A Couple More Thoughts on Library Openness…

Getting blog links in to the OUseful.info blog has been getting harder over the last few weeks, but my post on Open Educational Resources and the University Library Website (which I’d tweeted as “Are academic libraries conspiring against OERs?”) generated a couple that I thought I’d comment on here.

First up, Stephen Downes suggested: “Is the university library actively subverting the movement toward opn [sic] educational resources? One could argue that it has significant incentive to do so. … We cannot, I argue, expect support for open educational resources from institutions dedicated to their elimination.”

The thing that first came to my mind when I read that was that it’s the vendors of systems into libraries who have a commercial stake in directing attention towards their systems, particularly in the journals/ebooks area. (I’m not sure what the library catalogue vendors sell other than their pretty much unusable OPAC systems?) On second breath, it then struck me that the people in the library who hold the budgets to pay for these expensive systems also have a stake in retaining them, under the assumption that the bigger the budget you hold/spend, the more, I dunno, important you are?

I haven’t had a look round the library websites to see how obvious the open repository searches are, but I’d be willing to bet that they still aren’t as prominent as the bought in systems that direct attention towards subscription journal content. (Maybe that’s right? Maybe the prominence should be proportional to the amount of money spent on the resource compared with allocating it in proportion to website traffic (cf. OU Library Home Page – Normalised Click Density). But it is worth remembering that the research repository projects are often run under the auspices of the archiving role of the library.)

The next point that came to mind was clarified for me by David Davies in OER and library websites, time for integration:

[H]istorically it’s not been libraries that worried about those kinds of educational resources [i.e. OERs]. While libraries were cataloguing books and journals, other parts of the central institutional services were managing learning objects, multimedia resources, e-learning content, whatever you want to call the stuff. These resources were locked up in WebCT or some other VLE/LMS and were discoverable there, at least in theory. Teachers and their students knew, and still know, where to look for books & journals and where to look for other kinds of learning resources.

This suggests that teaching material type stuff is to be found through the VLE or CMS. But I’m not sure that’s right? Locally suggested resources are almost definitely linked to from those environments, but do those environments also offer wider search facilities over external teaching materials? Why shouldn’t that sort of material be the sort of material that you’d expect to find in using academic library search tools? (See also: ACRLog: The Question They Forgot To Ask: “But why are we only considering the role of the academic library as gateway, archive and buyer? I would argue [we need] to add a new dimension for faculty to consider – the academic library’s role as learning center and instruction partner [rather than focusing] on the acadmic [sic] library’s traditional role as collector, organizer and gateway provider. … I would argue that an equally essential part of the academic library’s digital transformation is the shift from the gateway role to the teaching and learning role in a much more aggressive way that integrates the library into the digital learning environment that has become many faculty’s preferred method of delivering their educational content“; okay, so here we gt into invisible library territory – the library providing services in other locations. But it’s still a library service… What I think we need to do is tease apart library services and where those services are accessed. It may be that we don’t want OERs to be discoverable through the library website, but then we need to ask exactly what sort of proposition the library website is offering?)

There’s another thing I’d like to pick up from David’s post – the phrase: “While libraries were…”; because while they were (doing whatever? conspiring with the publishers against academic authors’ rights?, or conspiring with the publishers to pass off sponsored publications of as academic journals?;-), the web arrived, websearch arrived, Google arrived, Google Books and Google Scholar arrived, arXiv already was there (but did the library build on it?), OERs started gaining funding, if not traction (yet), Library Thing arrived, Creative Commons arrived, print-on-demand has almost arrived (Amazon has a POD capability, I think?), all manner of how to video tutorial sites arrived (and their aggregators – like How Do I?;-), custom search engines arrived, and so on…

Ho hum, I hadn’t intended that to b so much of a rant… Sigh… maybe I need to go and look at JISC’s Library of the Future debate to see how to think about libraries in a more considered manner?;-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

8 thoughts on “A Couple More Thoughts on Library Openness…”

  1. Tony, maybe it’s a generalisation to think that all e-learning content is in VLEs, and all books/journal stuff is in library catalogues because clearly that’s not the case, it’s much more complex as these things always are. My point is why aren’t institutional systems better integrated so that it doesn’t matter where stuff actually is, you can find the resource you want at the time you need it from wherever you are. Institutional library and VLE systems are in danger of becoming obsolete as users find their own stuff elsewhere, not least from some of the sources/services you list above.

