Among the ongoing efforts with potential to change the range of options available to libraries, I would count the evolving Lyrasis organization among the most interesting, if not, certainly, the most visible. In the past few months, the organization has launched some interesting initiatives, among them a ‘partnership’ with OCLC, in the form of an “ … agreement that will provide increased consulting, education and engagement programs for WorldCat and new cooperative Web-scale library management services” and another with SkyRiver to provide cataloging services (press release available as pdf from the Lyrasis front page). Among other things, these strategic partnerships put Lyrasis in a challenging position regarding the SkyRiver/III lawsuit against OCLC, but I’m sure they’ll manage to navigate those dangerous shoals, given the careful path they’ve chosen so far.
I recently became aware of the report of their Library Director Summit on the Future of Cataloging, held on May 26, 2010, with a summary made available recently. I’m of two minds about the summary–on the one hand it’s hard to argue with the notion that if you’re in any kind of business, and have customers, it’s good to ask them about what you ought to be doing. On the other hand, I keep remembering Henry Ford’s statement that if he had asked his early customers what they wanted, they would have told him: “faster horses”. Providing some balance between what libraries tell them about their needs, and building in the leadership to provide for needs that are not yet expressed by their customers, will be key to their survival in the volatile environment of change we live in now.
Peppered in the summary report are some statements that give one hope that Lyrasis might be asking some of the right questions as they look for a business plan that will take them where they need to go, and to avoid being an organization operating primarily in the foamy wake of the big players. For example, the first bullet under “What Still Needs to be Cataloged?” says:
“Cataloging records for basic English-language monographs are commodity items. Many libraries already outsource much of this work through vendor-supplied, shelf-ready cataloging (e.g., PromptCat, YBP). As records have become commodities, libraries question why they are still paying premium prices, especially when many records are available and shared freely on the web via Z39.50.”
Much as I agree that the current record sharing market does treat catalog records as commodities, that way of thinking doesn’t get us anywhere we really want to go, witness the Study of the North American MARC Records Marketplace by R2 Consulting to the Library of Congress this past fall (for my take on it, see this post). That report argued for more remuneration for LC, and put everyone else, particularly those using Z39.50, in categories with labels like ‘opportunistic.’
More on cataloging costs comes later in the summary, where the lack of transparency about costs and pricing is aired (familiar to those reading the conversations on the SkyRiver suit playing out on various library lists) and an interesting correlation is made between the current subscription pricing model used by (presumably) OCLC and the pricing model for high-cost ejournal subscriptions. I say presumably because like the gorilla in the kitchen, the entity looming over the discussion is named only in one recommendation at the end.
Further along in the summary, the diminishing role of the catalog as a discovery tool is acknowledged, as well as the continuing need for the catalog as an inventory management tool. Interestingly, the decreasing value of the “global union catalog” is also acknowledged:
“While the union catalog function was important in a print-based environment, it is no longer the key resource it once was in the book-dominated world. Once the metadata is available and harvestable, it does not necessarily have to be housed in and served from one central repository to make the content accessible.”
Resource sharing is addressed again later in the report, along with the unfortunate fact that resource sharing and catalog record acquisition are often intertwined. That said, the section on resource sharing seems a bit obscure to me, partially because that’s one of the few library arenas in which I was never involved during my checkered career in libraries.
Reading this summary, it’s necessary to read between the lines to glean much about the tenor of the conversations. The rewards for that effort are the glimpses of movement on the part of the organization and its customers on these important issues. That they’re only glimpses is unfortunate. While I can certainly recognize the need for Lyrasis to be circumspect–their survival depends to some extent on not making powerful enemies–I’d love to see these issues aired more publicly, with less dancing.
Shifting the Conversation
After the emphasis above on the good news, there are a few places where the conversation has clearly not yet shifted sufficiently from the old thinking. One of these areas is the perennial question of ‘record enhancement’ which is here discussed in the old context of ‘record perfection’ rather than the newer context around the improvement of data to provide greater value to users. This is unfortunate, particularly since the comment on ‘harvestable’ data earlier in the discussion might have led one to hope that some of the library linked data efforts had percolated up to the director level.
Another area in the report where discussion clearly needs to shift is in the notion of what’s to be done with the cataloging staff when we’ve changed how we look at cataloging? What are we to make of this?:
“A whole generation of catalogers is at retirement age. Some describe themselves as “depressed” because they believe they will never be replaced, that this is “the end of our profession,” and libraries are “undoing their life’s work.” Nonetheless, one library reported that recently it had intentionally hired two new catalogers because its believes it is still valuable to have a cataloging-articulate perspective and voice within the library. The new librarians hired to fill this role are described as being more tuned into how to bring the users in to interact with the catalog and have a more external (user-centered) viewpoint than previous generations.”
Well, now I’m depressed. As someone who’s been speaking (and writing) on this topic for years to anyone who will listen, let me say that any library who is not now engaged in exploring what their catalogers need to know to make an effective transition to a new environment is not just missing the boat, but leading the way down the deep, dark path that will be where libraries who think change is not inevitable will be going when it’s no longer possible to dodge the bullets. Directors–do you have anyone else on your staff, besides the catalogers, who is capable of thinking about your catalog records as data, and not just catalog records? If you do, consider yourselves lucky, and please, treasure them. If you don’t, start investing in some training for those catalogers, because you’ll need them and their expertise, no matter what happens and no matter what external services you see in your future. Trust me on this. Oh, and if you think that anyone will be able to persuade your users to interact with the catalogs you have now, I have a bridge you might be interested in purchasing for your front lawn.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, on to the rest of the summary. I admit to a bit of confusion on the first point under “What Should be Done Concerning Cataloging of Local Digitized Collections?” The point is well taken that libraries are not now able to measure the value of their digitized collections to researchers generally and that usage data is missing on how researchers find these collections to start with, but there are a couple of sentences embedded in the first paragraph of that section that left me scratching my head:
“Libraries gave strong support for the idea to develop a scholarly “impact factor” that measures the value and return on investment of digital collections. Such a factor may require data to be embedded within the metadata for these collections.”
I think I keep pretty good track of what’s going on in the world of metadata, both within and outside libraries, but what is meant by ‘ … data to be embedded within the metadata …”? Are we talking about licensing, viruses, or what?
The recommendations on the last page, couched as answers to the question “What Can Lyrasis Do To Help?” seem like the most conservative outcomes one could imagine for what may have been (hope springs eternal) some pretty interesting conversations. How about at least one game-changer in there, like:
* Lead. Explore ways for libraries of all kinds to participate in the data revolution happening around them, sometimes referred to as library linked data.