Friday, May 29, 2009

Lost Archive. Lost in the Archive. Lost on us?

Over the last month or so I’ve seen a couple of stark reminders about why digitization and digital preservation matter so much. The first case reported was where “in Cologne, Germany, a six-story building that housed a significant portion of cultural archives collapsed yesterday within three minutes. Among the documents were drafts and papers of Nobel prize-winning writer Heinrich Böll, and Karl Marx’s 19th century manuscripts, according to The Times of London.” Many of the original materials contained in the archive are now feared permanently lost, although some microfilm copies may allow reconstruction of portions of the collection. Due to this building’s collapse and the priceless contents it contained, a gap has been created in the historical record of European culture and it can’t be replaced.

In the second instance, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, was an article by Eric Jager, entitled “Lost in the Archives” which details the issues involved in doing research that require source materials that are not yet digitized. The author seeks an elusive document, critical for the author’s research and it is referenced by an entry in the Bibliotheque Nationale. However, the actual item can’t be located, isn’t digitized and thus ends up being presumed lost. The result? A permanent gap in the author’s research that can’t be filled any other way.

Let’s not let the lesson be lost on us. Both stories underscore the need and importance for libraries and archives to digitize critically important items and to surround those digital archives with preservation policies and preservation systems that ensure permanent access. However, digitization and digital objects, while providing extended access and helping ensure the loss of the physical item doesn't eliminate access, it too comes with requirements.

When discussing digital preservation, the point is often made there is no such thing as benign neglect. Yet it has been pointed out before this is the very policy used by many institutions to manage physical archival collections. As is also pointed out in that same link, using this policy with digital objects means their ultimate destruction. As knowledge continues to grow in leaps and bounds and increasingly only in digital formats, it becomes all the more critical that we aggressively move forward in preserving it.

There is no question that in this time of economic crisis, moving aggressively into digital preservation means finding new money in an increasingly challenging environment. Which is why I wonder if this isn’t yet another front for us to begin working toward making digital preservation for libraries and archives a national initiative tied to national infrastructure funding? The idea has certainly been mentioned before, but now is clearly the time to make it happen.

The situations described above will not be the last time the stories of loss and destruction of critical information appear. As librarians and archivists, we must understand the price we’re paying if we allow this to happen, and it is likely a price that won’t be fully known until far in the future, possibly past our lifetimes. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe we can make the case to find national funding. Librarians and archivists also now have the technology, guidelines and many documented best practices available to them to help ensure these types of stories appear much less frequently. This would mean that libraries and archives could remain true to their mission statements of preserving knowledge and culture, and their access, well into the future.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Libraries; A Silence That Is Deafening - Part 3

After my original post "Libraries: A Silence That Is Deafening" I heard from a reader, Donald B. Reynolds, Jr. who is the Director of a library in Morristown, Tennessee. Don pointed out to me that Leslie Burger, while President of ALA, had in fact taken on the issue of defining a vision for the future of libraries. He also provided me a link to the work. I read what she had done and was impressed with the effort. But I also noticed that her work seemed to dead-end with the end of her term as President which was in 2006/2007. So, I contacted Leslie and asked if she would do a guestblog on what had happened. The following is her post. I sincerely thank her for doing this.

Libraries; A Silence That Is Deafening - Part 3 by Leslie Burger, Director, Princeton Public Library and Past-President, American Library Association

There have been a number of blog posts recently about the concept of developing a national vision for libraries. I am pleased that this topic has come up once again for discussion within the library community. During my term as ALA president I advanced the idea of developing such a vision – a well-conceived articulation of what we want libraries to provide for the millions of people who use our services each year. In fact, I convened a group of thinkers who came together in ALA Washington’s Office to formulate the vision in December 2006, developed a draft for discussion among ALA’s various divisions, roundtables and interest groups, and authored a final document entitled, “An Agenda for 21st Century Libraries”, that was widely distributed at the ALA 2007 Annual conference in Washington, DC. Then I was no longer ALA president and the library community and association turned its attention to my successor’s initiatives. Unfortunately, with only less than a year to get some traction on this discussion I just ran out of time to keep the ball rolling.

