I attended was from Philippa Sheail – a brilliant reality check: how the student doesn’t really care where this stuff comes from , and who publishes it – they just want access.

So is the case –  as Winston Churchill said – more recently in Doctor Who – of  ‘KBO ‘ , doing nothing? We like the Daleks – they are our friends ? The last word went to satire and to Marc Abraham‘s presentation on the IgNoble prizes – one of their ‘winners’ for the Peace Prize managed to get the following published in the Journal of Forensic Medicine for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle : “Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull? “.

Note the publisher. But before you click on the PDF, (isn’t that helpful, that the link to it comes up first) – you probably won’t get in. We’re not in that particular club.  Or, put it another way : that journal is not in our collection. It’s not the first paywall we’ve seen and it won’t be the last.

As Frankie says, ‘When two tribes go to war/A point is all you can score’.