Ebooks, the future of research & cultural preservation by libraries

Closed stacks

I read this post from O’Reilly TOC this morning and I was glad that someone finally raised these issues that have been bothering me for some time. I almost posted about the same issues a few weeks ago, but was distracted. The post raises some real concerns about the preservation of knowledge for future research. For me it is wider than that and goes to cultural preservation for our communities. Is it right that for our e-content we should just rely on someone else to have a copy (like Apple or Amazon as the article suggests)?

I had been worried about this, because like many other libraries we have been e-preferred for some time now. Is it also right that cultural material we collected and provided for our own communities could be unavailable for them in the future because the e-content is no longer available via our library? I don’t think it is and I don’t think we should simply hope for the best, divest ourselves of this responsibility and rely on others doing it for us, like say the National or State Libraries and certainly not the publishers because it isn’t really their role and it really never has been. Don’t we have an obligation along these lines (i.e. cultural preservation) for those in our communities? I think the rush to e-preferred has possibly led us to a focus on the now, the most convenient, the most efficient, and the least expensive alternatives, but quite probably at the expense of our obligation to preserve knowledge and culture for future generations.

I had been running around asking everyone who was involved with ebooks a lot of questions about what happens when the providers go bust, when we cease subscribing, or in the case of other inconvenient but worrying events (like hacking, file corruption, etc.). I am told that it varies with different ebook providers. Some regard it as a lease of those ebooks, others allow you to download the content in their proprietary format or in xml, but this ultimately isn’t a solution. Encrypted formats offer a whole other dilemma. Many contemporary publications are in danger of disappearing, becoming untrustworthy or inaccessible in the future if we don’t seriously consider this issue now. My own view is that there is actually more to cultural preservation of publications than simply preserving the xml. Books have always had other features, like covers, layout, typography, illustration, decoration, way finding assistance, etc., that add to the reader’s experience. In our relentless hunt for efficiency and convenience I think we’ve progressively discounted the value of these features for our readers.

Perhaps this will be addressed by those talking about ebooks at the conference.


One Response to Ebooks, the future of research & cultural preservation by libraries

  1. I completely agree. There is what I believe and underlying issue to all of this which I think quite a few institutions (at least in an academic context) miss and that is: what is the strategic expectation that your institution has of the Library? and/or what is it that you want your Library to do?

    Part of what I do is in the area of resource management and I can tell you that an understanding of either/or of those things will completely change how you acquire, process and present your resources. What is the underlying purpose? Personally I like the idea of the library keeping the ‘academic record’ and being to show what was relevant at a point of time. If you could link that to what your university produced at that point, then you are truly replicating the conditions under which research was produced, you could see the limitations, the possibilities and the true provenance of any ideas.

    As with Journals, I think the eBooks will end up being a cheap and easy option to get content to clients. Unlike journals, I think eBooks don’t have their ‘s#&t sorted out’ – publishing and licencing models prohibit systematic archiving and for the most part, decision makers lack the knowledge to be able to address issues.

    It’s probably important to stop and ask – are we purchasing, maintaining and providing access to a collection to which our institution has made contributions or are we just managing licences and letting others do the rest because it is cheaper, faster and easier?

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