Ebrary and the Coming Dacus Revolution

            Nietzsche once wrote that our tools shape us.  Later Thoreau warned us that men are fast becoming the tools of their tools.  And while I’m at it, I may as well mention the oft-quoted, rightly famous Marshall McLuhan’s, “We shape our tools and afterwards they shape us.”  Obviously such sentiments are not new.  Nietzsche’s typewriter broke, for better or for worse, depending on how you view the famous philosopher, his writer’s block.  And a Roto-Rooter job it did of it, didn’t it?  After that, he couldn’t shut up, writing until madness, dementia — or something else –overtook his mind.   With every upturn there is also a downturn, or so it would seem.  Not being in an atrabilious frame of mind, mind you, but it seems a truism that the gods never send good without pain unmixed.  Or as Chesterton had it, the trouble with truisms is that they are often quite true.

            The truism here is that with the advent of the Internet, we have the good, the bad, and the ugly.  For every democratic upsurge it brings, we also have some meschant dictator running his country in the ground.  And for every new entrepreneurial spirit who makes a quick fortune, we have Nigerian scams that rob the unwary, the gullible or the just plain stupid.  The Internet is no substitute for a library, but it also isn’t going anywhere either.  It may never fully replace libraries, but it is going to try.  Failing a complete substitution, the Internet may well replace, for better or for worse, many of the library’s once staple parts.

            You’ve heard from us these past few weeks about Ebrary.  Now seems as good time a time as any to write more about it.  Ebrary is for books what Academic Search Premier is for articles.  It’s a conglomeration of books in every discipline taught here at Winthrop, full-length monographs published by some of the best academic publishers in the world.  In fact, Ebrary offers a number of books—currently 52,000 – from the very publishers we have been using since academic publishers distinguished themselves from the mass market trade.  Like everything in technology, you get a bit of its best, a little of its worst, and some of its in-between.

            In the first case, Ebrary is cheap.  The 52,000 books costs us about 36 cents each. Let’s put this in context.  For Dacus to buy 5,000 academic print titles cost us about $150,000, assuming a conservative estimate of $30 per book.  It’s a sizable cash outlay for books that may or may not prove their worth to us.  If the books are checked out in the first year, they are likely not to be checked out in succeeding years, but as with every blanket statement, there are many exceptions.  Nearly 80% of Ebrary’s titles were published between 2002 -2009.  Annually, Ebrary adds about 4,000 – 5,000 titles.  The cost is an annual subscription fee, but even at the current rate, it would take nearly a decade to match what we spend in one year for print titles.  While books cannot now be downloaded to hand-held devices, it is likely they will be web-accessible by fall.  Overdrive, another vendor of academic monographs in electronic format, just released its Blackberry app.  Competitors, if they want to be viable, will have to follow suit.

            What are the Ebrary downsides?   Some of the titles we already have, but we have duplication in our current periodical aggregate databases, too.  We’ll make every effort not to buy any that overlap, but there isn’t much way around it with periodicals, and we’ll likely miss some with Ebrary.  Since the titles date back to 2005 (and even earlier), some duplicates are inevitable.  User-error learning curve, another downside, will figure into some Ebrary frustration until such time as users are comfortable with it.  Finally, reading on a laptop, iPad, or mobile device will take some getting used to, at least for those of us over forty.  Some critics argue Ebrary will decrease the number of student readers, others just the opposite, that it will increase them.  We’ll soon find out.

            How effective is Ebrary’s coverage?  No more or less effective than any collection of just over 50,000 academic titles.  If you want a specific title by a specific author on a specific subject, you may not find it  in Ebrary anymore than you  could in the Dacus print collection.  If you’re looking for something about physics, Civil War history, the Renaissance, or the treatment of women in the 15th century, you’ll find it in Ebrary.  Over time, it will fill in many gaps we could never have afforded to buy but wanted to.  Look at it this way: at the apogee of print periodical purchases, Dacus owned 3,000 print titles.  Today, we have more than 30,000 titles delivered electronically.  I imagine something similar happening with Ebrary, providing us with much wider and deeper access to a richer vein of materials than we’ve ever had access to before.

            Will you like reading Ebrary titles?  That’s a question only you can answer.  Some people like—make that love—the electronic experience, while others hate it just as passionately.  Some people like the e-reader, some do not.  Bear in mind that it is very different, and it may take a while to get used to.  When libraries began purchasing electronically delivered periodicals, many thought it would never work.  Today, most of us cannot imagine life without it.  While some of us may never get used to the idea of reading books in an electronic format, my guess is that most of us will, and even come to like it.

            Will Ebrary replace ordering print titles?  As much as it can, it will. We’ll not duplicate any titles we get through Ebrary from here on out.  Assuming it is even remotely successful, we’ll come to rely on it more and more.  The reason for this is simple.  As everyone knows, budgets are tight, and Ebrary allows us to make strategic purchases at a fraction of the cost in much the same way that aggregate periodical databases do.  Further, early user-surveys tell us that they like Ebrary quite a bit.  Among students, the results were overwhelmingly positive.  Among faculty, the results were similar though we did have negative responses, some owing to user-error, some legitimate, but not at all out of line with what one would expect, given the average age of Winthrop’s faculty.

            Are there cataloging errors in the database?  Of course, and these will be fixed as users report them. Ebrary also offers the possibility of streamlining our operations in ways none of us thought possible a decade ago.  This is either a good or bad thing, depending on where you sit.  If Ebrary delivers—its been around for about 5 years now—it will mean some reconfiguring of what we do in Dacus.  Some of this we’re doing already with the imminent move of the Pettus Archives to the former Bookworm.  It’s possible that we’ll have to roll with more punches later on, but what they are, how they will look, and what their impact will be is anyone’s guess.  And this assumes everything works according to plan.

            But let’s not sugarcoat this change.  You probably guessed that moving to electronically delivered monographs has some of us in Dacus pulling at our collars to loosen our bowties—those of us who wear them—or nervously drumming our fingers.  What does this mean?  Where will it all end?  Are libraries obsolete?  The answers to those questions are still pending.  Ebrary certainly means that we’ll have to change some of what we do.  Furthermore, it means that much of what librarians used to do, and even held sacrosanct, will not be done in the future.  Where and how that will fall out is impossible to say now for it’s much too early even to guess.

            We are the tools of our tools, and they do shape us after we shape them.  Ebrary is a tool, but it may also create something on the order of Armageddon in libraries.  Then again, it may well be just another tool we use to deliver access to our wide and varied clientele: you.

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