Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Observations of a Librarian on Ebook Readers

Posting to NGC4LIB

I thought I would share some more thoughts on digital materials based on a real-life incident:

Something interesting happened yesterday concerning the “laziness factor” I wrote about in my original posting on ebooks. (See: Observations of a Bookman on his Initial Encounters with an Ebook Reader) This is a real-life example.

A professor at my university is writing a paper for a conference that will take place very soon. He has put everything off until the last moment, and discovered that he desperately needs an article from 1996. He told me that he and his wife searched frantically for hours and hours trying to get a hold of this article that is so crucial to his paper. They had given up and were completely out of ideas.

It turned out that it wasn’t that difficult. I discovered that the journal has not yet been digitized that far back (only to 1998) and a print version doesn’t exist in Italy, so I continued looking, and found that the author had made a personal webpage. One year after the article, the author published a book on exactly the same topic, which is also not in Italy. Looking around a bit more, I discovered that the article the professor wanted had been published later in a book from 2003, which we do not have, but as it turned out, is in another library here in Rome that he can go to. I also found several articles published later that referred to his article, a few with some rather deep analyses of the article he was interested in.

I found that scans of both these books are in Google Books, but while you can preview them, you can’t see either the book or the article in its entirety. But I did manage to get a copy of the author’s dissertation, which is undoubtedly what the article and book are based upon, since scholars normally get as much out of their dissertations as they possibly can.

Well, he was very happy, etc. but it turns out that he is just too busy to go to the library in Rome (about ½ hour on the bus) and there is no ILL between libraries in Rome (people are supposed to go there instead), plus a regular ILL would never get here in time, so it’s up to me to try to get a scan in time. (It turns out that the library does not do scans, but will only send photocopies) While he was in my office, we talked a bit and I showed him my ebook reader. He was interested but said that he prefers physical books.

So, I find the entire incident curious: he told me how he and his wife each spent “hours and hours” in a fruitless attempt to find a digital copy of the article, and I am sure that they did, but they are suddenly too busy (i.e. it’s too much trouble) to get on the bus to go see a physical copy of it. It seems that the one doesn’t follow logically from the other! Also, he says he wants physical books, but I just don’t believe it. He wants the physical book right here, right now, which doesn’t happen in the real universe. It’s like sometimes I may want to fly like a bird to work instead of getting on a crowded bus with a lot of stinky people, but… I go on the bus. It has happened that the bus has arrived immediately and was empty, but that happens very rarely. The alternative is to get a car and drive, and that can be just as bad or worse.

Realize that I honestly am not finding fault with any of this; I am only giving it as an illustration of what I think is a normal, human trait—or human failing if we want to get judgmental about it: we are all illogical beings. To expect logic and consistency from human beings simply makes no sense because we are much more complicated that that. In this case, what brings it all together and makes sense is the very human trait we all share: what I am calling “the laziness factor.” Once we accept such traits are normal, everything makes far more sense.

Relating this to the Google-Publishers agreement that will go through eventually, the professor would then be able to get it all online immediately and although he will probably complain that “it’s just not the same as holding a real book” in his hands, so what? It will be there and he will take it.

So, I think this little vignette may point toward one path leading into the future for librarians. I think it shows that we are definitely needed now and we will definitely be needed in the future (he couldn’t find any of this online in Google Books or the other digital projects), but we won’t be needed to keep the physical books in order on the shelves and check them in and out. We will be needed for other tasks; we will need special tools built and a hundred other things, but it must be made very clear to the “experts” that finding relevant information is a different task from specializing in a subject. And if the “experts” are having serious problems, what does this mean for the rank and file?

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