I’ve been following Dave White’s Visitors and Residents work for a while as it fits in well with the discussions around identity provisioning that we’ve had endless debates about in REFEDS and Shibboleth circles. I was really pleased to see his latest piece on the Learning Black Market as it highlighted concerns I have had for some time about the way we are presenting resources to students and expecting them to discover and use them.
I know that finding stuff out there on the scary interweb is a hard hard thing, but isn’t part of a student about embracing the wide wide knowledge of the world and navigating an intelligent way through it? I’m fairly certain that scholars in the Library of Alexandria didn’t ask to be directed to a small subset of the vast knowledge contained within and they had much harder job as Google had not digitised the scrolls for them.
What we are now continually doing is instead trying to contain the internet in to chunks of knowledge, which we then wall and say ‘here good, there bad’. We are defining anything not within that area as illegitimate, and as Dave points out in his article any engagement of this becomes the learning black market. As a person who quoted the lyrics from ‘Kill the Beast‘ in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in her dissertation this worries me.
I think there are 3 main behaviours at fault here: the reading list problem, library discovery services and access via proxies. Dave has covered the influence of the academics on this, I’d like to talk about the influence of the libraries.
Discovery systems are very popular at the moment and they quite frankly bewilder me – why would anyone want to repeat what Google already does so well in an inevitably smaller and contained way? Yes I know all the arguments about ease for users etc. etc., but I remain concerned. I’m often told that statistics show that use of resource x increases tremendously when a discovery service is used, but I think that is a false metric. If a supermarket decides only to sell oranges as the only fruit, sales of oranges will inevitably increase. This doesn’t mean people don’t want to eat apples or pears, it just means it is the only option you were presenting them with. During periods of rationing during World War II sales of delicacies such as Spam also went up. I’m pretty sure this was not because people preferred it to roast beef, but because this was the only sustenance that was being fed to them. As a process it is both spoon-feeding and walling. I’m really hoping that things like the new JISC Collections KB+ work will address ways to look at how libraries can do more to filter information to aid to discovery and not wall it. It’s looking promising, but will face massive cultural change issues to work.
The next problem is proxies – obviously something quite close to my heart! Proxies route all access to paid for resources to again, one walled place and say the best way to access them is to pretend to be somewhere you are not. Again I hear the arguments ‘its easier this way’ but easier for whom? I fear that their use is often about a need to catalogue and maintain links to things rather than facilitate access on the open web, which is more natural user behaviour. If someone tells me that I have to read an article on Fruit Spot on Jamaican Bananas in Transactions of the British Mycological Society, I am far more likely to Google some combination of those words than think – I’ll go and login to my institutional ezproxy!
I’m just wondering what would happen if we put a bit more time and effort in to supporting discovery on the open web rather than trying to wall and contain knowledge as a subset of ‘legitimate’ resources? Things like the recently announced MDUI work from the uk federation could certainly use a bit more support and championing by librarians in particular, and really does significantly improve the discovery process out there in the scary open world. I’m also concerned that legitimate in this context is simply another word for ‘paid for’ – the self perpetuating story that if a lot of institutional money has been spent on a resource effort must be expended to increase use to justify said expense.
When I think about approaches to containing knowledge, I can’t help but think about Jurassic Park. Dr John Hammond wanted to create a safe and managed environment for people to view his dinosaur collections, so he put in place all the walls that he could to make this happen – electric fences, breeding the dinosaurs as all female and breeding them ‘lysine deficient’ so they could not survive without human intervention. All of these precautions fail – the science doesn’t work. As Dr Ian Malcolm so succinctly puts it, in this exchange:
Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, I’m, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.