Knowledge Choreographers or Dancing with Wolves?


The new term for librarians, according to a piece in the U.K. Bookseller last year, is 'knowledge choreographers', which reflects the trend for librarians to change their role to include orchestrating or organising information on the Net. This process was also linked with the provision of "customised kebabs" of information where universities like Thames Valley (UK) serve up slimmed down modular degrees with selective readings only required by students. Thames Valley apparently produce 22 million copies of "readings" each year which means students don't need to use libraries as much. This may or may not be regarded as the dumbing down of education.

At the invitation only Mellon Foundation Conference on 'Scholarly Communication and Technology' in Atlanta in April a select group of seventy top publishers, librarians, IT experts and scholars heard Edward W. Barry, President of Oxford University Press (New York) indicate that OUP had had their first order of $100,000 (US) for OUP books from Amazon.com, that phenomenon of Internet bookselling. OUP wondered whether this was a new market source, ie, do Internet booksellers reach new audiences or do they divert traditional ones? Professor James O'Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania at the Mellon Conference stated that he had an Internet terminal connection in three rooms of his house and was now buying avidly from Internet bookshops.

Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble (Barnes and Noble. com) are a threat to local suppliers, even if the University Co-op chain and others such as the Big Read Bookstore have their local Web sites. Overseas stock holdings, speed of supply, numerous hypertext links to related sites and topics and reader assistance supplemented by massive discounting (up to 40%) will take away users of local shops, even if simply on the price margins of academic books. An increasing number of academics at the Australian National University are ordering overseas titles online from Amazon.com. Global partnerships or niche markets may be the only way to go here otherwise the local bookstore may disappear like the corner shop.

The Internet Bookshop in the United Kingdom received more orders in the first three months of 1997 than it did for the whole of 1996. One wonders if these super bookstores are becoming, as one commentator has put it, "libraries with lousy retrieval systems"? Twenty four hour tailored electronic reference services already exist so why not incorporate them into bookstores - maybe then it will be the public libraries that are under threat? If four superstore book chains in the USA took $3.27 billion US in 1996 they certainly have the money to invest in value added services which libraries don't in the present Australian environment.

To begin at the beginning and the author. One now wonders what academic authorship is all about? Once one thought it was about the dissemination of information and knowledge to a peer group or for an educational student learning process. Now more and more, as universities are funded on the basis of their research output and jobs are under threat, then publishing is a way to collective survival in the former and individual tenure/promotion in the latter case. One Australian Pro-Vice-Chancellor recently told me he didn't care about the price or the dissemination of his Cambridge University Press monograph because it had ensured him promotion!

With the average print run of monographs world wide in the humanities and social sciences being less than five hundred copies, with the prices of monographs escalating and with Australian university libraries buying less and less books each year, then the dissemination of academic information in monographic form is in danger of total collapse. We've seen the fate of encyclopeadias like Britannica in print form with the last Australian dedicated sales people being laid off.

A collection of essays jointly distributed by a New Zealand University Press and a British publisher, was priced last year at $178 at the ANU Co-op Bookshop. Even one of the authors couldn't afford to buy it and said he hoped the Library would buy the book as otherwise his students couldn't get access to the volume. With university libraries in Australia now only buying half in real terms of what they did a decade ago this scenario is increasingly unlikely.

Universities themselves are becoming increasingly impoverished and downsized. They have failed in the infrastructure area because of their desire to compete rather than to co-operate. Professor Frank Larkins, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne has recently stated that the Australian Government has taken three billion dollars out of the University sector 1996-1999 and this will clearly have profound effects.

The Academy of Humanities in their submission to the West Higher Education Review have indicated that if national action is not taken then world class collections won't be in Australia in the twenty first century - in truth apart from pockets of science and Asian collection they aren't now! Australian higher education is heading rapidly backwards when the USA, let alone Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, are investing more in higher educational infrastructure not indulging in 10% plus cuts.

What of local intellectual output? Most Australian university presses are dead or dying. Those that survive have to rely on financial input other than via "academic" publications. The Australasian Universities OnLine project, supported by Telstra, has the genesis to provide an alternative, which even if it doesn't take off in the form its head Dr Bob Moles hopes for, indicates an electronic way forward.

