From Stacks to the Web: the Transformation of Academic Library Collecting

Posting to Autocat

“From Stacks to the Web: the Transformation of Academic Library Collecting” by David W. Lewis. January 2013. (College and Research Libraries pre-print)

I think this is a highly important report that everyone should read. The author makes some quite reasonable predictions about the future of the library and comes to some rather unpleasant conclusions, if you are a librarian. He discusses how selection must change “Move from Item-by-Item Book Selection to Purchase-on-Demand and Subscriptions” along with print-on-demand, and how this will have major impacts on staffing. This is from his conclusions:

“By the early 2020s in [i.e. it] is easy to imagine the following.  Print collections will have been reduced by at least half in most academic libraries.  The space will be used for a combination of enhanced reader spaces and other activities.  Many libraries will have reduced the amount of their budget to build collections by purchasing published content.  This saving will accrue from reductions in materials budgets and from a decline in the amount of staffing, both professional and clerical, required to select, acquire, and catalog locally held material.”

Once librarians restructure their own bibliographic universe to include materials on the web, and consider that those materials are just as valuable, and just as important, as the next book that has come in, if not more so, things really begin to change in fundamental ways. In such an environment it only makes sense that all librarians “cooperate,” from selectors to catalogers to reference librarians since everyone will be working with precisely the same materials. But there is a major point that must be dealt with: standards. For instance, I can imagine that in Library A, the selector in American Studies is retiring, so the administrators say, let’s put the money for his salary to other uses, and utilize the web materials, plus rely on Library B, at a university that has a pretty good American Studies program. This means that Library A is trusting Library B for a certain quality of information. This is called standards.

I have already mentioned standards in relation to cataloging, but from this idea of Library A and Library B, we can see that there could be standards for other library tasks as well. If cooperation is to succeed, it needs high reliability. And reliability needs standards. If a library is going to cut down on cataloging staff, there must also be some level of reliability.

This happens in other areas of endeavor. If a company that makes televisions decides that it is going to close its division that makes the electric cords that plug into the wall, and just buy them from somebody else, those new wires had better not catch fire or make the televisions blow up! With these kinds of business standards, if the quality falls below the agreed-upon level, there company that buys the wires can sue the company that makes them, and so on, but in library cataloging, those are not the kinds of standards we have, so therefore, at the very least monitoring of record quality will be needed (unless everybody just decides to give up and accept whatever is thrown at them!).

The future as envisioned by Mr. Lewis seems to me, good for information professionals and librarians, so long as, as he mentioned, “…librarians must embrace new roles and abandon old practices”. But standards must play a large role in it.