Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hey you! Organization-oriented problem solver! We need you over here!

Another of Peter Brantley's posts has intersected with a post from Peter Suber's Open Access News Free online topic pages coming from Elsevier to set my head spinning again. Brantley's post, shimenawa - A Glimpse of Neon is oddly pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. He says, if I understand him correctly, that library cooperation to achieve goals that are beyond individual libraries (like Digital Libraries and a host of other initiatives underway right now) is a dead letter. In the resource discovery context (our supposed forte in the ancient past), the nimble commercial entities are blowing us away. He mentions Google of course, but that's where the Open Access post comes in. Elsevier will launch later this summer a free resource that seems essentially a virtual meeting place built around a subject of mutual interest with links running all over the virtual world, interactive capabilities out the kazoo... We in the research library world are *talking* about how this kind of thing might be a neat idea, how we might work with other libraries in Texas (our Texas Digital Library) and in particular cases, with our Presses, to create inviting environments around which scholars (our scholars we suppose) would gather. Of course we'll do this, on a shoe-string budget, over a long period of development time, slowly, cautiously, testing the water. Wouldn't want to fail would we? How else can we do it at all?

Elsevier, the giant publisher. Google the giant [insert most currently appropriate descriptor here]. Amazon the giant book/everthing distributor. Giant. Can anyone really see our library, any library, ever competing effectively? Not on product; not on service. So collaboration with each other (with other libraries) might be an option, but Brantley has concluded, and I can't say I disagree, that adding together several slow, institutional, conservative, nonprofit entities doesn't make them all of a sudden fast, sleek, nimble, innovative, risk-takers. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, nor out of two sow's ears.

But as I mentioned, Brantley's post is optimistic too, because he has glimpsed something else libraries could do with their treasure trove in the future. But this treasure trove is not our collections, and the future he glimpses is not about resource discovery -- it's about putting to new tasks our way of looking at the world, our way of organizing things, our institutional skill, our professional forte -- about applying our way of relating to problems to solving bigger of the world's problems than finding resources. Stunned silence, at first, then the wheels start spinning. He's talking about our collaborating with the giants, our supplying a piece of the puzzle that they don't have. But wait, isn't that what Google Book Search Library Partnerships are all about, and haven't we been run over by the Mack truck of collective library opinion on that one for giving away the physical treasure trove? JHC. It's not about the books, real *or* virtual, he's saying. That is just beyond us I think. But it has me going.

Oh, yes, copyright. It all relates back to copyright in some strange way. It's still a problem and worth attention, but I become more convinced each day that the successful arguments for change in the current dynamic will be more favorably advanced by demonstrations of what can and must be done to deal with more pressing problems and how copyright, as currently wielded by its owners, unambiguously impedes progress in those spheres. These same commercial interests that have stood fast on their copyrights, barring the door to innovation in the name of protecting current profits (what else were they supposed to do?), are beginning, one by one, to see opportunity where they only saw threat before. And these opportunities come not from standing on their copyrights, but by standing down, even if only a little.

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