Beyond The Library


bdpdf2The BeyondThePDF2 conference, organised by FORCE11, was held in Amsterdam, March 19-20. From the website: “...we aim to bring about a change in modern scholarly communications through the effective use of information technology”. Basically the conference participants discussed new models of content creation, content dissemination, content consumption, funding and research evaluation.
Because I work for an academic library in Amsterdam, dealing with online scholarly information systems and currently trying to connect traditional library information to related research information, I decided to attend.
Academic libraries are supposed to support university students, teaching and research staff by providing access to scholarly information. They should be somewhere in the middle between researchers, authors, publishers, content providers, students and teachers. Consequently, any big changes in the way that scholarly communication is being carried out in the near and far future definitely affects the role of academic libraries. For instance, if the scholarly publication model would change overnight from the current static document centered model to a dynamic linked data model, the academic library discovery and delivery systems infrastructure would grind to a halt.

© Paul Groth
© Paul Groth

So I was surprised to see that the library representation at the conference was so low compared to researchers, publishers, students and tech/tools people (thanks to Paul Groth for the opening slides). No Dutch university library directors were present. Maybe that’s because they all attended the Research Data Alliance launch in Gothenburg which was held at the same time. I know of at least one Dutch university library director who was there. Maybe an official international association is more appealing to managers than an informal hands on bunch like FORCE11.

A number of questions arise from this observation:

Are academic libraries talking to researchers?

Probably (or maybe even apparently) not enough. Besides traditional library services like providing access to publications and collections, academic libraries are more and more asked to provide support for the research process as such, research data management, preservation and reuse, scholarly output repositories and research information systems. In order to perform these new tasks in an efficient way for both the library and the researcher, they need to communicate about needs and solutions.
I took the opportunity and talked to a couple of scholars/researchers at BeyondThePDF2, asking among other things: “When looking for information relevant to your research topic, do you use (our) library search tools?” Answer: “No. Google.” or similar. Which brings me to the next question.

Do researchers know what academic libraries are doing?

Probably (or maybe even apparently) not enough. Same answer indeed. It struck me that of the few times libraries were mentioned in talks and presentations, it was almost always in the form of the old stereotype of the stack of books. Books? I always say: “Forget books, it’s about information!”. One of the presenters whose visionary talk I liked very much even told me that they hoped the new Amsterdam University Library Director would know something about books.That really left me speechless.
Fortunately the keynote speaker on the second day, Carol Tenopir, had lots of positive things to say about libraries. One remark was made (not sure who said it) that has been made before: “if libraries do their work properly, they are invisible”. This specifically referred to academic libraries’ role in selecting, acquiring, paying for and providing technical access to scholarly publications from publishers and other content providers.
Another illustration of this invisibility is the in itself great initiative that was started during the conference: “An open alternative to Google Scholar”, which could just as well have been called “An open alternative to Google Scholar, Primo Central, WorldCatLocal, Summon, EDS”. These last four are the best known commercial global scholarly metadata indexes that lots of academic libraries offer.
Anyway, my impression that academic libraries need to pay attention to their changing role in a changing environment was once again confirmed.

Publishers and researchers talk to each other!

(Yes I know that’s not a question). In the light of the recent war between open access advocates and commercial publishers it was good to see so many representatives of Elsevier, Springer etc. actively engaged in discussions with representatives of the scholarly community about new forms of content creation and dissemination. Some of the commercial content providers/aggregators are also vendors of the above mentioned Google Scholar alternatives (OCLCWorldCatLocal, Proquest/SerialsSolutionsSummon, EBSCOEDS). All of these are very reluctant to contribute their own metadata to their competitors’ indexes. Academic libraries are caught in the middle here. They pay lots of money for content that apparently they can only access through the provider’s own channels. And in this case the publishers/providers do not listen to the libraries.

Why so many tools/tech people?

