Friday, August 25, 2006

Widening Gap Between Information-Rich and Information Super-Rich

by Tom Bozzo

Neat stuff, from Alan Schussman:
Beginning August 21, articles and book chapters from the University of Arizona Libraries print collections will be scanned and delivered to your desktop for free. You will now receive, free, all articles you need whether the UA library own[s] the journal or not.
Alan reports that this should make his off-campus life a lot easier; having spent a year of grad school off-campus, I couldn't disagree.

As a non-academic with occasional scholarly interests, what it highlights for me is a yawning gap between information services available to the general public and to people associated with higher education institutions.

Twenty years ago, open stacks were just about enough to level the playing field. Even for access to specialized research databases, this is fine if you are close to central Madison or otherwise have time to kill.

Virtualization of the libraries is another matter, since the advanced electronic library services usually aren't available to users with any old IP address. I'm inclined to view this as inefficiently low information dissemination due to missing markets for the information services. The UW libraries, for instance, will sell borrowing privileges to Wisconsin residents for $30/year, but apparently not outside access to the metalibrary for anything short of enrollment or employment.

This arguably isn't even good for the copyright holders who impose the access restrictions. For one thing, most of the contents of research university libraries have negligible commercial value outside of databases offering full texts (or more). Moreover, libraries could perform a useful database aggregation service, increasing the value of databases that potential users might not otherwise be inclined to pay for à la carte. With distribution costs near zero (*), the revenues would be pure gravy to the database providers and/or the copyright holders behind them. (I assume, of course, that anything of commercial value will already have been pirated by other means.)

So providing, on reasonable terms, public access to public research libraries' electronic collections would be good not only for the occasional blogger and in line with libraries' missions, but also — if a carrot is needed on the legislative side — for the bloggers' small business employers. Is there any reason completing markets in this direction wouldn't be good for everyone?


(*) An interesting question related to the UA electronic document delivery service is whether the documents provided under the service will be added to a database to minimize the marginal cost of repeated requests, as in the "Librareome Project" of Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (which involves digitization of research libraries' dead-tree collections to make pre-digital materials accessible to modern information retrieval systems).
The NYPL already does that to a limited extent (you need an NYPL library card, but those never expire, so they're relatively easy to maintain).

My firm pays for some of us to have access to Books24x7 as well. Of all the perquisites I would miss if downsized, that would be one of the more significant ones (even though we've only had it for a month or two, it has already reaped dividends).

(As an aside, I don't consider health care a perq, even if my employee does.)
I wondered about whether they'll add all the scanned documents to a database, too. Surely there are some materials that get requested very frequently, but many that only see one or two requests ever -- Amazon may be able to make money on that, but I wonder if libraries are ready, instrastructure-wise, to take on all that storage. (And to handle whatever licensing/copyright restrictions they face, too...)
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