Rethinking "Collections" and Selection in the PostGutenberg Age

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 15 Jan 2002 00:21:37 +0000

Join the debate at:
on "Libraries in the Digital Age" (Grunberg et al. 2002)

Below is my own commentary -- SH

Rethinking "Collections" and Selection in the PostGutenberg Age

Stevan Harnad

Librarians, in virtue of their profession (ex officio, so to speak),
are being propelled toward the digital future even faster than their
users. Yet they are still not seeing far enough, hence not thinking
radically enough. They are still thinking in terms of incoming
"collections," a Gutenberg, object-based view, updating only their
notion of the medium of the collection (papers, CD-ROM, online). I
think this is short-sighted. What is needed is a PostGutenberg,
bit-based view, of distributed access rather than local acquisitions.

There will still be some selection, but there will no longer be
collection. Digital "holdings" will be distributed worldwide, more like
the current "interlibrary loan" model, but for all "inventory" (which
will only be virtual) and not just for those works that are not "owned"!
In other words, there will be site-licensing and/or pay-per-view for
accessing the bits, which will not be held in a local "collection,"
particularly (though sometimes it might be easier or faster to store
some bits locally).

Yes, there will be some selection and taste exercised in designing
the local license agreements, because no library will be able to afford
limitless access to all bits for all its users (and, n.b.! we are only
speaking of non-give-away bits now: I will return to the special case
of give-away bits shortly). But these will only be default options,
because, as is true with interlibrary loan today, in principle, despite
the limits of a library's specific, selected holdings, today's user
can, by special dispensation and intervention, usually get a hold of
unheld works too. (A digital library, by the way, is largely a
consortium of users, giving the users greater access than if they had
to pay for it individually.)

There will be only two exceptions to this. One will be the analog
collection, which will be the digital library's counterpart of today's
"rare book collection." (The Gutenberg book is merely the extension
of the erstwhile rare book, into the PostGutenberg age.)

The second exception will be a more dramatic departure from what
libraries are used to doing, yet they are undoubtedly the best placed
and qualified to do it right: Research institutional libraries
(e.g., most university libraries) will not only be CONSUMERS of the
global distributed bits, they will also be PROVIDERS, in the special
case of the give-away literature: The refereed research output
of their own researchers will be stored and made accessible as an
OUTGOING collection, through interoperable institutional self-archiving
(see my own target essay in this symposium: )

In exchange for providing online access to this outgoing collection
for free, libraries and their institutions will gain free incoming
access to the full contents of all the refereed periodicals they
currently have to pay for (dearly), because those will be the contents
of all the other institutions' outgoing refereed research collections.
And 70-90% of the annual windfall savings on the former serials
expenditures for this give-away refereed research will then be available
to be spent on the licences for the much larger non-give-away corpus
(while 10-30% will need to be redirected to paying the journals for
peer-reviewing the institution's annual research output [the "outgoing

(To a certain extent, this distributed self-archiving model will also
apply to esoteric outgoing monographs that never sought nor would have
found an access-fee-based market.)

I close with some of the skywritten quote/commenting without which
such a skywriting exchange would be incomplete:

EQUIPE BPI: "[In Libraries in the Digital Age] in what way could the
traditional functions of public reading establishments - i.e.
selecting, acquiring and processing documents, making them available to
the public, conserving them or withdrawing them from collections - be
transformed, and with what consequences?"

Most of these "traditional" functions will become defunct (at the
individual library level), apart from the selection of the licensing
options and the preservation of the outgoing collection. (There will also
be some distributed mirroring, backups, etc., for the global
collections, across institutions.)

EQUIPE BPI: "One cannot leaf through an electronic document or easily
recognize its quality."

Every feature of analog "leafing" can be simulated digitally (right
down to the V-Book, q.v.). But the nuclear navigational and bibliometric
powers of digital "leafing" will eclipse most of those capabilities
anyway. (I'll choose "grepping" over "gripping" any day!)

EQUIPE BPI: "The electronic document seems volatile and difficult to

We'll get used to this PostGutenberg fact of life soon enough. It is
really a blessing in the disguise of a violated tradition. The fact
that digital documents can be readily revised and updated and
interlinked is a pure advantage, with no loss whatsoever, because
versions can be identified and tracked as formally and compulsively as
we desire. (Let us not hold new intellectual powers at arms length in
the service of erstwhile intellectual limitations and their associated
dysfunctional habits! After all, intellectual glut could be managed by
outlawing further increases in intellectual production, or taxing
excess output at unaffordably high prices...)

EQUIPE BPI: "How is one supposed to monitor what is being made
available to readers when they are being offered open access to
Internet? How is it possible to exercise one's professional expertise,
which starts with a motivated, qualified and coherent selection? How,
above all, is one to prevent the user from being buried under an
avalanche of information, far from the safe paths so carefully kept by
the librarian?"

Don't try to salvage obsolete Gutenberg responsibilities. Be happy they
are no longer pertinent! Digital monitoring and analysis is infinitely
more powerful, sensitive and efficient than anything one could have
dreamt of in the Gutenberg age. (Usage could in principle be tracked
right down to the last bit.) The free internet collections are
irrelevant (although navigational aids are welcome from any source,
including digital librarians.) Selectivity need only be exercised in
making the licensing agreements, and that can be done pretty much the
old way (based on what your library can afford and what your users
need). And the digital medium will breed more and more powerful means
of managing its embarras de richesses -- ne vous en faites pas!

EQUIPE BPI: "faced with this excess of information, professional advice
will become more and more indispensable, not only in order to locate
relevant information, but also, and above all, to establish defined and
lively collections."

Collections are a red herring! But navigational and classificational
help are always welcome.

EQUIPE BPI: "One can easily understand that every document or every
access to paid information should be analysed and that, budgets being
limited, there is an obligation to make choices. But what happens when
the immaterial is also free...?"

Less to worry about. (But not all of it will be free. Worry about
the non-give-away portion! And do your part with your own institution's
give-away output to ensure that, by the Golden Rule, access to THAT
portion is at last freed! Give in order to receive...)

EQUIPE BPI: "subscribing to an on-line periodical means paying access
rights which can be terminated with the end of the subscription or the
disappearance of the title or even that of the publisher. In the past,
when confronted with such a situation, the library remained owner of
the collections it had accumulated throughout its subscription.
What is the current state of affairs?"

Vide supra. Institutional self-archiving will free access to this
anomalous (because give-away) literature and will thereby make this
question moot. (For non-give-away serials, licensing agreements can
cover local storage and re-use rights, short- and long-term. This is
not a big enough market for anyone to waste time worrying about. The
big one is the refereed research serials corpus, and that will be taken
care of by the self-archived outgoing institutional collections, plus
suitable distributed mirroring, backup, and preservation arrangements
among the institutions.)

EQUIPE BPI: "[Virtual library?] there is nothing to prevent us from
imagining that in the future, distance readers, as long as they have
headsets with cathode screens or sensory gloves, will be able to enter
into spaces of the library reconstituted in 3D, stroll among the
shelves and during their perambulations happen upon a book, open it,
leaf through it, put it down or check it out by downloading it on the
latest e-book model with electronic ink. Perhaps, in this scenario we
will be able to speak of a virtual visit to a virtual library."

See the earlier discussion of V-Books:
People won't need or want to "perambulate the shelves" -- just to
navigate the bits.

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):

You may join the list at the amsci site.

Discussion can be posted to:
Received on Tue Jan 15 2002 - 00:22:09 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:46:22 GMT