Friday, 3 April 2009

Library of the Future meeting

I attended an interesting JISC sponsored meeting on 2 April 2009. The Libraries of the Future debate was hosted by Oxford University and was expertly Chaired by Vincent Gillespie (J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford). It was the first event that I've been to that was simultaneously available in Second Life and webcast and it also featured a screen alongside the speakers which displayed real-time comments from those in the auditorium and watching on the web.

There was actually a fair amount of discussion about the publisher of the future and as the debate wore on a fair amount of publisher bashing too. Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton spoke vitriolically of "extortionately priced journals" and received a smattering of applause when he suggested that librarians should just stop buying journals. The trouble is that this fatuous remark does little to help anyone nor to advance the debate. I am sure he has no intention of ceasing the purchase of journals and if he did how would the academics at Harvard continue to do their research without access to the literature?

The issue of peer review also came up, and along with it the familiar arguments; it's all done for free by academics so why does the world need publishers (completely ignoring the importance of journal brands in the peer review process) and that the future is in overlay journals on repositories.

Peter Murray-Rust did try to address the issue of the day. In a typically polemic talk he challenged the library community to get their act together with a call to "Just Do It". He also said that it's too easy to simply blame the publishers.

The presentations were, with one exception, all excellent but I found the timbre of the meeting to be rather anti-private sector. Google (represented at the meeting by Santiago de la Mora, Partnerships Lead for Google Book Search in Europe) attracted criticism for making money via ads on their digitization programme and Google Book Search and some commentators from the floor bemoaned the fact that the public sector in general, and libraries in particular, had not done this. I am happy to defend publishing and the importance of publishing, but the place to defend capitalism was 50 miles down the M40 motorway at the G20 summit.

I left with Peter Murray-Rust's call to "Just Do It" in my head. It struck me that if replicating the benefits of the peer review / journal brand system is that easy then the academic community or the librarians should 'just do it'; that if the librarians think that they and the students and faculty members they serve would be better off if they cancelled subscriptions to journals, they should 'just do it'; that if overlay journals are such an obvious and easy solution (even though no overlay journal has emerged on the arXiv despite this being talked about for more than a decade) then someone should 'just do it'.

Better that than scoring cheap points in a debate.

The reason that I'm so keen for them to 'just do it' is because then the realization will hit that this stuff isn't that easy, that the publishing industry is not full of fat cats creaming money from from the academy and adding no value and because I am 100% confident that professional scholarly publishers can fulfil these functions more effectively and more efficiently.

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