Higher Education in the Information Age

Digital Libraries: The Revolution in Scholarly Information

Question and Answer
Paul Mosher, Moderator


Paul Mosher: Thank you Peter. It's question time. Yes.

Audience Member (Judith Shapiro): Judith Shapiro from Barnard College. I thought Peter Lyman very usefully reminded us that there's no way we can understand where the technological forces of production are going to take us unless we understand the social relations of production, as you know who used to point out all the time. One thing that I was very interested in was when you talked about the problem clearly being too much information. As computing and libraries are coming together and people staff there libraries differently with people who have come out of different backgrounds, the culture of access and freedom and going out there and finding everything and the culture of quality control sort of come head to head, and I'm wondering what are some of the best outcomes or resolutions of people who span both of those world views. As an aside--I don't know if it's on the same topic--I wanted to ask whether Mr. Lesk, when you cite that statistic that you picked up off of National Public Radio and saved, did you try to confirm it's veracity first or try to find out where did National Public Radio get it in the first place? Because things take a life of their own when they get repeated, you know, when they get placed somewhere and then go on as a statistic from place to place to place. I was just curious.

Michael Lesk: The answer is, no, I didn't check up on NPR. Peter, do you want to...

Peter Lyman: I was going to comment on the first part...

Lesk: Yeah, right.

Lyman: Why don't you continue.

Lesk: I don't know. What can I say? I didn't check up on NPR! I mean, I view it as a reliable organization.

Lyman: On the first part of your question, we don't assume that our students know how to use the printed library, and we don't assume that what they've learned about computing helps them make quality decisions. Although I thought the eighth graders had some pretty good pragmatic criteria in the looking at the technology, in looking at the URL's. But they thought of it as a problem of deception. "Who would try to lie to an eight grader?" And that's not the problem. So what we're trying to do, we now understand the core function of the library to be training every student who comes into Berkeley. We try to do that by mainstreaming training, both in making decisions about the quality of print and digital information, mainstreaming those into the freshman and the sophomore courses. If it isn't in the context of the courses, it doesn't stick. We of course don't train faculty, but we notice graduate students and faculty taking furious notes at our presentations.

Mosher: Yes.

Audience Member: Can you comment a little further, either one of you or both, on the value of this J-store effort? It strikes me that this is an opportunity, not necessarily for the current literature, but to digitize all those printed materials that have been produced by people that are long gone and for which there's no commercial interest. Even the journals, the private ones I understand that are involved in J-store agree that digitizing and making available the older issues is a good thing. It enlivens the literature, and while there are many who enjoy going into libraries and like the smell of the places as we heard this morning, I hear often from scientists and engineers that six months in the laboratory will save a day in the library.

Lesk: Yeah I mean I think J-store is very, very important because it's the best stab we have at an economically viable method of collaboration to digitize all the stuff. You know, most--Peter spoke eloquently about the problems of the libraries who find electronics costing more than paper, and this is a place where J-store is delivering journals at roughly a dollar a volume. And there's no way you could do that in the library if you had to do that with paper. So this is a very important project. They claim they need about 500 subscribers to be self sufficient and continue. They have about 200 at the moment, and I hope very much that they go forward. I should also point out that they started thinking that they would sell to libraries that already owned all this stuff and were saving on shelf space, and in fact a lot of their customers are libraries that had never owned these journals, had never been able to afford them, and now could. So I think that's a very good project and I really hope it succeeds.

Lyman: It's logic--it makes a lot of sense logically, but there's some practical problems. One is: what makes it sustainable? We all have an economic interest in not using scarce library space for things that are very, very rarely used. So the idea of digitizing and creating a national data base of back issues of journals makes a lot of sense if it's sustainable economically. And we all had to just put up I think 30 to 40 thousand dollars as capital money. Now the question is, what will it take on a recurring basis, and will we continue to do that? And it goes back to something Mike said which is, because our budgets aren't fungible, money we save as librarians, money we save in the capital budget, doesn't come back to us. So we don't have a real incentive to save capital budgets.

Secondly, there are new costs in the technical infrastructure to access J-store which are unknowns at the moment. But if you think deferred maintenance is bad on the library building, deferred maintenance on the Network brings it down. Thirdly, the main reason to subscribe to J-store is, even Harvard, which had five copies of each of the journals, that they began by scanning, didn't have--no one copy was whole. Every one of them had pages torn out. And the best thing about J-store: it has complete records of the history of the journals. So it's a quality issue.

Mosher: Stephen, and then Shimon.