I agree with Carl, that now more than ever, we need a singular vision that excites our users, funders and our colleagues about the uniquely powerful role libraries play in our democracy and how what each of us do every day changes people’s lives. We need a vision to guide ALA’s legislative agenda. We need an agenda to ensure that we capture the attention of government officials and others so we can obtain the funding we need to fundamentally transform libraries and the communities we serve. I tried to do this within ALA but fell short so maybe we need to convene another group, in another venue to advance the cause. Perhaps it’s time for an un-conference, or some other informal gathering either in person or in the blogosphere to have this discussion. Let’s take some inspiration from President Obama and approach this from a grass roots perspective. We don’t need permission, we can do this on our own.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

It is time for us to get rid of THEY thinking

I was just reading the May 1st, 2009 issue of Library Journal and an interesting article about “Publishers and Librarians: Two Cultures, One Goal”. I came across some sentences in the article that really frustrate me, both as a librarian and a vendor. Those were: “There are license agreements to figure out and phone calls from vendors for new databases we can’t afford. (I have never bought anything over the phone. Are they crazy?).

The statement is a dichotomy. It is further exacerbated given the subtitle on the article – “two cultures, one goal”. The author is right in the subtitle in making the point that we’ve got to work together, librarians and vendors, toward the same goal(s). Which is why we have to change the kind of thinking shown in those sentences.

Most vendors will tell you that one of their largest costs; usually right behind the cost of the staff to produce products, is the travel budget to sell those products. If we can work together to reduce the vendor travel cost, we can work together to reduce the cost of those products. Why are vendors calling you on the phone and trying to sell you things? It’s not because they’re crazy, and in this time of economic crisis, it’s not because they’re trying to increase our profit margins, it’s because they’re trying to make those products more affordable for you to buy. If you can’t afford to buy a product, it does the vendor no good. Vendors have to sell to survive. So please pause to think about all the costs created with the typical library purchasing behaviors (multiple on-site sales calls, demo’s, RFI’s, complicated procurement and contracting processes) and realize that the vendor must turn around and cover those costs within the purchase price of those products. You want cheaper products, products you can afford? Work with the vendors to reduce the costs of selling those products.

The bottom line for vendors serving this community is that if you, as libraries and librarians don’t succeed, neither do we. We understand that. The next time a vendor salesperson calls you on the phone seeking to find out if a product solves a need you have, rather than concluding they’re crazy, please pause to think if they’re being responsive to your economic situation and trying to help you be successful. That would be “we” thinking instead of “they” thinking. We’re in this together. In this time of economic crisis, it’s time we for us to get rid of “they” thinking.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Libraries choosing to end preservation programs

I attended our User Group meeting last week and one of the programs was a panel presentation on preservation that I had organized. It was well attended and, of course, for both the panelists and me, this was very gratifying. After the presentation, Sandy Card from the State University of New York in Binghamton approached me and said, “Any credible library has a print preservation program. If they do, then why would they not have a digital preservation program?” She went on to point out that digital is part of a continuum and should not be considered a special and foreign entity entirely separate from print.

I have to admit, it’s a great question. Unfortunately, the reality is not so great. It is a bit shocking and depressing how many libraries have yet to start on any kind of digital preservation program and thus my reason for the headline on this post. If your library is not underway in planning and running a digital preservation program, your library has chosen to end its preservation program.

Why are so many libraries apparently choosing this alternative? Many find the complexity of the problem overwhelming. There are a myriad of issues and complicating factors including technical and legal, not to mention the need to plan for preservation, generate sustainable business models and find ways to fund the cost. Yet the reality is that enough libraries have started down this pathway that there is a lot of information now available to help libraries through this process and to solve these problems. Answers are being found or developed. There are conferences, blogs, wikis and numerous online resources that will also help (see the list below for a quick set of references).

If you’re totally new to digital preservation and want to get started and have a bit of a chuckle while learning about digital preservation, I highly recommend the video that one of the panelists, Ed Corrado of the State University of New York, Binghamton used at the start of our panel presentation mentioned above. It’ll help you understand what digital preservation is, why you need it and how to get started.

