Monday, January 17, 2005

Hurrah for technology

Day Four:

Today was the big Technology Showcase, so I dutifully dug the car out of the snow and motored on in hopes of catching a presentation or two. I ended up only going to one - a demonstration of the Ebrary electronic resource, of which Harvard is a recent subscriber - that nonetheless turned out to be a good choice, as not only did I learn about something with immediate practical application at the Circ Desk, but my supervisor just happened to be in attendance as well. So I got points for actually being seen at the conference, a big plus considering I was doing so on paid release time from my job.*

Ebrary is fairly neat. It functions like a portal for your pdf resources, providing a system of organization and the ability to search within the text of the collection just as Amazon now lets you "Search in the Book" (only with Ebrary if your library "owns" a virtual copy of the book, you can read not just a few select pages but the whole damned thing). Looking towards the future, Ebrary wants to then make these internal networks browsable and searchable by other academic institutions and presumably the public at-large, leading eventually to a giant system of pdf content that is easy to manage and interrogate.

Of particular interest was the representative's teaser statement that Ebrary was attempting to secure the rights to make the text of theses and dissertations globally searchable - something that, if true, would be a real achievement. Right now that extremely lucrative (to the tune of $50 per thesis!) business is locked up by UMI/Proquest, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone else were to try and muscle in on their territory!

The Ebrary rep was using Standford University as their model client for the display, perhaps a poor choice owing to the fact that the network connection was either slow or kept timing out during the demonstration, an ongoing technical difficulty which greatly undermined the overall effect. But something which did strike me was that apparently Stanford checked its physical holdings against Ebrary's library and found that a third of it overlapped! The implication was that subscribing to Ebrary would therefore be advantageous to Stanford, which makes sense, but it's a fact that could easily be turned around in a Collection Development meeting with library administrators: if Ebrary can provide such a good collection of titles remotely to multiple simultaneous users (a trick pulled off by hosting each page separately), then why bother buying the paper copies in the first place or conserve the overlapping items already owned?

I guess that's always the double-edged sword of digitization and ebooks. Right now it seems that institutions like Stanford and Harvard are simply delighted enough to have the new technology not to start putting the screws to its traditional paper collection. But how long will the honeymoon last, I wonder...

* I also got to mention to my supervisor that the Annual Meeting in Chicago this summer will include a two-day "Meeting Within a Meeting" geared specifically towards library support staff. He said it sounded like a good opportunity for me and promised to help wheedle some money out of Harvard for the registration and travel expenses. Boo-yah!

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