Increasingly authors create their material in original electronic form. If standards of electronic data can be agreed then a database can be built nationally with electronic access from say participating libraries and bookshops. If a hard copy is required (and most people agree no-one in their right mind wants to read a whole monograph on the screen until digital hand held readers with adjustable type come in) then a laser print out with plastic binding could be readily available. Preliminary costings by Norsearch at Southern Cross University have shown a monograph can be produced at around $20 a volume. Far less than the $178A cited earlier. Conference proceedings and symposia can be sold by the chapter/article.

Serials in turn will be replaced by article access and browsing on screen. The print journal is simply an artefact resulting from how many issues per annum could be produced. US experience shows only one in five or six "browsings" of articles on the Net is printed off. This is a far cheaper distribution method for science articles!

Author royalties for both articles and monographs will also be improved providing authors don't sign their "lives" away to commercial publisher like Elsevier and should reverse the worst scenarios where authors actually have to pay the producer in order to be published. This latter process is almost vanity publishing.

CAL (Copyright Agency Limited) will also have to be more flexible in the electronic access area then they have been in recent years. Electronic reserve and course initiatives have stalled in the last two years, and fallen behind US projects, because of the stand off by CAL and the AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee). Australian machismo and inertia could be overtaken by American vision and entrepreneuralism. The irony is that the Australian author will probably receive more personal remuneration in the electronic environment than is currently the case in the print environment.

Ann Okerson, Deputy Librarian at Yale reported at the Mellon Conference "in the real world of libraries, we have begun to move past the predictable, ritual discourse. The market has brought librarians and publishers together; the parties are discovering where their interests abut; and they are beginning to build a new set of arrangements that meet needs both for access (on the part of the institutions); and remuneration and security on the part of the producer".

Stanford University Library, through its Highwire Press initiative, is about to extend its electronic publishing initiatives. A number of American suppliers such as Information Access Company and Ebsco are intending to develop Australian content for their database services. Whither Australian initiatives? The Mellon funded JSTOR project, based at Michigan University, has recently become a commercial entity with 230 US libraries paying a one off fee to $35,000 to access full text electronic backrests of journals.

ANU is the first Australian university to join JSTOR which has thirty three journals ranging from American Political Science Review to Annals of Mathematics are available in full text ranging up to one hundred years backsets of material. JSTOR is now investigating Australian academic journals with an Asian focus to place on the Net. Project Muse, the humanities full text journal Net service from John Hopkins University, has made a consortia offer to all Australian university libraries. Access knows no boundaries in the Net world but venture capital and visions are sadly lacking in the Vanstone environment of higher education.

Dr Dale Spender has written on numerous occasions that the current Liberal Government seem to have no idea of the Net revolution in an educational or public information source. Outsourcing will fragment visions of 'public good' even more. The 1996 Benton Report in the USA indicated that 18-22 year olds no longer regard public libraries as a place to go to seek information. The Nintendo and Sega generations will go to the Net first other then the print volume as universities are seeing with many of the younger student generation.

Dr Brian Hawkins, Vice-Provost of Brown University, like Okerson has argued that the present rapidly changing environment needs a new partnership of librarians, publishers, authors and administrators to bring together the various linked components of the knowledge chain of the Net. Individual authors can publish directly on the Net but they require some form of authentication or accreditation, at least in the academic arena, which can be done on a variety of means, for example, by learned societies working with authors and publishers. We need software which allows one stop gateway access to a multiplicity of sources.

Users increasingly will see developed, as Ovid and Blackwells are doing, a personalised sophisticated search approach to information which only supplies the material the user wants in regard to their electronic profile. Such information will be available earlier by a consortia site licence or from a variety of providers (unfortunately most of these from overseas). These will allow the user to see an abstract. Users can then "open the envelope" with their encrypted Visa and Mastercard number! Publication and information thus become blurred in the Net environment.

This article has not even tried to touch upon the virtual university developments of Microsoft, Western Governors, Harvard etc. The whole nature of universities globally could change in the next decade. It is in some ways alarming that the multi million dollar profit per annum science publishers such as Reed-Elsevier are signing up with global network providers such as Microsoft. The commercial profits of print, which rely on the freely given intellectual output of academics, are being transferred to the Net.

The global wolves are increasingly circling the waning fires of Australian universities and their intellectual output. There needs to be an Australian vision to collaborate not compete, to bring together the players more effectively and to lobby for a vision for co-ordinated higher education infrastructure provision. Only by co-operation will Australia have sufficient resources to play a role in the twenty-first century Net world.

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator