RE: If libraries had shareholders by Peter Brantley

Posting to Autocat discussing “If libraries had shareholders” by Peter Brantley

In all of these discussions and statistics, apparently mainly taken from the ARL paper at, the results that stand out to me are: the huge increase in ILLs with a corresponding huge fall in reference questions.

To me, the rise in ILLs illustrate the growing awareness among the public of the materials in the whole of the information universe. It appears logical that as the web grew and more library catalogs could be searched, along with, LibraryThing and other sites, people slowly realized what they had been missing earlier and wanted what the local collection did not have. So, one way of looking at it, the earlier, lower rates of ILLs were based on the patrons’ focus on the materials that could be found through the local library catalog, and therefore they lacked an awareness of lots of other materials (or, to put it bluntly, the local collections in fact failed the public, but they weren’t aware of it). If people had been more aware of the materials in other libraries earlier, e.g. in the 1950s and 1960s, ILL rates would probably have been just as high. Only with the greater awareness of materials as provided through the web, can we see more precisely how the local collections have not supplied what people wanted.

The fall in reference questions masks a somewhat opposite trend, I think. I don’t believe that too many information experts will maintain that it is easier to find *reliable information* today than it was before the web. The emphasis on “evaluation” in information literacy workshops demonstrates this. On the other hand, it is much easier today to “use the machine” i.e. you almost never get a zero result with a full-text search, and the results are almost always more than you can look at. The propaganda term “relevance order” is taken literally by many people, i.e. many literally believe that these are the most relevant items to what they want, although “relevance” when applied to a database search result means something quite different.

This is not what people experience searching a library catalog, especially back in the 1980s, which often turned up nothing. So, I conclude that the reason people ask fewer reference questions is that they are happier with the results they find today, and there is a lot of evidence that people believe that they are very good or expert searchers already. If you believe you are an expert, some librarian (who specializes in books) can’t help youmuch anyway.

Of course, my own experience shows that people do not know how to search, they don’t understand much of anything that happens when they see a search box and type in some words: is the boolean operator “and” or “or”? What information is being searched? What is the arrangement of results? Is there controlled vocabulary? and so on and so on. As a result, I conclude that the number of reference questions actually should be going up, since I personally find it more complex than ever to discover a good site or database, and then to make a good search.

We come to one of my genuine concerns with the Google Books-Publishers agreement when it (or something like it) is eventually approved: the one area that shows real demand in libraries is ILL, but when many of those materials are available at the click of a button, it seems reasonable to assume ILL will drop exponentially. It seems inevitable and we should be planning for this eventuality. If we are not careful, almost everyone may start and end with Google Books and Google Scholar. Is RDA the solution? Or even part of it? I don’t think so. Although the situation may seem almost hopeless in many ways, I still think there are major services libraries and librarians provide that are found noplace else, and are necessary for a vibrant society. But it means some soul-searching and fundamental changes.




  1. Library said:

    A very interesting article. I think it will take some time for Google Books to get to the point where the average person will start using Google Books to the point where it has an impact on ILL.<br /><br />I will say, that at my University job, Google Books has been very helpful for old primary sources. So I do see it starting.<br /><br />Great post.

    June 3, 2010

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