Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Where are the Catalogers? Proposed Amendment to the Durham Statement

Reflecting on the character of the Durham Statement
As the scholarship becomes more widely available in digital formats, it is critical that we seek input from catalogers and technical services librarians on how to make these digital resources as useful and usable as possible.
I've been thinking about the meaning to legal researchers and legal bibliographers of the Durham Statement. It has occurred to me that there is a very important stake-holder/contributor is missing from the statement. The Statement involves aspirations that reflect observations and presuppositions about how we feel the future will affect the publication of modern legal scholarship. The observations and assumptions are well and good, and, at least partially true. (See my post, "Why I'm Signing the Durham Statement” 2/6/2010)
The Statement accurately reflects how technology is speeding the process of the digitization legal scholarship along and, therefore, calls on law schools to immediately and expeditiously cease publication of their journals in print in favor of digital formats. It presumes, of course, that technology is developing in such a way that researchers will prefer to access the information digitally, and, not only that the technology either exists, or will exist, but that it will be presented in a form that researchers can use. The two parties present in this scenario are researchers and technicians.

The missing party
The best technology available, in terms of readers, websites, formats, etc., and the scholarship it contains is only as good (to a large and very practical extent) as the form of the content itself. One of the advantages of print media was that it's very "artifactness" seemed to beg the question, but that it must be curated properly. That is, each item received into a library should be thoroughly analyzed and objectively described in order to facilitate discovery and access, and, hence, usage. Part of the nature of analog scholarship is its very permanence: once printed, its memorialized, it becomes an artifact. It is, thus, capable of objective description. This description, seen by cynics as bibliographic hypertrophy, is what we know as MARC, LC Classification and LC Subject Heading description. These descriptions and analyses made collection of, and access to library materials standard. Despite our cynicism, the system as a whole served/serves us well. RLIN and OCLC and the host of OPAC and serial automation vendors made access to collections remarkably easy, especially when compared to the alternatives. (Librarians simply storing materials as they see fit based on their own understanding of a subject, for instance.)
It is time to subject digitally produced, born digital scholarship to the same rigorous analysis. It is almost certainly the case that the old wineskins won't meet the needs of modern libraries. MARC record format, Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings would likely all need to be modified or revised to served the needs of modern formats that aren’t physical or don’t possess the physical character of printed law review articles, for example. This new analysis would need to take advantage of things like metadata and hypertext links and would be less concerned, of course, with organizing the materials themselves, but could provide important tools to allow others to organize, use and access them
Whatever the exact format, form or nature, it is clear that production and distribution of born digital scholarship will benefit from systematic, standard analysis and bibliographic description. If each article of a born digital law review, journal or scholarly blog was subjected to standard bibliographic description and analysis, it could serve the user in many ways. First, it may facilitate the development of better search engines that mine this important form of legal scholarship. Second, it may also facilitate the creation of better, more secure storage formats. It would also bring thoughtful vigor to the process of digitization and make stability of formats not merely useful, but desirable to librarians and technicians.
The alternative of doing nothing and letting technology take care of itself results in relying on Google as a search engine. Google’s fine to an extent, but its functionality and reliability as a search engine is not consistent or reliable. Its quickness and ubiquity make it an easy thing thing to rely upon and use despite its limitations. With something so cheap and easy, it’s very easy to overlook its shortcomings. But as the volume of digital scholarship increases Google’s limitations may become more and more apparent and it may be harder for users to shrug off the annoyance of Google’s inherently sloppy indexing.

It's an easy conclusion that we must bring Technical Services to the table as we endorse (more or less) the migration from print to digital formats.

The Proposal
I don’t have specific language in mind for how the Durham Statement should be amended or supplemented. It would be something to the effect that the signatories commit to involving TS departments and experts in the process of digitization of their law reviews.

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