Audience Member: (Steve Knapp): Steve Knapp from Johns Hopkins. I think even if J-store is a ray of light, I think the situation Peter has described is rather thrillingly gloomy, and I'd like to summarize the description if I could, just to see if I've got it straight, and then ask a question about it. It's a situation in which the universities which have traditionally been paying faculty to produce materials which the universities then buy back from publishers at an increasingly inflated rate are now going to be required to police themselves to make sure that they pay every penny that the publishers, with the help of the legislatures, can extract for this. So that one sees a rather horrifyingly escalating cost. You alluded to one alternative, which is to have the universities get in the business of publishing and doing that collectively, presumably by, for example, splitting up among themselves the various fields. And, you know, one university might take one field and publish the leading journal in that, another might take another one. And you mentioned discussions that are underway perhaps to explore the possibilities of doing that.

I really wanted to ask you two questions. One is: is that something that is possible to pursue under the current legal theories, or is that going to get us into trouble on the copyright side itself because we're going to be seen to be a kind of anti-trust buster of some sort? Or is it going to be--so that's one question. The other question is, if we don't do that, how can libraries survive? Because under the current situation where we can't afford to continue purchasing journals even without the additional cost of regulating ourselves through this network of policing activities that you rather eloquently described, it seems to me we have no choice except to do something like that. And if that's the case, then perhaps what we ought to be doing at a conference like this is splitting up the fields and going home and setting up the journals so we can get these publishers out of the business. I just wondered if you could comment on those scenarios.

Lyman: Thank you for bringing that up. That was in the part I cut. There's several interesting things we can do. The first is professor Rob Kirby in our math department has sent an open letter to every math department in the country simply reporting to mathematicians the cost per page of publishing in different journals and asking them, a) to resign, that is from the editorial boards of the expensive journals, saying, "Why should we subsidize journals that are profiteering off of a gift that we've made to them?" and asking them to choose to publish in the more cost effective journal. And this came out of a real tussle I had with the math department about cutting their budget, cutting the collection budget. And when they finally began to understand that the librarian did not create these price increases, the faculty created these price increases, and that a change in their behavior could change the cost of publications, he kind of created a national manifesto. And I haven't been sued yet, and I don't know how many of you have received it, but I sent it to every librarian in the country. So that's one thing: simply helping faculty understand that the choices they make about where they publish have real consequences for the price of information.

The second strategy is to say exactly what you said: we subsidize--we have to think about ourselves not only as the consumer of information, but as the producer. And we give away extremely valuable information. Well, why do we do that? Or do we benefit from doing that in the way that we do it? I think Peter Smith mentioned rethinking our relationship to copyright the way many institutions have rethought the relationship to patents. And I was very, I heard a rumor that MIT--Jim, help me--had thought about a concept of shop rights, which is reserving some educational rights to the use of material published by MIT faculty. That's a concept I think we might look at, not telling faculty what to do, but just saying the university and the colleges underwrite the production of this knowledge and therefore can reserve some rights. I think those are all on the table, and I think forming electronic presses will be on the table.

Mosher: Shimon.

Lesk: I'm sorry, can I...

Audience Member (Shimon Shocken): My name is Shimon Shocken. I'm the dean of the school of computer and media sciences at the Interdisciplinary Center. That's this new university in Israel that Professor Reichman described earlier on. I'm probably the last person who should make this comment, but I'd like to say a few words in defense of the traditional paper-based book. And I'm very happy with this initiative of scanning material and putting everything on the Web. I'm more concerned about all the buttons that will surround these materials, and I'm concerned about students who will go to search for materials about Napoleon, and within two or three mouse clicks will start reading materials about the sex life of the Malaysian bug or whatever it was that bit John Sealey Brown earlier on.

But I think that there's a great virtue to the linear nature of a good book or good publication, and I think that it takes several pages and several chapters to develop a deep idea or something that we want to convey in traditional or what I think is good education. And hyper-text has great virtues, but at the same time it can distract the mind from pursuing a sequence or the development of a complex ideas, and therefore I think that one of the greatest challenges of producers of modern software and access outwears and etc. is to provide the great benefits that the Web offers and at the same time try to preserve the great intellectual benefit of following up something in a quote unquote traditional, sequential way. So for me a good book is a little bit like a symphony or a quartet, and you don't want the listener to say, "Hey that's a nice tune. Show me some other tunes which are relevant or similar to this tune." You want the person to go through the entire process. And it's something which...

Lesk: They're two different forms, each of which has validity.



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Last modified: 21 July 1997