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February 12, 2006


And when a major publisher goes bankrupt and shuts down, and its assets (digital and otherwise) go dark?

Leased assets are dangerously at risk.

"traditional role of a research library, that of providing local convenient access to scientific publications"

So the humanities have disappeared entirely from research universities? (Those humanities which, along with social sciences, still depend heavily on monographs for transmission of research information...and which also depend on, ahem, books as resource materials.)

Also, what Dorothea says.

Oops. You really are defining "research library" as exclusive of "academic library," aren't you--that is, research libraries as a subset of special libraries. Never mind. Although still "what Dorothea says."

Yes, I am basically defining research library as a type of special library that serves mainly or exclusively a natural sciences researcher community.

Many of the librarians I know at special libraries nowadays are already not doing traditional library work at all! Rather, what they are doing is actual research! Makes sense to me - I'm sure the researchers are more productive with this kind of help. I know I could be more productive if I had the help of research librarians, but unfortunately, we academics do not have this luxury - at least, not yet.

The research library plays a pivotal role in "life-long learning," regardless of whether or not undergraduates ever step into it. No one is well versed in all disciplines represented in even the most specialized research library, and the library's collection provides the context and content for understanding research that is related but not central to one's own area of expertise. Using the library in situ is still a convenient way to scan a wide variety of published material, without requiring knowledge of the vocabulary or jargon needed for searching. Research librarians act as partners by instructing and collaborating with researchers to create the most efficient and effective means of reviewing the literature. These remain important roles for research libraries and librarians.

For a detailed examination of what a research library can provide (in both content and search methods) that the Internet cannot provide, see the new third edition of my book _The Oxford Guide to Library Research_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

I hope it's clear, I'm not saying that Google replaces the paper journals full of peer-reviewed articles in the research library, I'm saying that *unlimited licensed access for your researchers to the publisher websites* replaces the paper journals.

I'm not making an Internet vs. peer-reviewed articles argument, I'm making a holdings argument, which boils down to: if the purpose of your research library is to hold paper articles, and all of the needed articles are available through online licensed access, then what is the (new) purpose of your research library?

Some research libraries have actual books in them, you know, not just journals and articles. In some cases, many of the books are fairly unusual (rare, even) and are used by researchers fairly regularly. And sometimes the researchers even need help (gasp--even those with PhDs!) finding what they need.
And where will the money come from to digitize all of these materials? do you know what the typical budget of a research library is like?

"Some research libraries have actual books in them, you know, not just journals and articles. In some cases, many of the books are fairly unusual (rare, even) and are used by researchers fairly regularly."

Again, I'm making a very specific argument about a very specialized type of library. I'm talking about a research library that supports primarily researchers in the natural sciences. I'm not talking about research library in the same sense that the British Library is a research library. I do agree that researchers in many, many topic areas may use books. I disagree that e.g. particle physicists, chemists, and geneticists are going to be using books (rare or otherwise) heavily as they either plan their research, conduct experiments, or keep up with their field. (Other than perhaps a few standard reference books.) For example, in the recent article "Dissemination of scientific results in High Energy Physics: the CERN Document Server vision" the term "book" shows up 5 times (mostly in the context of , "journal" 19, "article" 16.


My assertion is that articles are the foundational unit of scientific communication in the *natural sciences*, and that therefore, providing access to articles was a traditional core function of the natural sciences research library. My conclusions follow from that assertion.

I don't know what type of research library you are in, but in mine (a materials chemisty corporate library) we do far far more than send journal articles to people -- although that is a well used and highly appreciated part of what we do. We handle lab notebooks, invention disclosures, publication releases, negotiate licenses, provide translations, answer questions on anything, purchase books (yes books), create and manage accounts on a wide range of systems, provide indepth search results, look up physical properties of some wild materials, manage web sites, provide "place" for people to meet and relax, educate on everything from web searching to patent searching, provide guidance on copyright, proof read articles and reports, etc. etc. We do it so well, cost effectively, that we are the library for a remote research facility across the content in another country (oregon).

