iSchool day 5, Lackboard and panic at OCLC

Today is my fifth class day at the iSchool. After some rethinking of my class schedule I’ve managed to put together a stimulating and (eek!) challenging set of classes. The hardest part, I think, is going to be time management. As a half-time single parent, the time I have for studying comes in big uneven chunks not of my own choosing. On occasion I’m going to have to get a paper completed a week ahead in order to have a prayer of finishing it at all.

The biggest aggravation to date, upon which the gods of irony are no doubt smiling their wicked grins, has been the “e-learning” part of the work. It takes seven steps to burrow one’s way into the Blackboard discussion session which is required for one of my classes, with of course no e-mail or RSS export to keep tabs on what’s been going on. The electronic reserves and e-journal subscriptions are full of usability booby traps and browser issues. It’s all an excellent object lesson in how we need to improve things for our users, although my TAs swear that’s not intentional.

One of the online readings has been an interesting, if uneven, survey of the state of libraries from 2003: 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition. I don’t know what “environmental scan” or “pattern recognition” are supposed to mean but what the heck. The report is full of statistics divorced from context, a few charts that would make Edward Tufte scream in pain, and the shifts in style that plague anything written by committee, but it makes some points worth reading. What’s interesting is the air of panic that seems to have replaced the techno-utopianism of a few years ago. There seems to be a lot of angst around the fact that people use Google more often than they use libraries (which I don’t think should in itself be alarming unless you believe it’s a zero-sum game) or that young people today do a lot of IMing and gaming. There’s a quaint sidebar about gen-X librarians vs. boomer librarians which implies that they may find common ground in their equal fogeyhood in the eyes of those scary young people.

The piece writhes with envy over the successes of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble and implies that libraries should do more to emulate them, while notably leaving out the anxiety I hear from other quarters that people are buying more books now but reading them less. I don’t know that the latter claim is true, but if so it suggests that maybe libraries should claim a territory distinct from that of the big retailers.

I’d like to know more about the politics behind the sections on the “open access” movement (mostly academics who want to cut the middleman out of scholarly publishing) and on digital rights management. Last I heard OCLC wasn’t exactly in the business of free information, even if its member institutions are, so I have to wonder about a conflict of interest. There’s some talk about how DRM is extremely difficult but an inevitable development in order to make e-publishing work; the preservation section later in the report says only that DRM is “complex” and in “tension” with the open access community and stops short of saying what it really means for preservation, namely total annihilation. I’m convinced that ubiquitous DRM would in time be worse for preserving our intellectual and cultural heritage than if someone were running around burning down libraries.

Finally, for all of its obsession about Google the report couldn’t of course anticipate the news from the end of 2004 that Google is about to start scanning entire libraries and making their contents available online, beginning with those of Stanford and Michigan. Seems to me that will make bigger changes in the “environment” than everything Google has done to date.

5 thoughts on “iSchool day 5, Lackboard and panic at OCLC

  1. The OCLC scan seemed to have a “sky is falling” theme about it. I found it interesting in parts, but overall quite unsettling. If, as stated on the OCLC site, the group is “dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information and reducing information costs,” then shouldn’t OCLC embrace the increasing digitization and categorization of Google et al and seek a way to participate in that process, rather than seek ways to further the inefficient, budget-draining, closed-access library systems of today? I’m not anti-library by any means, but in this report the OCLC seems to be in reactionary, defensive mode, writing from a professional-centric perspective rather than a user-centric perspective.

  2. Couple of comments and reactions to yours. Perhaps it’s my writing style, but I can assure you the Scan was not written by a committee. Lorcan, Cathy and I all wrote sections, and then I edited the whole document.
    Also, “environmental scan” and “pattern recognition” are terms used, respectively, by the business community to describe a review of factors in a business environment that are or may impact that business; and the latter term comes from computer science, although William Gibson’s recent book by this name is the parent of our use of the term.
    Are you familiar with the OCLC partnerships with Yahoo Search! and Google? We are indeed making information freely accessible on the open web.
    Finally, none of those involved with writing the Scan are panicked or envious about any of the trends we focused on. Quite the contrary: I personally find this the most interesting and stimulating time of my career. I found the time just after I graduated from library school in the later 80s much gloomier.
    If you care to track what we think about trends like Google Print that happened after the Scan was written, we have a blog at http://www.scanblog.blogspot.com
    Best of luck in your studies.

  3. Thanks for the note. I continue to be surprised when my obscure blog entries reach the attention of the people whose works I comment on, and pleased (if sometimes embarrassed) when they reply.

    Sorry for the snarky comment about style; I’m sure that that kind of writing is very difficult and as such things go this report deserved no special complaint. However, I’m not alone in finding the report an expression of anxiety, even if that wasn’t its intent. That’s certainly how my fellow students read it, and although I don’t want to put words in his mouth and he was careful to stress an upbeat note as you have, our prof Andrew Dillon clearly had us read the report in order to shake us up.

    (Dillon also brought up the NEA Reading at Risk report, which just about had people collapsing with panic attacks, but more about that another time.)

    My aside about OCLC not being “in the business of free information” is based on what I hear from catalogers unhappy with OCLC’s funding structure, which I’m sure isn’t news to anybody who deals with cataloging but may be irrelevant to OCLC’s other activities.

    You’re absolutely right that I need to know more about what OCLC does. I’ve subscribed to your blog — great idea! — and look forward to catching up.

  4. In a followup discussion of the OCLC report among members of the iSchool faculty, one of them, a historian of libraries and classification, criticized the report as “historicism“, which he called (to paraphrase) “the fallacy that present trends determine the future”. Trends change, he said, and always do.

    Which makes sense to me. But it reminds me of this rejoinder to Gregg Easterbrook’s critique of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. I know that’s a big pile of citations, but bear with me. Diamond wrote a historically grounded book about why past civilizations collapsed and why ours might as well; Easterbrook replied that neither ancient nor recent history is relevant and Diamond is ignoring (I kid you not) how great things may be 13,000 years from now when we’re exploring the galaxy; and Philalethes ripped Easterbrook a new one for his blind utopianism, which Philalethes calls “the Cornucopian Fallacy“.

    I haven’t read Diamond’s book yet (I look forward to it; his previous Guns, Germs and Steel was great). But I’m inclined to agree that “I shouldn’t worry what happens in my kids’ lifetime because Star Trek told me things will only get better after that” is no argument.

    So… is it foolish Easterbrookism for me to remain calm in the face of scary trends like those in the OCLC and NEA reports? And is “historicism” a legitimate pejorative to use against either the OCLC or Diamond?

  5. I disagreed with Prof M’s “historicism” critique of the OCLC scan. As I commented above, I’m not wild about the scan. But the scan argues that information professionals need to learn more about and become more actively involved in digitization efforts and the general movement toward electronic information access and retrieval.

    If the report were historicism, it would argue that this is happening and there’s nothing information professionals can do about it.

    Like you I read Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, but not Collapse (yet). I did see this weekend that they have Collapse at Costco for nearly half off its cover price, if you’re interested.

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