Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ebooks: Questions and Issues for Libraries

Mountain laurel, in full boom last week

Last Friday (May 21) I was able to attend a fascinating Ebook Collections Symposium at Montclair State University. Collection development is not my specialty, so many of the ideas were new to me. I'll try to summarize what I encountered.

First, where should a library put an ebook? No one publisher has the rights to all ebooks, so everyone is developing different ways to offer them. This means that when libraries purchase ebooks, they are not always easy to organize or find. To make ebooks straightforward to find, there should ideally be many different access points, including the traditional library catalog.

It is important to keep in mind that librarians did not choose or design the format of a physical book -- the book developed as buyers, sellers, and content-producers gradually realized it was a fair, standard way of doing business. That product uniformity does not seem to be happening with ebooks yet, which leaves libraries in a bind as we work with platforms and interfaces that vary by vendor.

Another issue is the Subscription vs Collection model of acquisition. This is very similar to the Access vs Ownership choice that individual consumers face. With a Subscription model, acquisitions librarians would no longer necessarily need to be able to distinguish quality or have expertise in a field. All they would need to do is pick a "Business" package containing thousands of pre-selected ebooks, for example.

Libraries faced similar decisions when transitioning serials subscriptions from mostly print to mostly electronic. Will books parallel what happened with journals, in terms of titles being bundled into bulk packages instead of being purchased individually?

The publishers who attended the symposium seemed to prefer the Subscription model. Along with that model comes the increased possibility of patron-driven acquisition, meaning a library's user community can have much more direct influence on which books the library purchases access to. Taken to a logical extreme, one might ask at what point an administration takes away a library's book budget entirely, giving the money directly to students and faculty and letting them decide which books they want to access. With a Subscription model, the idea of carefully selecting titles and building a collection goes out the window.

In plenty of disciplines, however, a high quantity of ebooks is not always a priority. In medicine, for example, there are particular titles that are considered classics, and currency is extremely important. So it may vary by subject whether the Subscription model or the Collection model is better. This is messy when it comes to creating workable policies and processes for the library. Another difficulty with collecting ebooks by title instead of as a packaged collection is that there is currently no standard format for an ebook. Thus, when you buy a particular title as an ebook, you are still largely beholden to software or a hosting platform to provide access to it. EPUB is one format that seems to be getting a lot of positive attention lately, but things are by no means settled.

Learning about all this makes me wonder if a printed book now has a place of more prestige than ever. If someone (a publisher, usually) goes to the trouble of producing and marketing a printed book in this electronic age, that book seems particularly special. It is comparatively easy for an ebook to get a bit lost, but the books that take a physical form have attained importance by their very presence. Funny how that works.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Things that I'm learning, but which don't make exciting blog posts

Indian cucumber root, campus woods, taken with a different camera than usual

I take a lot of photographs, in part to illustrate this blog, and I notice that certain subjects (grasses, tiny wildflowers) repeatedly elude capture. Part of the problem is my camera, which on the bright side is very portable; part of it is my lack of skill as a photographer; and part of it is the various ways that digital images display on a computer screen.

Along the same lines, some experiences as an academic librarian have not easily converted into blog posts. At times things happen too quickly, or too slowly, to suit the format of a blog, but perhaps they deserve some recognition. Here is what I mean:

-The longer I work, the more essential accurate and detailed record-keeping seems. I haven't yet figured out how to make this sound interesting, but I recommend Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto for a fascinating account of how following sensible procedures can dramatically increase effectiveness.

-The necessity of intelligent workplace policies that are flexible enough to incorporate new information is also becoming abundantly clear to me.

-Developing the ability to manage time effectively is an extremely important skill, but one that doesn't draw much attention to itself.

-For a variety of reasons, regular meetings involving key parties seem to be the basis for highly productive and functional teams. It is far more common to complain about meetings than to herald them, though.

See what I mean? Even I'm bored reading this. And so I'll keep it short this week, and hope that I've made my point.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Textbooks on Reserve and Student Retention

Bearded Iris, in bloom on campus

Consistent with a national trend (there was a nice write-up in the New York Times Magazine this past week), our community college is currently engaged with the problem of student retention. Put simply, the college administration is trying to discover the reasons why students drop out of school, in order to encourage them instead to complete a college degree. There is a lot to say about this, and there is a lot of data out there. There has also been a lot of past educational research about the reasons why college students drop out of school. From my position as a librarian, I have been trying to figure out how the library in particular could factor into college student retention and persistence.

The best idea I've come up with so far is to try and make as many textbooks as possible available on reserve at the library. Requests for textbooks are extremely common at the reference desk, and I happen to manage reserves policies, so I seem to be in a good position to work on this. Putting a book (or anything) on reserve means that students must use the library as an access point, whether for a textbook, an article, a calculator, a laptop, etc. With physical objects such as textbooks, use is typically restricted to in-house for 2-3 hours per circulation. At other colleges where I have worked, having access to textbooks in the library has been an extremely popular option for students.

There are plenty of reasons why students use textbooks on reserve, such as forgetting or choosing not to bring their own books, or waiting for postal service or financial aid. Sometimes, students feel they cannot afford their textbooks, in which case having a copy on reserve at the library is a stopgap. The library's usage limitations are usually enough of an inconvenience that students do not spend an entire semester exclusively reliant on the library's copy of a textbook. But this type of support from the library does seem to be welcome.

A relationship between having textbooks on reserve and student retention is only intuitive at this point, and so far I have found no data to support a positive correlation. But I'm willing to try this out. At the least, I hope it will bring positive attention to the library and greater visibility to one of our services. Currently we do have a few textbooks on reserve, but availability varies by department. We have no room in the budget for maintaining an ongoing textbook collection, but we have been told by a number of sources that a spare copy of a required textbook for reserve at the library is something that publishers might supply.

Working with various constituencies -- the book store, department secretaries, and publishers' book representatives -- I hope to have as many of the required textbooks on reserve in the Fall 2010 semester as possible, and then we'll try and find out if the students who used them went on to complete their degrees.

Understandably, the organization and planning of this project has been occupying a good portion of my attention recently...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Skills at Ignoring and Filtering

black locust tree in bloom

I've been wondering if selective attention can be tied to information literacy.

Here is what I mean: When people interact with information, sometimes that information is

(1) Redundant (already known)

For example, this week while driving on the highway, I hit a clod of dirt that had fallen off a dump truck, and it knocked a fog light loose. I realized this directly after it happened because an alert went off, so I pulled over, got out of the car, and discovered the problem. I have ordered the replacement bulb. The car drives fine. But now every time I start the car, I get various A/V alerts that one of my lights is not working. I'm to the point where I'm tuning them out. Does this sound familiar to those who have to click through various known messages every day?

(2) Irrelevant (not needed)

For example, what if, on the fifth or sixth time visiting the same web page, you were given the option to rearrange the page elements in whatever way you chose? Wouldn't that be great? That way you could put all the things you actually use where it made sense for them to be. I for one catch myself repeating the same computer tasks according to habit. Once I've spent the time and energy figuring out how to accomplish something on the computer, I tend to do the same thing over and over again rather than figuring out how to do it a different way. (Unless I'm bored.) I realize it helps to acknowledge when we're doing this, so that we can encourage ourselves to notice things we may be missing, but unless there's a compelling reason it can be difficult to find the incentive for change.

Maybe in environments that are saturated with information, being skilled at ignoring is as important as being skilled at paying attention.

I'm still working on how this relates to the library. Apart from trying to be relevant instead of just more noise.