Frankly I don’t know. However, I talked to a tools/tech person who worked for one of the publishers. So there obviously is some overlap in the attendee provenance information. Speaking about myself, working for a library, I am not a librarian, but rather a tools/tech person (with an academic degree even). Tools/tech people work for publishers, universities, university libraries and other types of organisations.
There is a lot of interesting innovative technical work being done in libraries by tools/tech people. We even have our own conferences and unconferences that have the same spirit as BeyondThePDF. If you want to talk to us, come for instance to ELAG2013 in Ghent in May, where the conference theme will be “The inside-out library”. Or have a look at Code4Lib, or the Library Linked Data movement.

Positive action

Besides the good presentations, discussions and sessions, the most striking result of BeyondThePDF2 was the start of no less than three bottom-up revolutionary initiatives that draw immediate attention on the web:
The Scholarly Revolution  – Peter Murray-Rust
The Open Alternative to Google ScholarStian Håklev
The Amsterdam Manifesto on Data Citation Principles Merce Crosas, Todd Carpenter, Jody Schneider

We can make it work.

47 thoughts on “Beyond The Library

  1. Nice post! Yes I was present at the RDA meeting, though there I was the only Dutch library director. If I read the tweets, posts, and presentations of Force 11 / Beyond the Pdf 2, I should – in retrospective – perhaps have chosen otherwise!

  2. “Do researchers know what academic libraries are doing?”

    No. Not in my experience. I still have no clue.

    I don’t mean to be rude by saying this. I’ve said it many times on twitter. But it does appear to me that there’s a huge disconnect between the librarians & academics – even though we should largely be on the same side on most issues and would probably benefit from communicating more.

    Is it just me?

    How do we change this?

    1. Ross, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think you’re being rude 😉 I agree with you. How to change this? Start talking, maybe. I have already started, on my own level. Guerilla tactics 😉

  3. I wish there were more communication. Many librarians like to say “well, we arrange the journal subscriptions”. True, but then they also top slice our grants so this is not a big advantage. Librarians also do tend to think in terms of scientists->publishers->libraries. Ask yourself this. Why will my library stock and store my content if I give it to a publisher first, but not archive my research blog or wiki?

  4. Funny, I watched the whole conference from home and was under the impressions that there was a lot of talk about the role of libraries. Maybe my expectations were much lower than yours. But I agree that at this crucial conference many more library directors should have been present.

    1. Jeroen, funny indeed. “Selective”/”biased” perception maybe. Anyway, there was talk of libraries, but in my experience mainly in a stereotype way (“stacks of books”) or in a negative to ignoring manner. Do you have the impression that the role of academic libraries was appreciated very much in general?

      1. Yes, well I got the impression that libraries were viewed as a given and were not explicitly dismissed. I know, that doesn not sound very positive, but it means we are still accepted at the table and trusted. We can build on that trust to help facilitate the #scholrev. But there is not much time. It requires a stronger focus on linking data (won’t have to tell you that of course), but also on real national and international cooperation. It also requires acknowledgement of what alreay is being done at that level (e.g. by Europeana) and more active engagement in that. Finally it asks for a sense of urgency and for swapping 10-40% of library staff. We need more tech-savvy people who think in terms of services in stead of static objects.

  5. Hey Lukas,

    I’m also lost in libraryland, also with an academic degree, in computer science.

    Looking back into history it was the scientists who organized and built libraries in their higher ed / acad institutions. I also notice the disconnection. But I’m not very surprised.

    We are in the midst of a process where scientists must reinvent the library as a center for organizing living knowledge.

    Librarians are mostly not very helpful because their instititutions left them alone with the piles of paper books and preservation and digitizaton of old items, on shorter budgets.

    Other librarians go for “online shopping” and buy online journals but do not know how to deposit the cultural heritage. They supply material to scientists, but in reality, they are just helping publishers to lower the distribution costs. They are no librarians any more.

    My idea is to build a new culture, a “library in a box” – a software that can collect all the material all acad. libraries can provide at a mere push of a button – and put it on the desk of each scientist: yes, if they can’t go to the library, the library comes to them.

    1. This idea would be a combination of Hathi trust, Europeana, a slice of Worldcat and a networked system of all institutional repositories. Hmm…

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