On the discriminations of availability ...

If a book is in a library anywhere in the system, is it 'available' to a member of the public?
Lorcan 3 min read

Seamus Heaney famously – and in poetry – complained about being included in an anthology of ‘British’ poetry. In the course of his poem he invokes Miroslav Holub‘s ‘On the necessity of truth’ where a man creates a disturbance in a cinema when he sees a beaver mistakenly called a muskrat on the screen. The man wants to set the record straight.

I don’t have a copy of Heaney’s work as I write this, but I can point to a discussion of the passage in Acting between the lines : the Field Day Theatre Company and Irish cultural politics, 1980-1984 courtesy of Google Books.

(And it would be nice to be able to easily reference the appropriate parts of both Heaney’s and Holub’s works on the web. I find that I am increasingly expecting to be able to find book text online – when looking for a quote, when helping with homework, etc.)

Now, a few weeks ago, Sergey Brin wrote an op-ed piece about Google Books in the New York Times.

He discusses the fate of books still potentially in copyright:

But the vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries. Books written after 1923 quickly disappear into a literary black hole. With rare exceptions, one can buy them only for the small number of years they are in print. After that, they are found only in a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores. As the years pass, contracts get lost and forgotten, authors and publishers disappear, the rights holders become impossible to track down.

Inevitably, the few remaining copies of the books are left to deteriorate slowly or are lost to fires, floods and other disasters. While I was at Stanford in 1998, floods damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of books. Unfortunately, such events are not uncommon — a similar flood happened at Stanford just 20 years prior. You could read about it in The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report, published in 1980, but this book itself is no longer available. // A library to last forever

It was soon pointed out in the library community that The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library flood report, was still ‘available’ in as much as it was held by several libraries. showed four libraries holding it, and there are probably more. There was some discussion on the Web4lib mailing list along these lines for example.

At the same time, on a closed mailing list in which I participate, one commenter argued that this level of availability meant that the volume was actually not available in any ‘practical sense’.

As it is available in the ‘library system’, the report is available to library users across the country. However, they have to be affiliated with a library which offers an Inter Library Lending service, they have to know about it, they have to submit a request, and they have to wait for it to arrive.

Certainly, if the report were available through Google Books (or some other network level repository of digital books), its availability would be greatly amplified.

It is clear that there are grades of availability. As some level the transaction costs – or, as importantly, the price – of acquiring something may be considered too high for it to be considered available in a ‘practical sense’. But your mileage may vary.

In this case, the fact that it is in the ‘library system’ means that it is potentially ‘available’ to library users anywhere through the inter library lending arrangements in which most North American libraries participate. The book is available in a very real way for somebody who wants to see it with a little persistence. And through the public availability of Worldcat and other resources, and the greater prominence and ease of use of end-user requesting, the transaction costs have gone down. And there is a link to Worldcat from the Google Books record for the report.

However, it would seem that the transaction costs are still too high for many. Libraries do not yet appear as a ‘system’ on the web, in the sense of being able to support well-seamed easy to use discovery, request and delivery across the system. And, of course, instant digital availability sets a different expectation than such a system currently provides.

That said, it seemed to me (as it did to the librarians on the web4lib discussion list) that saying that this volume was no longer available was a stronger statement than the situation warranted. I could go with ‘not easily available’, but ‘no longer available’ was too much …

And as I sat there looking at something being called a muskrat, I wanted to say, no, it is a beaver …. 😉


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