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Tear down the wall 2008-04-18

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.

So besides my day job, I moonlight as a virtual reference librarian, providing after-hours and Spanish-language coverage for a wide variety of libraries offering round-the-clock online reference services.

One morning recently, a student from a prominent northeastern university connected, seeking help locating material on a particular event in early 17th-century European history. In the reference interview, she indicated she had already searched JSTOR but needed more, and was somewhat surprised that there seemed to be so little available online on a topic she felt was so historically important. As I considered the database options available, I observed that the university in question had an ample history database collection — but much of it looked at more specific aspects (American history, women’s history, Renaissance) that wouldn’t help this student.

I turned to the library’s catalog and found that they had a substantial collection of print and microform materials on the subject, including important primary and secondary sources — mostly in their rare books & special collections department. All of this, however, was meaningless to the student — she couldn’t get to the library at all, much less visit during the limited hours of the special collections department.

Casting my net wider (okay, actually, starting to grasp at straws), I suddenly came across a startling find: many of the very same 18th and 19th-century secondary materials that this student couldn’t get to at her own library were actually available to her in full (for online viewing or for complete download) on Google Books, having been scanned from the collections of Harvard University, New York Public Library, Univ of Michigan, Univ of California, and others.

Bottom line: If we had taken many librarians’ recommended search strategy and had stuck by the library catalog and databases as our finding tools instead of broadening out to free online materials, that student would have missed out on some of the best sources available — and would have walked away with very little indeed.

In order for our online catalogs and databases to be effective finding tools that meet our students’ and patrons’ needs, we need to stop building a wall between our tools and high-quality, freely-available material. We need to be actively tearing down that wall.

In the age of Google Books, the Open Content Alliance, and many other full-text digitizing projects, we need a way to harvest links to those materials in such a way that we can include them as access points in our online catalogs and databases. (Yes, I’m also talking about databases: in cases where one of those Google Books is cited in a JSTOR article, there is a link from Google Books to the JSTOR article. Why isn’t there a link in the other direction as well?)

We could spider and crawl and screen-scrape, and maybe we’ll have to in some cases. But there should be a better way — the Open Content Alliance has committed to exposing its metadata via OAI-PMH. Now libraries and database publishers need a pretty simple, straightforward method that would allow them to take that harvested metadata and add it to their own finding tools.

Each library can decide whether it will just link to freely-available copies of material it already owns, or actually go further to link to additional material it doesn’t own. Either decision is a win. To choose the status quo, however, and to ignore the world on the other side of the wall, is to disregard our users’ needs and how we can help them. That path would lead us from ignorance to irrelevance to obsolescence.



1. caleb - 2008-04-24

i looove google books.

terry reese at oregon state university, who works a lot on LibraryFind, talks about, roundabouts, how collection development can now mean adding *collections* to our libraries, through oai-pmh, rss, etc.

and you take this a little further – we need those collections to be linked to each other, and we need our own access points to our collections. great stuff as usual, luke.

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