The library network and the scholarly record

Lorcan 3 min read

The library community is a highly interconnected one. Networks are motivated both by library mission and effective management of resources. This trend will accelerate as the Internet favors shared services, and libraries will see more benefit in building such shared services. The Hathi Trust is an important example. The growth of interest in sharing library systems infrastructure is another (see the Orbis Cascade Alliance RFI [pdf] for a current example, or the Canadian TriUniversity Group of Guelph, Waterloo and Laurier).
Any library is likely to belong to a variety of networks: for resource sharing, for cataloging, for acquisition of licensed materials, and so on. These have a variety of governance mechanisms, and operate at different scales. In some, a group of libraries explicitly connect around a shared purpose: think of OhioLink for example or the TriUniversity Group mentioned above. At a much broader scale, one might talk about the ‘public library network’ or the ‘university library network’ in a particular country.
OCLC has an interesting role here. It provides infrastructure, or a platform, which supports a large network, or networks, of libraries. This shared capacity removes the need for multiple explicit bilateral or group arrangements: libraries benefit from the network OCLC facilitates as they participate in its services. So libraries participate to share the effort of cataloging, or to make other libraries’ collections available to their users, or to share question-answering capacity. Because of the number of libraries participating, OCLC, libraries, and others, can leverage the power of this network for discovery, collection analysis and other services. For example, OCLC can provide access to the library network for users of Google Book Search. It provides access to the network as a service.
I have been reading Networks, crowds and markets by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. (OK, to be honest, I have read the first chapter.) I was interested early on to come across this characterization of a network:

When people talk about the “connectedness” of a complex system, in general they are really talking about two related issues. One is connectedness at the level of structure – who is linked to whom – and the other is connectedness at the level of behavior – the fact that each individual’s actions has implicit consequences for the outcomes of everyone in the system. [p.4]

So – a small ‘behavioral’ example – if you think about the shared cataloging network, we are familiar with the phenomenon whereby some libraries wait for others to catalog an unavailable item, thereby reducing the overall effectiveness of the system.
I wrote the other day about how libraries were beginning to manage down their print collections. As this trend becomes more pronounced it will highlight the way in which libraries see themselves as belonging to a network which has a collective responsibility to the print scholarly record. At the moment this responsibility is weakly defined and variably accepted. Some libraries may discard materials without regard to the collective collection of the library network as a whole. Others may check Worldcat to get a quick measure of ‘rareness’. Others may have particular responsibilities defined within a consortium, state, or other group to which they belong.
Easley and Kleinberg define ‘institution’ as follows:

Our notion of institution here is very broad. It can be any set of rules, conventions, or mechanisms that serve to synthesize individual actions into a pattern of aggregate behavior. [p.15]

In this sense OCLC has helped institutionalise shared cataloging. Over the next few years we will see some institutionalization of the shared responsibility to the print collections across the library network. Patterns of aggregate behavior will emerge which will need to be supported by a variety of evolving arrangements:

  1. Policy and service frameworks. The West initiative is an example of a venue in which policy and service frameworks are developing. An important aspect of West is that it provides a framework within which libraries of multiple sizes can affiliate to coordinate their print management activities or to support the overall mission. The Hathi Trust is also important here as the management of the print scholarly record will co-evolve with the management of its emerging digital surrogate. These and other initiatives are also developing sustainability models which aim to secure the shared resource.
  2. Inventory infrastructure. Many institutions have developed offsite and shared storage initiatives in recent years. Digital stores are emerging. Attention is turning to how these might be managed as nodes in a network, rather than as standalone activities.
  3. Registry. It is unlikely that this activity will be centralized within a particular governance structure. However, the actions of particular initiatives have consequences for others across the network, and it will be useful to have access to some ‘intelligence’ about them. It will be important to know how many copies of an item exist, who owns them, or once owned them, where they are stored, whether they are digitized, what archival commitments have been made about them, and so on. This is a potential role for Worldcat, the registry that is already central to much library network activity.

In a library meeting I attended last year there was a discussion about the number of libraries whose mission included a responsibility to the long term curation of the print scholarly record. There seemed to be some consensus that the number was about 25. I think the number is bigger although the burden will be variably spread through a network of affiliations yet to be institutionalized.
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