I saw a rather good documentary, Google and the world brain on BBC4 the other night. If you didn’t catch it I can recommend it. It was intelligent,well made, and allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions.
The subject matter was Google Books. Google seems to have surrounded this with layers of legalistic secrecy that are bound to incur suspicion even if this isn’t actually justified. Several of the talking heads mentioned that they’d been told to sign non-disclosure agreements and there was one scene where the librarian of a monastic library just stopped speaking in obvious confusion about what he could or couldn’t say. This was exacerbated by Google US’s odd decision not to participate in the programme (and yet one of their Spanish staff did do so?)
Yet the logic of Google Books seems clear. As a librarian I’m all for free availability of information, and it seems obvious that a search engine provider would want to add ever more information to their database to improve the quality of the answer. I think it was the fact that the digitisation puts the scanned images into the control of one organisation that drew most suspicion. Can we trust one organisation to do this fairly? The jury is out on that one.
The other objections were equally predictable. The programme painted a perhaps unfair picture of the nationalistic objections from the former head of the Bibliotheque Nationale. However the objection which has done most to hinder the original aims of the Google Books project is copyright. Up until recently Google Books was scanning in-copyright books but said that this was legal because of the ‘fair use’ clause in copyright law. Due to legal actions they’ve now stopped this and are scanning only books outside copyright (even though the laws which define what is and isn’t copyright aren’t exactly universal either!).
The programme touched on the murky world of copyright. Both sides of the argument were presented: that knowledge itself can’t be held to be private and so only the author’s arrangement of the words is copyright-able, versus the argument that if an author has spent a year or more of his/her time creating a book they deserve some kind of recognition and reward for this. Much can be said on this and opinions are very entrenched so I won’t say any more!
Another aspect of the programme which deserves further exploration is Google’s motives in developing Google Books. It is costing them millions of dollars. Improving the search engine is an obvious aim, but also mentioned was an aspiration towards Artificial Intelligence. There were several quotations from H.G. Wells musing on the World Brain. However the acquisition of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to use that knowledge logically, fairly and morally (just look at many of the occupants of the House of Commons for evidence of that!). If Google is working towards AI, then the ‘thinking brain’ must be another one of those Google side-projects, some of which blossom (like Android), and others which never go anywhere. Of course if they are working on AI they are not alone, as there are many projects of this nature around the world, some overt and sharing their results in the scientific principle, but doubtless others which are under the radar. But I suspect that Google’s slightly quirky approach to development might have led them further down the road than others which are less free to question doctrine. Google Search was a game-changer when it emerged, but an adaptable AI which could operate outside very closely defined parameters might well be a society-changer. ….
For a while now I’ve thought that libraries will eventually be involved in supplying textbooks to individual students as well as having copies for loan, and a number of recent developments have suggested that this is now beginning to happen. A new joint pilot venture between Ingrams and Coventry University will supply first year undergraduates at Coventry with their textbooks free as part of their course fees. As an alternative model a number of publishers are working with JISC on an e-textbook model which will be available to all students on a module for that duration of that module. Lastly, at the recent Dawsons Day in Manchester I heard how Dawsons had worked with the UEA library to supply students with course textbooks. Of course, this is what the Open University has been doing for some courses for years (and as a former OU student I’m very aware of how much easier it makes life for the part-time off-campus student!) but it is now happening for full time students as well.
This indicates some interesting directions for UK Higher Education. As shown by the rise of reading list software such as Talis Aspire and rebus: list the reading list is becoming more central to the learning process. Students are reading only what is on the module reading lists (‘plus ca change..’ some might say). However in this fee-driven environment, students do not view textbooks as an unavoidable expense. Instead they expect libraries to buy them in sufficient numbers for all students on a module to access a copy whenever they want. This is financially impossible for most libraries, and of course was causing a decline in sales for publishers. Therefore, assuming that the cost is not coming from normal library funds, the model of supplying textbooks as part of the course fees works to the benefit of the students, the library and the bookseller. Moreover, if the university represents it as a benefit to the student, it possibly gets it some competitive advantage to its rivals (ie other universities which don’t do this). This works for both paper and ebooks, and indeed the logistics makes the latter prefereable from the point of view of the supplier. As it is already highly experienced in dealing with book suppliers and copyright law, the library is the obvious part of the university to play the role of arranging all this (possibly in co-operation with IT if the loading of ebooks onto devices is envisaged).
Of course, these ideas may seem like nonsense to many in other parts of the world. I was recently talking to 2 american librarians who told me that their library has very few copies of textbooks, and that students expect that they must purchase their own textbooks. I can only guess at the reasons for the difference in student attitudes (but it does help to explain what has been a great mystery to UK library staff who have to work with US LMS designed with little understanding of why or how a ‘Short Loan’ collection is run or why it is even needed!).
After about 4 years Leeds Equity Partners are selling Ex Libris. The new owners will be Golden Gate Capital, another very large private equity firm. Speaking as an outsider, Ex Libris seem to me to have done well during the Leeds Equity years, having released their new LMS Alma to a good reception. Hopefully they will do as well under their new owners.
For some years now, and in 2 jobs, I’ve been looking for a new search solution for the libraries I’ve worked in. All the feedback shows that users just want ‘stuff’: the answer to the question that they hadn’t really thought through, quickly and in one place. They don’t want to have to search for books and journal articles separately. They don’t see the point of abstracts. They don’t want to be faced with multiple authentication barriers. They do want up to date information. They want it now.