Whether you’re new to digital preservation or not, there are definite steps you, on behalf of your organization, should be undertaking. These include:
  1. Learning about all the new and emerging developments, best-practices, workflows and solutions being developed in this field. Read the references cited below and/or sign up to monitor blog and website feeds on the topic. Attend local seminars and conferences on the subject. Sign up for a training class in digital preservation ( See here for more info.)
  2. Start inventorying the total digital content your organization has, formats, sizes, counts and what is not being preserved in any way shape or form currently (which will become the starting point of your efforts).
  3. Remind colleagues that preservation begins with the start of any new digital initiative in your community. Granted, you may decide that the content may not pass the criteria for being preserved, but the question must be asked.
  4. Start developing the policies and guidelines you’ll use in running a digital preservation program. This can’t be overstated and it was interesting on the panel discussion last week how many times this theme recurred. Develop these early as they’ll set the parameters by which you’ll be able to determine how much you’re going to be responsible for preserving, under what conditions, for how long, etc. All of these are essential to understanding the budget that will be needed.
  5. Finally, a point that is made in the document “Sustaining the Digital Investment” is to be sure your funding authorities understand that preservation isn’t just about ensuring access to content 50-100 years from now, it is about ensuring access to content 3-5 years from today. (If you own 3” floppy disks, you know what we’re talking about here).
The bottom line reality is this: due to the lack of active, sustainable digital preservation programs, we are losing access to valuable and important cultural information, right now, today. As librarians and archivists, if we allow this to happen, we are falling down on the job. If we don’t reverse this trend quickly, the gap in the human record is going to be large and unrecoverable and the headline at the start of this post will be proven to have been true.

Selected References:
  1. Sustaining the Digital Investment; Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation. December 2008.
  2. The Preservation of Digital Materials; A Library Technology Report. February/March 2008 issue.
  3. Digital Preservation Management; Implementing short-term strategies for long term problems.
  4. The ESPIDA Project.
  5. The SUN sponsored Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG).
  6. The Ex Libris Digital Preservation System (Rosetta).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Libraries: Silence Across the Pacific Too

By Derek Whitehead
President, Australian Library and Information Association

Thank you to Carl Grant for inviting me to guestblog for the new Commentary blog. Carl kicked off with a post entitled Libraries: A Silence That Is Deafening.

Carl is concerned that there is no national vision for libraries, and they are nowhere on the national agenda. Libraries have a lot to contribute in the current environment, but in reality, they have hardly been touched by the huge volume of increased federal infrastructure spending being unleashed now – at best, a cameo role in a trillion dollar performance, Carl suggests. We are part of the national information and education infrastructure, so why aren’t we sharing in the massive infrastructure rebuild going on now?

Quite true, and very distressing. It is pretty much as true of Australia, unfortunately, as it is of the US. Libraries did not rate in the outcomes of the Australia 2020 Summit a year ago. They have played only a small part in the current spending on infrastructure.

Here are a few messages from Australia.
  • Two new studies of school libraries and librarians by Edith Cowan University, in Perth, Western Australia – see this link that shows that half of Australia’s school libraries have less than A$10,000 a year to spend, while there is a deteriorating infrastructure and chronic under-staffing.
  • The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) is holding a Public Libraries Summit on 16 July. We would really love all three levels of government to pitch in and support the public library system – local, state and national – as part of a national information infrastructure. But of A$42 billion provided in February in the National Building and Jobs Plan, A$550 million will go to the Community Infrastructure Program, and some of that (we don’t know how much) will go to public libraries. Getting our own act together is the first step. See this link.
  • Not just the public library infrastructure. In Australia’s national report on innovation, Venturous Australia, Dr Terry Cutler proposed a National Information Strategy which “optimizes the generation and flow of ideas and information in the Australian economy.” He stressed the importance of national collections, and recommended more money for cultural and scientific collections, specific funding for open access repositories, support for key state collections as well as national collections, and more.
  • Australia’s Friends of Libraries (FOLA) have suggested that in times of economic downturn, libraries have an enhanced value to the country – their use is counter-cyclical, to quote the jargon. “The critical message from the current and previous economic downturns is that when the economy is weaker, families and people need, use and value their public libraries even more.” See their statement in The Economic Downturn and Public Libraries.
One response to questioning about the future of libraries – my response in fact – is to re-assert the values which libraries hold. The values are more important than books (which have taken a few hits in recent years one would have to admit), more important than Google (which wrong-headed librarians see as a rival rather than a complement), more important than Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 (actually something like Library 8.0 – we’ve been around a long time). ALIA has strong values – see this link.

The values are access to information, inclusiveness, information democracy, the right to know. Library values are very important for everyone.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Redefining innovation…

Librarians will begin receiving this week the May issue of American Libraries wherein they will see our newest advertisement:

Certainly the ad is a bit tongue-in-cheek with its depiction of a black-box ILS exploding into a rainbow of new and open-platform options that can be supplied by Ex Libris. However there is also a very important message contained in this ad for all libraries.

