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ALA 2008: Librarians and Patrons Want More Openness

At this year’s American Library Association (ALA) conference in Anaheim, Calif., one theme emerged in talk after talk: librarians and the readers they serve demand more flexibility, transparency and openness in publishers’ offerings. This affects not just digital-only reference works, but the book acquisition via library catalogs and standalone ebooks.

Reference publishing and resource discovery — Reference publishers invest time and money in bespoke search interfaces for advanced users, but are users finding them? In the ALA panel “The Future of Electronic Reference Publishing,” librarians repeatedly commented that multiple reference sources are confusing to users, and that resources must also be discoverable via Google and the library’s own digital catalog.

If users do go directly to an individual resource or platform, the search interface should behave “like Google.” Although the panel of major reference publishers did state that they are converging on Google’s query language, many legacy systems remain that would be economically infeasible to re-tool.

Library catalogs and systems — The need for more transparent, network-based services applies to the library catalog as well. In the marathon session, “The Ultimate Debate on the Future of the Library Catalog,” speakers identified a critical need for geo-based services and APIs for finding what’s in my local library — now. Once a book is located I should be only a few clicks away from reserving it or even ordering it for delivery to my home.

That dream is still far off — even with a service like WorldCat it’s not currently possible for me to find and reserve a book at my local library. The closest offering presented on WorldCat is Harvard University’s library, which is not about to lend to the likes of me. The problem is even worse for rural libraries. As for my local library — I love books and this post is the first time it even occurred to me to visit their site. I’m not alone in that.

Ebooks — This is a transitional time in publishing, and while many patrons still prefer print, an increasing number are asking for electronic books, especially in university libraries. Students and academics emphatically reject DRM and restrictions on usage, but many ebooks sold to libraries have technical barriers to printing, cut-and-paste and downloading.

Licensing and subscription costs are also a concern for libraries. Ebooks may be re-priced or re-bundled, challenging the basic assumption that once a library buys a title, it owns the book indefinitely. Librarians want assurances that the products they purchase are either available perpetually, or at least have clearly-stated licensing terms that do not change without notice.

The ability to safely and permanently archive electronic books has been a long-time concern of some librarians, but the floods in New Orleans and Iowa have changed some minds. Off-site electronic archiving would save at least some resources, especially for very small or rural libraries can’t afford state-of-art preservation facilities.

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