And most libraries still aren’t providing what the users are asking for. Not that this is always the fault of the libraries: the task of putting together a system to do this is expensive, time-consuming, and it isn’t easy. A lot of libraries take the easy option and implement a so-called ‘new generation’ catalogue (eg Encore or Primo in their vanilla flavours), which usually consists of an improved keyword search and friendlier screens on top of the existing library database. This fails to recognise that users want easy access to all of the information that a library supplies, not just its books.
An alternative is to take the new generation catalogue and to add article-discovery tools on top of it (eg Encore Synergy, Primo with the Primo Central Index and possibly Metalib). This means that your users are simultaneously searching your books and that subsection of your databases/ejournals which are accessible and included in the added indexes. This isn’t comprehensive, it is expensive, and I’m not confident that all suppliers have the ability to integrate this all without the sort of unexpected extra costs that University Librarians dislike intensely. Few libraries have the staffing resource to do much more than simple integration.
Another alternative is to go with the database suppliers, such as Ebsco’s EDS and Serial Solutions Summon. In both case they leverage their existing large central databases of journal resources, and the library uploads its catalogue to it on a regular basis. This results in a search of the books, plus the proportion of your ejournals which are in that suppliers central index. Your users see the Google-like single search box, which by and large the students adapt to well and the academics and library staff, who are used to separate author and title indexes, find confusing. The library needs to keep its holdings synchronised with the central index, which means procedures of varying complexities to handle new books and lost/ discarded books.
Of course there are other alternatives: I’m hopeful that the new OCLC world-scale cloud-hosted system might make things easier, and Alma, the new Ex Libris system, builds on Primo to take libraries further. DIY solutions might be possible if the library has several able developers: VuFind has been used to build next-generation catalogues in several US libraries and it may be possible to link it using web services to online resources.
But for the short-staffed library with limited resources there is still no simple solution despite the requirement having been clear for several years. Suppliers make claims which they don’t deliver on, and libraries continue to implement partial solutions which ultimately disappoint users. In IT I’ve learnt that perfect solutions to problems are rare, but paradigm changes do happen (iPad anyone?), and this situation is one that is ripe for new thinking and new approaches.
Jack Blount is back! According to Marshall Breeding’s invaluable Guideposts he has been appointed as the new CEO of OCLC. I met Jack when he was head of SirsiDynix and led the ill-fated Corinthian project. The appointment places him in an unusual position, as OCLC’s highly interesting Web-Scale Management System places OCLC as a rival to his former company SirsiDynix’s Symphony LMS. Alongside Richard Wallis’ recent appointment as Technology Evangelist this makes OCLC definitely a company to watch!
There was a rather interesting juxtaposition on the Radio 4 news today. Firstly, the Ordnance Survey have been looking at our criteria for buying houses – apparently for about about 45% of us proximity to some kind of countryside is important in our choice of a home, more so than proximity to work (sorry, no reference for this story yet as I can’t find it on the BBC news site!). Secondly, the government’s plans for reform of the planning laws have had the go-ahead, which are likely to result in a reduction of the amount of green spaces. What happened to the idea of a government representing the views of the people?
According to Marshall Breeding’s highly respected ALA Techsource blog two private equity companies have acquired holdings in Innovative Interfaces. Therefore the company is no longer controlled exclusively by Jerry Kline, who has run it since 2001 when he bought out the last of his co-investors. The reason why Kline has decided to do this aren’t stated, although he has taken a step back from active management in recent years, and the company’s new LMS Sierra must be taking considerable investment to bring to market.
As a customer of III I’m on the fence as yet whether it is good or bad news. The takeover of Dynix by Seaport and then Vista Equity Partners didn’t turn out well for Horizon users, but Ex Libris seems to be doing well after its purchase by Francisco Partners and then Leeds Equity. III has good relationships with most of its customers and it will have to reassure them that there is no threat, but if it means that Sierra turns out as good a product as promised that will go a long way to keeping them happy and retaining them. The Innovative Users Group Conference is coming up soon in Chicago, so no prizes for the main topic of discussion!
I’ve been following the recent furore about THAT footballer with a wry interest. I’m not particularly interested in the details of his love life, or indeed in football generally, but the way that Twitter has made a nonsense of the Superinjunction does demonstrate that the Internet is not good for secrecy. Another example would be WikiLeaks. Some of the motives behind publication are different: my impression is that WikiLeaks was initially motivated by a combination of anti-US sentiment and idealism, while the footballer furore is celebrity gossip, but in both cases the Internet has been used to make information public which other people strived to keep silent. Of course, a common feature in both cases was human nature: the possession of secrets makes us feel privileged, while gossip about them creates insider and outsider groups which promotes belonging and self-worth. Moreover the way that the Internet fosters conspiracy theories demonstrates that information (whether true or false) is made much more available that it once was, so there is much more opportunity for these feelings.
Maybe then, this demonstrates the way that the Internet is changing society. Information literacy – the ability to understand and manipulate information – is becoming more important, and this skill is becoming more widely important across society. Secrecy isn’t going to go away but its promotion and techniques will get cleverer.
So III have announced that they are developing a new LMS?????? It is a pity that this was announced only at IUG so all their other customers worldwide get to hear the news second-hand…… To use David Nobbs’ phraseology: a bit of a cock-up on the publicity front, Innovative.