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The Ithaka Report

Dorothea offers her own take on the Ithaka Report, which to borrow her excellent summary, is primarily about “the state of university presses and libraries vis-a-vis scholarly publishing.” Coincidentally, between power outages yesterday I read the Ithaka Report line-by-line and privately offered my own thoughts to several people, as a kind of throat-clearing for some other thinking and writing I am doing about the fate of small literary journals and our roles (note plural) as librarians in helping this art form (particularly note the word “form,” as in “not information pills but intentional artistic objects”) survive.

Dorothea briefly comments on the Ithaka Report’s assessment of institutional repositories as “dusty attics,” though I prefer to think of them as “Potemkin villages”; after all, my own attic is full of things I actually need to use now and then, or at least enjoy revisiting. Dorothea asks, “But siloing and Not Invented Here is the heart of the difficulty, isn’t it?”

Honestly, before I worked in an academic library, I didn’t know or care what an IR was. After I was led into the inner sanctum and shown the Great Truth, I thought, “You have got to be kidding.” My observation about IRs is that we have established these grey-lit databases (for that is all they are) roughly along the same lines we “invented” library catalogs. They are often barely visible, usually hard to use, marketed in advanced Biblish (“institutional repository” — there’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue), and most of all, built and managed along traditional library-feudal lines, that is, they are established institution-by-institution, so that Great Big ARL Number One can pull out its IR around the campfire and compare it to that of Great Big ARL Number Two. Of course, the metrics for comparison tend to be as illusory as those of most Giant Thingy Contests.

Not long ago I observed — as did another wise librarian colleague in a previous life — that for all the work some libraries were doing with IRs, the faculty seemed aware of, and preferred to use…. well, Blackboard. I participated in a Blackboard focus group a few months back and was astonished to hear faculty talk about the joys of using it for sharing preprints and other documents with their colleagues. It was easy to use. It was “in the flow” of their other activities. At least on that campus, they could share across and within disciplines.

My thought at the time was if Blackboard is so natural to faculty, why not encourage them to use it with abandon and then harvest the content into a space where we could do our amazing dog tricks with the data so that it could be stored, shared, and preserved?

My other thought at the time was barring the local example of Blackboard, if it were proved that overall subject repositories were more natural spaces for faculty to contribute data, would we be willing to accept this and work within this framework? Or as librarians are we only willing to board a train when we’ve built its tracks and set its maps and its timetable? (Part of that business of “we have no self-esteem unless we’re in charge on our own terms.”)

My passing comment about SRW the other day was due to my disbelief that we had again built another cargo-cult standard on whose behalf we will stand forever on the beach, gazing into the sky for those followers we are so sure will eventually arrive — a standard, no less, that requires the rest of the world to conform to us, much as our small tabby cat imagines the house and its occupants are entirely at her disposal and await her every beck and calling (though in her case, she may be right). Sometimes I wonder if we can ever do anything else.

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  1. Chris wrote:

    I think you and Dorothea are talking about the same issue (“We must continue to do this in Our Traditional Way”), though her ire is directed and publishers and authors and yours at librarians. You’re both right. The library work of organizing and providing access is not actually related to the tools used to do it. How many useful, fungible, professionally-trained Delicious tags could we create in the time in takes to generate a MARC record for one website?

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  2. kgs wrote:

    Chris, yes, we are on the same page! I like your point about the “aboutness” of our tasks — it is indeed not about the tools.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  3. You’re right. Haven’t I dripped enough venom over on CavLec about the rigidity and problematic usability of IRs?

    Substantial portions of the Roach Motel article I’m writing plan to make these and similar points — decidedly, er, pointedly. And indeed, one of my suggested solutions (here I am, a-spoilin’ of my own article!) is sorting out how to get into workflows by, you know, being USEFUL and stuff.

    And yes, I’m all for subject repositories personally. I think they’re great; the value proposition is obvious. I worry about them, though, because I’m not sure they’re making the same commitment to sustainability and preservation that I am — but THAT can and should be worked around (not least by harvesting them!).

    (My ideal world also includes MUCH better ways to get stuff in IRs into the disciplinary venues where it will get noticed. Google’s good, but social software is better.)

    My only quibble is that it’s important to recognize that publishers have put up some of the barriers that make IRs (rather than libraries supporting disciplinary Rs) necessary. Some publishing agreements forbid deposit in DRs but allow it in IRs. This is deeply stupid, yes — but it’s real.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  4. kgs wrote:

    We are again “violently in agreement,” as you once said about a post, on just about everything, including the shortsightedness of some uni press (um… most of them?).

    I can’t wait to see that article. One of my beefs about the traditional publishing model is that it holds up good stuff for far too long!

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  5. Heh, no worries this time. Article’s not due until December, so it currently exists as disconnected chunks of text, bullet points that need to be fleshed out, links that need mining, and lots of “I really need to say X, Y, and Z” ideas in the back of my head. It’s for a journal special issue, so it should be on a fairly strict timeline once it’s in.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

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  1. The Ithaka Report up in CommentPress on Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    [...] q.v. my slant on the Ithaka report — and my take on the impact of library acquisition decisions on the fate of small-press [...]

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