Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 6: April 2005

The Library Stuff

Block, Marylaine, “Libraries: The original ‘long tail’,” Ex Libris 239 (February 11, 2005).

I’ve mentioned the “long tail” before—and the extent to which I believe it’s a fairly typical Wired Magazine situation: An editor grabs a long-standing cultural phenomenon, gives it a cute name, generalizes, and claims it’s something New and Special. The concept that most people appreciate and buy (or consume) media and other options far beyond the best-seller list should be familiar to libraries. It’s certainly familiar to good bookstores, magazine publishers, book publishers, record companies, and Netflix. Calling it “the long tail” gives Chris Anderson a wonderful new discovery and most likely a book that will be one of those irrelevant best-sellers. Oh that’s right: Anderson says the Internet makes the long tail feasible—which is largely nonsense but gives the concept that digital aura of greatness and newness.

Here’s Block’s comment after quoting a typically breathless Anderson paragraph:

I submit that the only thing new about the long tail is that because of the internet, the commercial world is just now discovering it. Libraries have been in the long tail business for centuries.

I disagree in part. Magazine publishers, very much part of the “commercial world,” rely on the “long tail”: 99% of the quarter-million magazines published in the U.S. reach tiny minorities of the reading public (less than 1%, mostly much less than 1%).

Block goes on to quote from an email conversation between her and Anderson (who apparently knows almost nothing about libraries, another consistent Wired trait).

That said, read this column. Anderson may be as tired as the rest of Wired, but Block has good things to say, particularly about the importance of libraries maintaining a commitment to deep collections (call it the “long tail” if you must) along with improving marketing savvy.

Hodgson, Cynthia, “RFID in libraries: Are we ready?” Information Standards Quarterly 16:4 (October 2004): 1-5.

I’m delighted that ISQ is still around, going strong after 16 years. I was the first editor of this NISO publication, which replaced Voice of Z39 in 1989. I edited and desktop-published 12 issues (three volumes) before turning the editorship over to Pat Ensor.

The lead essay in this issue is well worth reading as a good discussion of RFID’s strengths and weaknesses. Hodgson lists nine technological strengths (from ease of reading through reliability and life expectancy) and seven weaknesses (including use of proprietary technology, cost, and possibility of signal interception). After discussing library applications, Hodgson goes on to consider privacy concerns in one of the most levelheaded discussions I’ve seen. She notes standards development in the RFID area and concludes that some libraries may find RFID implementation timely while others may choose to wait for lower costs or to resolve privacy and other issues.

Smith, Kathlin, “The value of library as place,” CLIR issues 43 (January/February 2005).

This four-page article is an introduction to a forthcoming CLIR publication. The article begins with a provocative paragraph and two seminal questions:

Google’s recent announcement that it will collaborate with several major research libraries to digitize portions of their collections has brought the promise of desktop access to large research collections closer to reality. At the same time, it rekindled discussion of a question that emerged as soon as the potential of the Web became apparent: Do people still need the physical library? Most people agree that we will continue to require physical repositories of books and scholarly materials. Yet the wealth of high-quality information that can be accessed now, and the promise of more to come, challenges the library’s traditional reason for being: to serve as a repository of information and to make that information available to users.

What is the role of a library when users can obtain information from any location? And what does this role change mean for the creation and design of library space?

“Repository of information” is a sad version of a library’s role as collector, organizer, and repository of the cultural record. There’s a lot more to any good library than “information.” Indeed, the equation of library collections with “information” is one of the oversimplifications that encourages futurists to suggest that the physical collection can disappear when (almost) everyone has (some) access to (loads of stuff that may include) information on the web. Very little of what I borrow from public libraries can be classified as “information,” and most of my information doesn’t come from library collections—and I regard physical public and academic libraries as fundamental to a civilized society.

Architect Geoffrey Freeman discusses the reintegration of teaching spaces into academic libraries—a reintegration that can be positive, as long as it’s not essentially impoverishing a library by snatching its space. Scott Bennett, Yale librarian emeritus, argues that libraries need to understand more about now students learn in order to design space that supports those needs. One essay provides examples of how institutions are exploring a library role as “laboratory for the humanist and social scientist,” while another considers libraries that serve both researchers and the public. This should be a worthwhile volume.

Stanescu, Andreas, “Assessing the durability of formats in a digital preservation environment,” D-Lib Magazine 10:11 (November 2004).

“There are two necessary components in any measuring system—the units of measurement themselves and the process of applying those units of measurement.” This article offers a methodology for measuring the preservation durability of digital formats—something that Stanescu concedes isn’t as clearly definable as a meter. He hopes that INFORM, the methodology described in the paper, “will be the first step towards creating a useful definition for preservation durability.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that long-term digital preservation involves not only the longevity of digital media themselves but also the understandability of what’s stored on the digital media. “Given the speed at which formats come and go, how can modern librarians and archivists identify those formats most apt to survive the passage of time?”

