Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The E-book Tipping Point: Here at Last?

Is print dead? I remember Egon Spengler saying so in Ghostbusters, which dates me quite a lot, and the saying is older than that. But it might well finally be that print is, if not on its last legs, finally set to become just one of a range of options, and not the most popular one at that.

March 16th's New York Times notes that encyclopedia publishers are, finally, taking up Wikipedia's gauntlet and going online in a big way. Actually, it's not that encyclopedias weren't online before; I had a personal subscription to Britannica Online when I was a freelance writer and found using the paper version at the public library too inconvenient (parking downtown was a royal pain and all of the library's copiers were broken), and at roughly $6 a month it was a worthwhile investment. But online reference materials have been slow to arrive, and when they do, their interfaces are often poor and their search engines poorer.

However, the Internet and the way people use it to find information is practically tailor-made for online reference resources. The whole point of ready reference is the quick lookup of information, that mainstay of Google searches. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wikipedia is not the problem. Publishers' unwillingness to embrace a medium that can enhance, not detract from, what they do is the problem. There is no inherent reason that information found online must be low quality.

The other interesting thing about this development is how much of this reference content is, or will be, open access. $6 a month for Britannica Online wasn't much, but Wikipedia is free--if you've got access to the Internet, at any rate.

Then, ebrary released its report on faculty use of ebooks. The title of the study is a bit of a misnomer, since the survey also covers electronic journals, which thus far have led the charge in moving scholarly content online, and faculty overall prefer electronic journals to print. No surprises there. For books, faculty still prefer print, but many of the responses show that the reason is that ebooks are still, after all this time, difficult and cumbersome to use. DRM restrictions on downloading, printing, and copying are a big part of the problem, as is general difficulty of use. Even e-journals, in my experience, still hew far too closely to the print paradigm, with publishing and navigational features that mirror print. But it doesn't make sense for them to continue to do that, when putting scholarly content online makes other possibilities available. You can look at the survey results yourself if you register with ebrary.

And of course, while the initial furor over the Kindle has died down, it looks like Amazon is closer to getting it right than previous e-book attempts. Whether it's actually gotten it right--probably not, not entirely--remains to be seen, but growing usage and preference for electronic resources, along with reference publishers finally getting their online acts together, suggests that the age of the e-book might, finally, be here at last.

Now, is print dead? That's another question.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wikipedia in the News...Again

It seems significant that The Economist isn't just talking about the popularity of Wikipedia, but about how Wikipedia works and how the ongoing debate might impact its future.

The other week I actually heard a novelist, who ought to have known better, proclaim that "everything is on Wikipedia". I'm a fan of it myself, generally speaking, and have been inclined to think that traditional reference publishers blaming Wikipedia for their own misfortunes is less a reason than an excuse.

On a lighter note, has anyone noticed the tendency among Wikipedia's non-fans to refer to it as "the Wikipedia"? Correct usage, to be sure, but whatever the outcome of the rest of the Wiki Wars, I'm afraid that that particular battle is lost.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Wither Reference...or Reference Renaissance?

For at least the past couple of years, discussion and debate about whether reference is dead have garnered high profiles at conferences, in the literature, and in the blogosphere. So conferences like Reference Renaissance (built on the remains of Virtual Reference Desk) are perhaps inevitable.

This is timely, because the question of what it means to provide reference service, and how best to do it, has been a topic of ongoing discussion in my library. We're not sure whether any of us are going to this conference, yet, but we're interested to see what comes out of it.

And it seems to me that the question all along, not just at my library but at libraries in general, hasn't been whether reference is dead, but whether and how it must change in the changing library landscape. Personally I think that if your library is still a place, then there's still a place in it for reference, and that in fact that place should be central.

Why? Because marginalizing reference encourages the notion that librarians are not useful in the age of instant information, when we all know that this isn't true: that the "Google generation" is a myth, that the most easily accessible information isn't always the best, and that however we might wish it were otherwise, the OPAC still sucks, third-party database interfaces still can't be customized to individual library environments, and those students working on a history project still aren't going to walk ten feet to the stacks if it seems as though the answer might swim to the surface of just one more Web search.

What this really involves is identifying reference's core values, and fulfilling those. It involves, yes, PR, marketing, and outreach. It involves not intruding on patron spheres, but inviting them into ours. It also involves embracing information technology, but not at the expense of these other, I submit more important, aspects of the issue. The trouble with anything shiny and new is that it tends to present itself as the solution to something that isn't necessarily a problem--or, if it is a problem (as declining reference desk counts arguably are), not necessarily the right solution (is building a virtual reference desk in Second Life going to fix that? Really?).

So maybe "Renaissance" is the right term. After all, one of the core elements of the Renaissance was the rediscovery of Classical ideas. What are the classical ideas of reference, and how can we best continue to make them a reality? That's the question we should be asking.