As a profession, we’ve spent over 30 years of effort and gone through several generations of technology in creating a core automation infrastructure that is in place today in nearly every library. The functionality contained in all those products is, on one hand, extremely rich. On the other hand, with each new version and new set of features comes some level of additional complexity. Where is the balance point? Right now, a lot of discussion in the profession is centering on what to do about that technology? Replace it? Or, can we leverage what we have?

It has been interesting to note that many of the discussions about next generation software for libraries mention the need for “less complexity” in systems. Maybe. I’m sure it’s true that if an audit could be done of what functions are used by librarians, out of the entire suite of functions available, we’d find it is only a subset used day-in-and-day-out. Yet, that additional functionality was deemed important enough to add and many librarians will tell you its still important to running their libraries efficiently. Is there other functionality that is no longer needed because of other changes? Sure. For instance, many academic environments now no longer have libraries collect payments, it is simply a charge passed directly to the pursers’ office for collection. As more information becomes digital, will we even need overdue policies? Serials are becoming digital, so do we need prediction patterns, receipt check-in, etc. Probably not. The real point for me is this: what are really changing behind the scenes are our workflows. The idea that bringing in a simplified solution to handle a few portions of a library’s operation is surely false economy if that means that the lack of functionality in that and other areas causes workloads to multiply by many factors to make up for those few simplified workflows. It seems to me that what we need are comprehensive, unified management solutions and until those are available, the ability to leverage the sizable intellectual and financial investment we’ve made in our existing technology.

I doubt we’ll find many that will argue that librarianship today needs to be agile, responsive to user needs and show creative thinking in dealing with new workflows and end-user needs. Another solution that exists in the market that has always seemed short-sighted and false economy is those that buy core infrastructure solutions that install easily and requires little management but are so totally locked down that the library can only be agile and responsive to their end-user needs if their vendor sees those needs the same way. This, if it happens, all too often comes with an expensive price tag. Is that agile? Is that innovative?

Another approach is the message we’re highlighting in our new ad. We all understand that we’re in a transition period. A time when new technology solutions are taking shape both as a result to change in the information environment, but also because of the economic environment. Until those new solutions are available, libraries will need to be extremely agile and responsive. They need to be able to focus on end user needs, deliver new discovery and information handling tools and preserve the value of librarianship. All this must happen while the day-to-day operation of the library runs smoothly.

Having sophisticated, functionally rich systems in place that are, to use our parlance “open-platform” means the best of all worlds during this transitional time. Solid and market proven solutions. Out of the box interfaces, but also the ability to have customized and/or open source interfaces, to users and other systems on top. This would allow all of us to be focused on meeting end-user needs and delivering all the functionality they’ve come to expect. That to me would be true innovation in librarianship.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Libraries; A Silence That Is Deafening

During the last election campaign in the United States, there was a bumper sticker that spoke to what was happening in this country: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Fellow librarians, are we paying attention?

As a librarian in the United States, I’m growing more and more upset and outraged about the lack of a national vision for librarianship. Where is our professional leadership in this time of economic crisis? Who is describing a vision that inspires us and that we can support? Furthermore, why haven’t libraries and librarianship been considered as part of the national infrastructure and eligible to receive significant funding assistance to bring them to up to 21st century global capabilities as the US Federal Government is giving to banks and insurers in the new economic packages?

I’ve now done a couple of posts (here
and here ) stating that I think we librarians are lacking a national vision and agenda and are placing our profession and institutions at risk as a result. I believe the profession’s introspective nature and actions have led to a situation where our lack of a focused strong vision and agenda has resulted in a silence that is deafening. It’s time for us to speak up. I for one do not want to contribute to the silence!

I recently read an interesting editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education
that I found extremely well written. It described this same set of issues in today’s educational institutions and the actions educators should be taking in response. There are some wonderful messages and ideas in that article that can be applied directly to libraries (frequently, with little more than a word swap).

