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.