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Don Waters on the responsibility of libraries

This, I think, is a must read for government information professionals:

Why? Because there are explicit parallels between the role libraries will play in the scholarly communications process (which Waters addresses) and the role libraries will play in access to and use of government information. In this paper, Waters (Program Officer of Scholarly Communication at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) presents another of his excellent overviews of the problems and opportunities for digital libraries. The paper was part of the ARL forum, Managing Digital Assets Strategic Issues for Research Libraries.

Waters minces no words and faces the issues honestly and creatively.

Here are a few excerpts, viewed from the perspective of government information:

  • Waters notes the problem when libraries simply “use content stored on remote systems controlled by publishers.”
  • He notes that the libraries are responsible for “collecting, preserving, providing access to, and disseminating content” and that this mission differs from those who take on digital information projects for “business reasons” (e.g., the Google-Library project, Yahoo and Microsoft joining the Open Content Alliance, and now GPO with its intent to distribute electronic documents “on a cost recovery basis“). They do not do so for philanthropic purposes and these “for-profit competitors” bring their resources and set their sights “squarely on key parts of the higher education business.”
  • While a shift to electronic versions of government information can eliminate many library costs (ordering, receiving, processing, shelving, and circulating physical copies), many libraries see “covering the costs of preserving digital assets for the long term is a responsibility for someone else” and that this is a “jump-off-the-cliff shift” in responsibility.
  • The advantages of digitization are not ends unto themselves. What makes digital information useful is that “the material becomes ‘processable,’ or subject to computational processing.” In other words, if we have fully-functional copies of government digital information, then the information can be used and re-used, mixed and re-mixed.
  • If we don’t have copies of the information, libraries and citizens won’t be able to do this for ourselves; our only avenue of use will be what we can purchase. Waters foresees that resulting in a bleak scenario in which “(1) libraries will not own the publications that form the scholarly record; (2) libraries will not own the archive of the scholarly record; and (3) publishers will charge whatever the market can bear for data-mining services because they control all the underlying resources.” For “publishers” read “GPO” and “government agencies” and “private sector re-packagers.”
  • Waters sees that we need more than one useful database (e.g., FDsys) or one kind of indexing (e.g., Google). “The sheer volume of digitized material … [will] require implementation of much more sophisticated indexing, searching, and filtering techniques, including broad application of computational linguistic and related statistical techniques as well as sophisticated techniques for filtering based on markup and thesauri, which would relate results to disciplinebased concepts and concerns. Above all, there will be growing demand for mechanisms to link search results flexibly across systems in ways that resemble but will be fundamentally different from metasearching across catalogs.” And: “Solutions that the large search engines cannot supply will have to come from search applications developed within and for the academy, and finding these solutions should be a high priority for the academy, its libraries and publishers, to address.”

A personal note: Several years ago, I was talking with a colleague in the University of California about the need for digital deposit of government information. She did not see the need for this and to support her point she said that we don’t get copies of electronic journals so why should we get copies of government information? I tried to explain that we should get copies of electronic journals and that if we couldn’t solve the same issue for non-copyrighted, legally-deposited government information how could we hope to solve the same problem for copyrighted journal articles? Now, we have come full circle and ARL and the Mellon foundation and others are saying that libraries must take responsibility and preserve scholarly journals. The Don Waters article complements the recent report that makes that case: Urgent Action Needed to Preserve Scholarly Electronic Journals . (See also New Mellon Report on Digital Deposit and ARL Endorses Call for Action to Preserve E-Journals.)


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