John Simpson, President of the University of Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, makes the following points, which I’m going to paraphrase and add to, in order to have it apply to libraries:

1. Today’s youth face a decreased probability of graduating from college in this country when compared to their parents. The American Bar Foundation separately notes:
“It is surprising and disturbing that, at a time when the premium for skills has increased and the return to graduating high school has risen, the high school dropout rate in America is increasing. “ The ABF further notes: “To increase the skill levels of its future workforce, America needs to confront a large and growing dropout problem.” Both what is stated by Dr. Simpson and what is stated by the ABF, represent trends that are massively alarming for employers and society in general. Since libraries are an integral part of academic campuses, this trend is of significant concern and should be a wake up call for libraries and librarians to drive for a national solution.

2. Dr. Simpson goes on to state: “We must again treat higher education as a public good, and to get there we need federal leadership” What is stated here is directly applicable to libraries as well. In fact, if we look at other countries, such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore (the list goes on), we see federal governments displaying not only an understanding that libraries play a key role in the future infrastructure of their countries and their pursuit of global excellence, but more importantly they are backing that understanding with government financing. In many cases that financing is tied to libraries (and educational institutions) achieving nationally defined goals. Brilliant!

3. “What is America’s national education strategy? ….What is our plan for making sure all...can compete and excel in a globalized economy?” are additional questions posed by Dr. Simpson. Again, the same questions are directly applicable to libraries. The sad answer right now is that there is no plan of this scope and dynamic for U.S. libraries. Simpson notes when talking about educational institutions “in the absence of shared national goals, state legislators perhaps can’t be blamed for taking short-term steps…” Again, the parallels for libraries in the United States are amazingly similar.

The United States now has trillions of dollars being spent by the federal government to rebuild its infrastructure. Yet if I go to the ALA website, what I find is this statement about the Omnibus spending bill: “The $410 billion spending bill, which includes the nine unfinished appropriations bills from last year, contains $171.5 million for the Grants to State Library Agencies program within the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). This funding level is an increase of more than $10 million from last year…” That might be well and good had libraries received appropriate levels of funding to begin with but when the funding has been so poor it has little impact. Further, if my math is right, that means out of a $410 billion dollar appropriation, libraries are getting less than 4/100’s of ONE percent of that amount!!! It is almost insulting. What is even more unbelievable to me is that ALA and its membership seems to find this acceptable? A recent post by Library Journal
points out that libraries received a “cameo” in the President’s address to Congress. Are we really satisfied that we received a cameo? Is our own self-image such that we don’t believe we offer way more than “online job searching and resume development, education on personal finances, and other services that respond to today’s pressing needs” as justification for us to receive additional funding? I find this cause for concern.

The librarian profession is part of the core infrastructure of America, of its society, and it is part of the very bedrock upon which the ideas and technology that defined our lives was built. Where is our outrage that the cutting and reduction of this core infrastructure is allowed to occur? Why aren’t we banding together to reaffirm and tell our story and articulate a vision? Our fellow educators seem to have a similar need maybe we should align with them? Given the state of the newspaper industry, another major information supplier that is rapidly disappearing, maybe we should also bring them into our efforts. Maybe all three groups, given the opportunity, could come up with a new model that maintains the core mission, goals and objectives they were theoretically founded to serve and which share so much.

The bottom line here is that we’ve got to get on with the task of redefining librarianship and what it means for users. And as part of the national agenda in America to rebuild infrastructure, we need to make it clear we are part of that infrastructure. Librarianship is important. The basic principles upon which this profession was based and the tenets that define its services are as sound as those defined in the documents underlying the democracy of America. We’ve seen those very principles under direct attack in our society and hopefully we’ve moved to pull them back to safety (although I’ll admit the question is still open for debate). Now it is time for us to do the same for our profession. Maybe we need a single, articulate leader to shoulder that role for us? That would undoubtedly be the easiest. But lacking that, we have many brilliant minds in this profession. Let’s carve a pathway, build a platform and align behind a clearly articulated vision of librarianship that will be understood and supported both nationally and internationally. Let’s map out how the vision contributes to the population we serve and the creation of global, competitive workers and by so doing, help to answer why government involvement and funding is needed. (Note: There are at least some ALA division efforts on this front. See ARL’s Strategic Planning initiative here
. Although an effort to find the same for libraries in general, National Libraries and/or Public Libraries can leave one exhausted and unsatisfied. As a result, even the ARL effort doesn’t support a larger national plan for libraries). It’s time for us to make it clear that alone or together with educators and possibly news people, we as librarians, are also ready to lead again.

Let’s start today.