INFORM, Investigation of Formats based on Risk Management, “attempts to discover specific threats to preservation and measure their possible impact on preservation decisions.” Stanescu mentions six classes of risk: risks arising from the digital object format, software, hardware, associated organizations, the digital archive itself, and migration plans for preservation. The methodology yields a “risk exposure” for the format that may change over time as risk is reassessed.

This paper is a fairly brief introduction to a complex topic. As such, it’s certainly worth reading if you expect to be involved in preservation decisions.

Stephens, Michael, “The balanced librarian,” Tame the web, January 28, 2005. www.tamethe­

Michael Stephens calls it “unplugging.” I didn’t give it a specific name—other than contemplation—in the March 2003 “The Crawford Files,” “The century’s most vital technological device” (American Libraries 34:3, p. 84). The idea’s the same: Unplugging. Taking breaks. Stephens works out 4 days a week “plugging in only to my iPod.” I’d go further: You need time when you’re not plugged in to anything.

Stephens also discusses the need to pick and choose, to select a few interests to follow to avoid drowning in too much everything. He’s right—and it’s good to hear this from someone as committed to All Things Technological as Stephens. If you don’t normally follow Tame the web, go track down the January archives and read this post. For that matter, go back and read my column. (And see the opening of Bibs & Blather, which was supposed to be a Perspective in the Spring issue before…well, before things got too crowded and busy.)

Tennant, Roy, “A bibliographic metadata infrastructure for the twenty-first century,” Library Hi Tech 22:2 (2004): 175-81.

When Roy Tennant wrote “MARC must die” in Library Journal (October 15, 2002), I gave him grief for it (at least privately). Not because my first book was about MARC and because I’ve been using the format for mumbletysome years (at least 30). Not because I think MARC is perfect. My problem with Roy’s columns was that they struck me as oversimplifying the situation and underestimating the sheer difficulty of replacing MARC with anything else, at least without losing much of MARC’s specificity and granularity. But he was trying to bundle a bunch of ideas into two very short columns—and he was trying to get people interested in a relatively arcane topic.

This article suffers from neither problem. I recommend reading it if you have access to Library Hi Tech and if you’re interested in a workable future for bibliographic retrieval that goes beyond full-text keyword searching. Tennant here does not say that MARC must die. What he says is that we need (and are building) an infrastructure that can accommodate a variety of metadata representations, some much simpler than MARC, some adding even more granularity to MARC (it’s needed in several areas such as personal names as well as 773$g)—and, for an enormous quantity of valuable bibliographic information from the past and going into the future, MARC itself:

What must die [are] not MARC and AACR2 specifically, despite their clear problems, but our exclusive reliance upon those components as the only requirements for library metadata…. We must…assimilate MARC into a broader, richer, more diverse set of tools, standards, and protocols.

It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. MARC as a set of metadata elements isn’t going away now or anytime soon. Z39.2, the formal record structure used to transmit MARC records between systems, probably isn’t going away either: It’s far more compact and self-contained than most metadata structures, and I know from experience that you only need about a dozen lines of code in a high-level programming language to be able to decode MARC at will. But MARC isn’t enough, and hasn’t been for a long time now. Yes, you can shoehorn lots of other things into Z39.2 and MARC records—but that’s force-fitting, and it shouldn’t be necessary.

This article discusses reasons the library community needs more than MARC itself—among them granularity, hierarchy, and the need to accommodate both very simple and very complex metadata—and some ways to deal with those needs. It’s happening, as Roy points out, and it’s being done in the same cooperative manner as the MARC formats: a collaborative effort involving RLG, OCLC and other institutions, coordinated by the Library of Congress.

OCLC’s new WorldCat will store records in an XML format that can incorporate MARC21 as well as other metadata systems, at least over time. RLG’s new database environment stores records in an XML format that can incorporate MARC21 as well as other metadata systems, at least over time. We’re all becoming familiar with crosswalks; we’re all struggling with issues of merging records and determining how the FRBR concept will play out in practice.

MARC isn’t dying. It’s becoming part of a richer community of bibliographic metadata standards. This is a good thing—an essential thing for anyone who believes there’s more to searching than tossing words against a sea of full text, for anyone who believes cataloging is meaningful, and for anyone who understands that the world has moved beyond a single universal format.

Wilson, Thomas C., “The origins of TER: Ten years after,” Technology Electronic Reviews 12:1 (February 2005).­tions/ter/volume12no1.htm

I rarely mention TER, not because it isn’t worthwhile but because I rarely mention book reviews—and that’s what TER is all about. It’s probably LITA’s first electronic publication and certainly the most successful one to date: Founded June 2, 1994, it’s done quite a bit since then, as Tom’s editorial shows. Worth reading if you care about the history of ejournals in librarianship.

I’m amused that Tom gives a formal name to my informal measure of longevity for ejournals: that an ejournal that’s still publishing and has a minimum of six years’ publishing record can be considered a lasting title. He calls it the Crawford Test. I’ll stand by six years as a reasonable measure for significance: Even if it later fails, any journal, e- or print, that publishes regularly for six years has done something right.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 6, Whole Issue 62, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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