  2. re: “why aren’t institutional systems better integrated…”

    It’s usually not a technical problem and IMHO is rarely to do with lack of understanding of the issues by management. I suggest it’s because maintaining a high level of interoperability can’t be afforded when institutional systems evolve to meet new needs. So we end up with compromises that satisfy no one all of the time but most of us for most of the time.

    To make this concrete, imagine you are in charge and your budget will allow you to do either A or B below. Which do you choose?

    A. Invest in providing perfect interoperability for your legacy systems and providing high quality-of-service (in the sense of up-time). This consumes all of your budget, leaving nothing for replacement systems. Ignore complaints about low functionality. Keep going this way until you retire.

    B. Invest in gradually updating the campus systems. At any moment the systems will be a mix of some state-of-the-art elements, plus legacy systems. The different generations of systems work together after a fashion, but only to the extent that you can afford. Reliability is sometimes a problem.

  3. That’s a good perspective Paul and no doubt mostly correct. But perhaps the choice is seldom that stark, at least as far as perfect interoperability that consumes all your budget. Most users don’t want perfection, just something that works for most people most of the time, as you said.

    Out of interest, since Tony started the discussion with an example from the OU website search, why doesn’t website search also search the library catalogue? To use your argument, it should be technically feasible, management understands why users would want it, but it’s just too expensive to do? I’m reluctant to disagree with you, but I can’t find a way not to!

    1. I agree on all of this. I don’t know why website search doesn’t also search the library catalogue. How to get this to happen, though? Big-system approaches seem unlikely to deliver. Not would they get funded during the Recession. Small proof-of-concept projects (in sandpits), using agile approaches seem much less risky and much more affordable. Example: Tony’s “get a pubsub model up and running that allows info to start flowing round a system”

  4. @paul I prefer an iterative approach, that can be modeled in part by some agile development processes, where you try to make gradual improvements while keeping things running (a limiting case of B, maybe?)).

    Using quite simple widgets and other bits of ‘glue logic’ – eg RSS consuming widgets, standard identifiers and well crafted URIs – it’s not that hard to get a pubsub model up and running that allows info to start flowing round a system?

    That said, it seems to me that in certain circumstances IT depts like the big projects with the big budgets, loads of requirements and the dream of A (which will never happen anyway?)

  5. I think it is becoming more common in redesigned library websites to include a search over institutional repository results. Two I have been looking at recently are:


    (see the mlibrary search on the Michigan one which I think does a better job than lots of presenting the full library service).

    You might be interested in the variety of developments at UPEI – which you may already have seen. http://library.upei.ca/
    (look at the selection of initiatives at the bottom of the lefthand side menu).

    In recent history we have seen organizational mergers on campus between IT and Library. I believe over half of UK universities have such a structure, however implemented or however full in practice the integration is.

    It seems to me that this is an artifact of an earlier time in some ways. There may be some justification for thinking about an organizational framework within which the applications/information support for research and learning is articulated better as this develops. This would involve library, elearning support, and whatever support is emerging for research practice.

    I thought that the chapter about libraries in your colleague Martin Weller’s book on VLEs was interesting in what it said – or didn’t say – about levels of trust/cooperation/mutual understanding/shared mission across the responsible organizations.

  6. I should have added to the previous post that the rationale for what I am saying is not to create new organizational types on campus, but to think about what sorts of services support changing network patterns of working, and the types of integration you are talking about. Local personalities and politics may be more important than formal orgs, but the latter can be important and indicate institutional direction/preference.

  7. @lorcan re: library sites starting to take into account repositories – yes, I think (?) I get that feeling too, though no hard evidence. Bear in mind, though, that the post is tagged ‘stirring’;-)

    re: the political shenanigans that have gone on over the years re control over Library IT services, I’d love to be able to read a (blogged) history of how it’s evolved in the OU and where it’s currently at. The bits I’ve heard re: the ‘is it ready yet’ ECM that we may now have in place (or maybe not?!) would have made for a really entertaining read…

    Hmmm, maybe looking at org charts would be a start? Let’s see, the OU FOI site ( http://www.open.ac.uk/foi/p2_2.shtml ) might have some public organisational charts on it… ;-)

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