Reading and skywriting

January 12, 1996

John MacColl sets out the agenda for the librarians' new online magazine. One of the aims of the eLib programme has been to raise awareness of the technological change which is transforming libraries around the world. Ariadne is a new magazine of Internet issues for librarians and information professionals, funded by eLib. The first issue appears this month, in print and on the World Wide Web.

Published jointly by the library of the University of Abertay Dundee and the United Kingdom Office for Library and Information Networking at the University of Bath, it will aim to provide the profession with a vehicle for debating and reflecting upon changes to its traditional territory of published information.

The higher education library community needs a little space and time to recover from the impact of the Internet, and to reflect upon its meaning for the profession. What does this recent explosive development in communications and publishing mean?

The profession of librarianship has two primary aims. One is to link information users to the information they require. The second is to manage the public sharing of publications on society's behalf. While all libraries fulfil something of each role, academic and special libraries have a remit which is primarily concerned with the former. Public and national libraries bear the major burden of the latter. Where the first of these aims is concerned, the Internet serves us better as time goes by. However, in the management of a pool of shared publications, it offers us little as yet.

The arrival of the Internet, and the recent explosive development of the World Wide Web, is a change which will come to be considered as radical as the development of movable type or the invention of the telephone. Librarians cannot cater for the demands of this new medium with their old methods. New models are needed.

In an era of electronic publication, text no longer feels like property; it is no longer a thing. This worries publishers, who are normally the holders of the copyright in a work. To copy a physical book is not particularly easy. But digitise that work, put it on a server somewhere on a network, and it can be copied to countless PCs, complete with typographical formatting and illustrations, in a few seconds, for no obvious cost.

Librarians need to be concerned about this for two reasons: the first is pragmatic, the second philosophical. First, abuses of copyright could be perpetrated within libraries. If libraries make Internet-connected PCs available, then there is a danger that their facilities will be used for illegal activities, and libraries could stand accused of not informing their users of the requirements of copyright legislation.

Second, many publications which could be placed on the Net may not be until publishers have a guarantee that copyright can be protected. This is unfortunate since reference works, reports and scholarly articles can often be utilised more effectively in online form, which offers greater search flexibility. Publishers' wariness to commit to the Net impoverishes such resources, and impoverishes our libraries.

The European Union funded the CITED (Copyright in Transmission of Electronic Documents) project between 1991 and 1994. This proposed that a European agency be set up to supervise the collection of fees for copyright material online. Work continues, in the Imprimatur project for example (Multimedia, December 8 1995), to find a practical economic model which will unstop this blockage to efficient dissemination of information-rich resources.

There is a danger, however, that the concept of fair dealing, upon which libraries depend for the supply of articles for research purposes, could be lost in the Internet age. To be optimistic, sophisticated network tools could ensure that an agreed set of extents of fair dealing are tightly applied. The software at the server might require me to confirm that my request is for the use of a work under fair dealing and then send me a single article from a journal or no more than 10 per cent of a report. However, if I log in again tomorrow and ask for another article, or another 10 per cent, do I get it? The whole system of fair dealing rests on somewhat shaky ground, and an electronic environment may just persuade publishers that it is no longer defensible.

Another threatened feature of the traditional landscape is legal deposit, whereby publishers are required to deposit one copy of each published work with the national library. Legal deposit does not apply to electronic publications. Librarians have always lived with a fringe of publications from small presses which evade bibliographic control. Widespread electronic publication, however, threatens to overwhelm the community with grey literature. How can librarians impose some control for the benefit of their users?

The substitution of a print environment by an electronic one may serve to highlight an economic absurdity in the scholarly publication process as it stands. Currently academics surrender copyright to journal publishers. The publishers then make a profit from their academic customers who, through their libraries, pay often inflated sums for the journals.This is a little like handing your guns over to your enemy who promptly shoots you with them.

One view of the future sees the whole process reclaimed by the academic community. Articles, once peer-reviewed, could simply be placed on servers for free downloading and printing by interested fellow academics around the globe. There is no publisher in this model. Authors retain their copyright and give permission for free copying in the name of research. What would work against such a system at present is the association of certain journal titles with status, which is of course the real reward in the world of the academic. The desire to develop a publication model which guarantees status, the replacement of a print with an electronic journal caste system, may ironically be the stumbling block to more efficient and economical dissemination of research.

As yet, there are very few electronic publications which can be considered as serious scholarly journals, fully refereed, sustained by subscriptions, and with their articles indexed in serious indexing and abstracting services. The best known electronic journal in this country is probably the Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials. However, the eLib programme looks set to deliver several more. Some of these, such as Chemical Communications, will be parallel electronic versions of established journals. However the SuperJournals project will develop and test an infrastructure and tools for refereed, purely electronic journal publishing.

The advantages of going online are several. Peer review and editing can be carried out over the network, speeding up publication. There is no need to pay expensive print and distribution costs. The journal need not appear at predetermined regular intervals - new articles can be published whenever they are ready. Sound, video and animation can be included. The full text can be searched, and references can be linked directly to the items to which they refer, producing "live" citation trails.

Tables of data can be downloaded by users wishing to perform their own calculations. Correspondence can be threaded thematically across several issues. And a new phenomenon has developed - skywriting - in which fellow academics can add their own comments, views and experimental reports to the end of a published article, turning a paper into a debate or a collaboration.

This new way of publishing produces problems for librarians seeking to impose bibliographic control. To them, it is desirable that individual discrete titles should continue. But this model is under tremendous pressure to yield to the amorphous mass model of the electronic pre-print archives which have developed to serve researchers over the last few years.

Another issue which worries librarians more than ever at present is funding. What will become of the book funds when the balance between access to materials and holdings on shelves tips in favour of access? What model will replace the current formula-based division of resources between monographs, serials and CD-Roms?

CHEST (the Combined Higher Education Software Team) points the way with its model of blanket licensing paid for by collaborative funding. The academic community has decided that online services which benefit all members, such as the ISI suite of citation indexes and other bibliographic databases, should be paid for collaboratively by a leasing agreement with the data providers. This costs each participating university several thousand pounds each year. In exchange, each site is licensed to offer free and unlimited use of the bibliographic services to all its users. Libraries are discovering that cooperation means strength, and in the current climate it makes financial sense to act as a unit. This is after all the model which underlies the community's national backbone, the JANET network.

Is the end of libraries nigh? James Thompson, then librarian at the University of Reading, posed this question as long ago as 1982. Where public and national libraries are concerned, the function of managing a shared pool of publications does not seem in any risk of being superseded by digital publication in the foreseeable future. In university libraries, on the other hand, those who work mainly at the information-matching task are likely to become "information consultants".

This function of librarianship seems inevitably bound up with the history of computing. Traditional university libraries may be likened to the massive early computers which filled whole rooms. Operators in white coats jealously guarded these beasts and made them work, in much the same way as librarians were once regarded as professionals whose mission in life seemed to be the denial of access to the mountainous closed collections which they protected with their ferociously unfriendly card catalogues.

Today, computer scientists are creative professionals whose efforts are expended in making software applications which are as friendly and intuitive as possible. Librarians and information professionals, too, are moving in the direction of becoming experts whose role it is to provide creative solutions to information needs. They have the expertise. They must work to keep abreast with the explosion of new resources available on the Net, evaluating and assessing each new resource in the subject areas represented in their institutions, with a view to the needs of their users. This is a hugely challenging and stimulating task.

John MacColl is deputy librarian, University of Abertay Dundee, and managing editor of Ariadne.

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