:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Convenience Catastrophe


   Anyone who has worked a reference desk has seen users pleased with a
   quick and mediocre answer when, with a bit more time and effort, they
   could get a better one. It's called 'satisficing.'

   It's human nature to seek that which is 'good enough' rather than the
   best. For many, it's a simple equation of effort vs. payback. At a
   'good enough' point that can only be determined by a specific
   individual, it becomes too much trouble to reach the optimum for the
   perceived gain.

   Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon came up with the concept
   of 'satisficing' in 1957. Although he was attempting to explain the
   behavior of firms, the concept appears to apply to individuals as well,
   and perhaps even more aptly.

   Such behavior by and of itself is neither surprising nor necessarily
   detrimental. But when this aspect of human nature intersects with
   digital libraries, we have all the makings of what I call the
   'convenience catastrophe.'

   This catastrophe is nothing more or less than the disappearance of our
   print collections in the face of more easily obtained digital content.
   Collections that are easy to access by using a computer and an Internet
   connection will very frequently win out over print collections-no
   matter how much better and more inclusive our print collections may be.
   Once our clients begin to see the Internet as the answer to all or most
   of their questions, our sources of support will be in jeopardy.

   So how do we fight this tendency? We must provide more information
   online about what our print collections hold, so that potential users
   of our holdings can more easily discover the treasures they contain.
   Converting our card catalogs into digital form was merely the
   beginning. A title, an author, and a few subject headings are often
   inadequate to determine if a particular book will be useful or not. We
   need to work cooperatively to provide much more information about our
   books, particularly nonfiction works.
   Tables of contents

   For nonfiction works, the best first step is to provide the table of
   contents. Can you imagine a student's face lighting up when a book with
   an entire chapter on his/her paper topic is discovered? How could a
   student find this from the comfort of a dorm room unless we have made
   such information available online?

   Luckily, we don't even have to do it ourselves. Blackwell's Book
   Services has sold digital tables of contents of books since the early
   1990s. The company web site has a great deal of information on the
   topic, including an argument for the added expense and an explanation
   of how such information can be integrated into a MARC record.

   MARC record enhancement is already happening. OCLC recently announced
   it would bolster WorldCat records with tables of contents provided by
   Ingram Library Services.

   At Cornell, a 1997 report made the case for adding tables of contents
   to the catalog and summarized the state of such enhancement services at
   the time. Although that report focused on books, Cornell is now
   developing a MyContents component for its MyLibrary system that will
   enable users to select journals they wish to track and have the tables
   of contents of those issues e-mailed to them. The tables of contents
   are provided by vendors. The system is being constructed using
   open-source components, and the university plans to make the code
   available as open source.
   Online indexes

   Providing indexes online is less important, overall, than providing
   tables of contents, but it can be a useful service if done
   appropriately. To be most effective, the indexes must be searchable.
   This can be done very simply by using optical character recognition
   software to turn scanned images into text and not bothering to correct
   any mistakes (which is costly in time and money). Instead, when a user
   discovers that a particular index has the terms searched, the page
   images will be displayed rather than the converted text file.

   This technique is used by JSTOR and others to cut down on the expense
   of fully correcting the scanned text, while still providing a search
   function. A few years ago I proposed such a project at the UC-Berkeley
   Library, and the proposal and demonstration site are still available.
   (The project wasn't funded.)
   Making reviews available

   Librarians write a lot of reviews. By and large, these reviews appear
   in professional journals such as Library Journal and Choice and are
   never seen by most library users. Admittedly, they are written for
   other librarians to make purchasing decisions, but such reviews could
   also be desirable for library users. Some libraries are already
   offering library reviews to their users.

   Many books never get reviewed by the standard review media, however. By
   reviewing these books cooperatively, as we do for cataloging, we could
   begin providing hundreds (and soon thousands) of additional reviews
   that would help users select books.
   Seeing covers

   Part of making books desirable is creating interest and intrigue. Book
   covers have been designed to do this for many years, since trying to
   get a customer to buy a book in a bookstore isn't all that different
   from getting them to come down to the library to get it. So why not use
   the marketing savvy of the publisher? certainly uses book
   covers (and not just the cover image, but also front and back flaps) as
   well as book excerpts, customer reviews, and even pointers to books
   that others bought at the same time. Institutions like Ferguson
   Library, Stamford, CT, and some 300 others provide similar information
   via companies like Syndetic Solutions, which supplies reviews, book
   jackets, and summaries, as well as excerpts, tables of contents, and

   Integrated searching
   If a business sees a fall-off in customers, it would be wise for that
   business to consider what it is no longer doing right. We should be no
   different. Our customers are increasingly leaving us for the Internet.

   We need to create powerful, effective, and easy-to-use search systems
   that integrate access to not just Internet resources but also our rich
   set of online databases and print content. If libraries began providing
   the kind of integrated portal services that I profiled in '
   [123]Cross-Database Search: One-Stop Shopping ' (LJ 10/15/01), users
   would beat a path to our doors. And in so doing, they would discover
   that print collections have something to offer as well. But to enable
   them to discover this, we will need to have much more information in
   our online catalogs.

   The convenience opportunity
   Everyone has heard the saying that if life gives you lemons, make
   lemonade. Trite but true: we now have our opportunity to take this
   'catastrophe' and fashion an opportunity from it. If we can meet the
   challenge of moving our users from satisficing to satisfying, from
   minimizing to maximizing, we will have done not only our users a favor
   but ourselves as well.

Link List

   Blackwell's Tables of Contents Bibliography

   Blackwell's Tables of Contents Enrichment Service

   Ferguson Library Catalog

   Ingram Library Services

   OCLC Announces Enhancements to WorldCat

   Table-of-Contents Enhancement of the Catalog

   UC-Berkeley Library Proposal