Missing Pieces That Fill in the Academic Library Puzzle: Cutting-Edge Technologies Can Assure Our Place in the Big Picture. (Technology)

By Baruth, Barbara | American Libraries, June-July 2002 | Go to article overview

Missing Pieces That Fill in the Academic Library Puzzle: Cutting-Edge Technologies Can Assure Our Place in the Big Picture. (Technology)


Baruth, Barbara, American Libraries


The current worry among astute academic librarians is not whether students will use the Web instead of coming to the library, but which Web site they will turn to first. Will it be the university library's, Google, an emerging Library look-alike such as Questia, or a learning content service such as iLrn?

Right or wrong, e-resources all but crowd out physical-format materials in most students' research efforts, as declining photocopying and circulation statistics in academic libraries attest. Whether academic patrons actually turn back to us will depend on our prominence on the university's Web portal, the degree to which we promote the reference services we offer, the quality of the software we use for online reference sessions, the ian/student mentor relationships we nurture, and the level of satisfaction users get from such commercial competitors as AskJeeves.

At this pivotal time, academic librarians should be devising ways to pull to their portals those students and faculty who have been enticed away from us by powerful, well-designed, commercially-backed Web sites that offer a seemingly impressive array of information. We may be able to reclaim our client base if we figure out where three irregular pieces of the 21st-century library puzzle fit into the big picture: 1) local system shakedown, 2) outsider access ethics, and 3) red-eye reference.

Metadata crossroads

Writing in Library Journal's Summer 2000 Netconnect supplement, Dick Miller noted that while "XML is gaining favor as the universal format for data and document exchange, local library system data are stored for the most part in MARC and vendor-designed formats that are familiar only to technical services and systems librarians." Our unique standards could increasingly isolate us, leaving us unable to easily communicate our needs to others in the information industry or make use of their off-the-shelf XML-based products and services. Isolation may also prevent us from fully sharing our expertise (for example, authority control and controlled vocabularies) with other information-world players.

Referring to XML as the lingua franca of the Internet Age, Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates noted in a June 14, 2001, letter to potential clients that developers are moving beyond using XML simply for data and are creating a new type of software to provide programmable, reusable Web-based services that will make possible unprecedented opportunities for collaboration.

The book trade is developing ONIX, which is expressed in XML and conforms to a Document Type Description, to provide bibliographic metadata. ONIX could replace MARC, but for many librarians the advantages of an XML-based local library system seem vague and not worth the cost to change. There is the fear that XML will not survive, leading us down an endless migration path. The effort required to adopt XML appears overwhelming if all libraries must make the move simultaneously, although pundits such as Walt Crawford speculate that a lockstep approach may not be necessary (AL, May, p. 79).

We are poised at a crossroads: A few libraries have migrated to XML, some are waiting for an XML killer application to justify the change, many are retaining MARC and AACR2 for the OPAC but moving to other metadata standards for e-resources, and others are trying to make MARC and AACR2 more responsive to e-resources. If we drift apart from each other and the larger information community, we may end up stranded on a dead-end road when that killer application rolls down the XML highway. In any case, librarians cannot force traffic to change lanes on the road that the rest of the information world has already taken.

OPAC marginalization

Many librarians consider their OPAC to be the centerpiece of the resources they make available to users.

However, an OPAC's original raison d'etre, providing information about locally held physical materials, has already been marginalized. …

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