Apparently I’m famous (infamous?) now in the campus libraries on account of my little temper tantrum the other day. Nathan Williams, our Assistant-über-librarian (Rebecca Vargha is the über-librarian), because he enjoys a challenge, offered to track down the 5 books I couldn’t find in the libraries, with the comment:

If you find an electronic resource that will make this offer, please let me know.

Ok, he’s got me there. No electronic resource is likely to be doing my legwork any time soon. And he got me 4 out of 5 books. He’s a miracle worker, that Nathan. And clearly more of a lateral thinker than I am. I publicly announce that he deserves a raise.

In an amusing side note, when I went to pick up 2 of these books from the Undergrad library, they came with a plastic bag. I expressed surprise about this to the librarian at the circ desk & his comment was, well, it’s for the rain. (It was snowing & raining earlier today… in March, in NC. It’s the end of the world as we know it.) But I noticed that none of the other books on the hold shelf came with bags. Nathan tells me it was the UL librarian’s idea, to demonstrate how committed they are to personalized service. How sweet! Of course, if they really wanted to deliver personalized service, they would have delivered the books to my office …but (to paraphrase Joe Janes) that’s another rant.

In the interest of full disclosure, and because I know this question is just eating you up, here are the 5 titles that started all this ruckus, and the reasons why I couldn’t find them:

  1. The Constitution of Society, Anthony Giddens. All copies are checked out. So I’ll have recall it & annoy whoever has it now.
  2. The Psychology of Place, David Canter. Was on a shelving cart, so had been checked in but not yet reshelved.
  3. The Handbook of Information Systems Research, Michael Whitman. This one was my fault: it’s in the SILS library collection & not in Davis after all. So that was my bad, for not jotting down which library the book was in. Of course, if it had a Z call number, that would have been a dead giveaway. Instead it’s a T. In fact, come to think of it, I challenge the LC classification scheme. This title has the call number T58.6, Management information systems, which I think is inaccurate, or at least not the full story. I think there should be a Theory & Methodology subdivision under T, or better still, under Z. Any why isn’t there, anyway? There’s precedent: HA29-32, Theory and method of social science statistics. HG8779-8793, Statistical theory and methodology applied to insurance, for crying out loud.
  4. The Plot Against America, Philip Roth. All but one copy of this title was out. The one copy that was available was in the UL Browsing collection, which is separate & on a different floor from the main collection, so I never thought to look there. On the one hand this is my fault, but on the other hand this is a fairly serious usability issue: if I, who know how to read an OPAC record, didn’t notice this, what chance that an undergrad would?
  5. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol 2, Alan Moore. This was pushed back between shelves. I suppose that probably happens all the time, especially for thin books like graphic novels. But fundamentally this is also a usability issue. How many students are going to think to look between shelves for a book? Plus, how often does this happen & not get reported? Or the book gets flagged as missing?

And the 6th title, the one I did find in the library?

  1. Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller

So, all’s well that ends well. I got 5 out of 6 of my books, so I’m happy (or at least 5/6ths happy). Ok, so 3 of these are pleasure reading, not exactly high priority. But still. I’ll have the graphic novels read & returned to the library a heck of a lot sooner than I’ll be returning the stuff for my research. (Personally I’m bucking for my own call number, I have so many library books in my office.)

The point isn’t that half of the titles I wanted are frivolous reading. The point is that at the point of need (or more accurately, the point of want), the resources weren’t available. So all’s not well that ends well. As great as the service that Nathan provided to me is, it doesn’t fundamentally address the larger problem. I mean, look, I got major preferential treatment here. And why? Because: (1) I made a stink about it & the squeaky wheel gets the grease, & probably also (2) I’m a faculty member & the librarians don’t want the faculty running down the library. This is not the kind of service that a library could offer to every patron. (Maybe the Boston Athenaeum could, but even there, I’m betting no.)

Also, how many of these problems would not have happened with electronic resources? Let me count the ways:

  1. All copies checked out. No, that doesn’t happen. The server may be down, but usually there are mirror sites, & some institutions cache local copies.
  2. On a shelving cart. Also no.
  3. In the wrong library. Well, filenames change and links rot, which is roughly equivalent.
  4. In the wrong part of the library. Ditto.
  5. Pushed back between shelves. That’s a big no.

Sally commented on my last post with two sound criticisms:

  1. I’m in a field where a lot more material is online than in many other fields.
  2. I live a privileged life because I have access to all the resources of campus.

These are both true, and I do love living a life of information-access privilege. But I say:

  1. JSTOR is financially self-sustaining. I believe that in time there will be other projects like JSTOR, and they too will be self-sustaining. Eventually most (I won’t say all) scientific literature will be online, in their full runs.
  2. All citizens of NC have access to a very wide range of subscription databases via NC LIVE, as long as you have a library card. True, NC LIVE is less than I have access to on campus. But it’s still darn impressive and hugely useful as a public service. Other states have similar projects: the Florida Electronic Library. The Library of Texas. Librarians and citizens need to demand that more states provide services like this, and with access to more resources.

In a fairly amazing confluence, last night I re-read an article that I assigned for my DL course:

Montgomery, C. H. (2000). Measuring the Impact of an Electronic Journal Collection on Library Costs: A Framework and Preliminary Observations. D-Lib Magazine, 6(10).

In 1998 the W.W. Hagerty Library of Drexel University made migration to an electronic journal collection as quickly as possible a key component of its strategic plan. If a journal is available electronically, only the electronic version is purchased whenever possible. The sole exceptions are (1) when the electronic journal lacks an important feature of the print version (e.g., equivalent visuals) and (2) when the journal is part of the browsing collection (e.g., Scientific American and Newsweek).

The upshot of the article, as I read it (and as I plan to use it in class as a means of initiating a discussion on the economics of DLs), is this: electronic resources get used more than print resources, but moving to electronic resources is more expensive for a library, both in terms of money and labor, and the labor must be more technically skilled.

Well, expensive is a problem, heaven knows. But technically skilled, we got that covered. Librarians have technical skills coming out of their electronic assets these days.

The D-Lib article goes on to say:

Drexel is probably farther along in the transition to an all electronic journal collection than most, if not all, academic libraries in the United States.

…our transition is indicative of what most academic libraries will eventually experience.

And the depressing part is that Drexel in 2000 was probably farther along in this transition than most libraries are today. You may not believe or agree that most academic libraries will eventually go down this road. But either way, I say that librarians and libraries had better decide one way or the other, & have good reasons why or why not. I understand from some friends of mine who are librarians at MIT that MIT is a very hostile place to be a librarian: students & faculty both want justification for why there are spaces for print collections at all. If it isn’t online & accessible 24/7, why do we have it? Is the way I’ve heard it put. I say, this attitude may have cropped up at MIT sooner than at most places, but it’s leaking out into the world in general. And we’d better have an answer. Me, I want most of my resources online. I want my graphic novels on paper. But my research materials, I want electronically. All of them. Journals, reports, books even. And even some of my pleasure reading, I’ll take electronically, if they’re in a format that I can load on my Palm. If libraries want to deliver personalized service, they’ll have to start providing materials in the formats that users want, not just in the formats that publishers currently choose to make available. …but that too is another rant.