I work in a research library supporting a group of high level, busy professionals. The significant value added component of my role involves:

a) acquiring interlibrary loans, document delivery and grey literature
b) performing time consuming competetive/comparative research on behalf of clients
c) performing literature research on behalf of senior staff
d) administering information resources (those online journals don't 'just happen'!)
e) making sure that all who wish to do these things themselves are best equipped to do so.

The area in which I work is highly specialised - it requires in depth knowledge of the organisation's goals in addition to the literature that is current in the profession. In a world of information overload the best quality targeted information still requires human filtering. It is dangerously lazy to think otherwise.

As a reference librarian at a research library which served natural sciences and was not affiliated with a university, I can attest to the fact that there is still a good deal of hand holding to be done even with professional scientists. As somebody who is currently working to digitize and index out of copyright holdings in another library, I can tell you that it would still be a loooooong time before we got to step 3.

"what value is left for research libraries to add? Researchers don't need (or want) the guidance or handholding that undergrads require" It seems you too highly estimate the ability of graduate students or some faculty to conduct their own research or even simply figure out how to use a library. I have worked with many new graduate students who are, frankly, hapless.

This is not just an issue at science research institutions. You might want to ask the reference librarians at Teachers College Columbia University except they were all laid off in favor of the website tutor.com. Are research libraries obsolete? No just research librarians according to administrators driven by the bottom line. As a reference librarian who deals with Phd's regularly, I can only say I wish they were as research saavy as you seem to think they are.

No, no, no, no, no! (I actually had to come back to post this because I felt a little too enthusiastic at first reading!) I work in a science and technology research library (the science might be unnatural- who knows? - but anyway)
As I wrote in our business plan -- we are more than the sum of our collections. We help scientists, mathematicians, and engineers find, use, keep, and make new scientific information so that as an organization we can supply critical solutions to our nation's critical problems. We do this through organization and providing access to our hybrid collections of print and electronic resources -- but more importantly through our well honed research and analysis skills. We stay relevant through continuing training and networking with our customers.

My customers are some of the most brilliant people on the planet-- why should they waste their time bouncing back and forth between the various databases and digital libraries? They need to be making the world a better place and I can help them do that by efficiently finding and synthesizing information for them.

Furthermore, the research library is important as place. We have meetings and expos and training there. People come and pace back and forth to think problems through or sit and read quietly. Small groups have meetings there.

Finally -- we ran into two more cases so far this week where we needed the print even though the materials were supposed to have been scanned into one of the big databases. (*cough cough IEEE*)

About two months back, I has posted a similar email to various egroups of librarians here in India. It generated lot heat. Here is that email:

Subject: [medlib] 2020 - Shape of Academic and Research Libraries

Year 2020 - Online is In and Paper is Out:

Let us assume by the year 2020:
-- All content required for teaching, learning and research is available
-- 24/7 Access is available for free or fee.
-- Online content is well indexed and rated.
-- Vendors provide single point access to premium content and
organized free content.
-- Access is available at a cost, which is less then 10 % of the total
educational cost of a postgraduate student.

What would be shape [should I call future?] of Academic and Research
Any wild guesses?

Let us dare to imagine.

Comments Please.


Most of them did not agree to my assumptions. I have bloged my response to them at:


I agree with both Alison and Christina. Research librarians have a significant role to play in maximizing researchers' time by assisting them with searches and filtering to find the best and most relevant studies. It also assumes that researchers 1) prefer to do their own searching; 2) have time to do their own searching; 3) are at least as capable as trained professional librarians at discovering relevant material. It's not evident that any of these are necessarily the case, particularly given the somewhat unintuitive terminology systems and clunky web interfaces that add to the problem of finding, not to mention the issue of information overload. Regardless of whether post-undergrad individuals could do their own searching, it may not be the most efficient route when other aspects of the research also need attention. This is not entirely dissimilar to other professions - you could probably do your own taxes every year, but it doesn't follow that all the H&R Block and accounting offices should close down.

I think the argument that research libraries have no public to serve is not backed up by the evidence. It may be a limited, specialized community, but it's still a "public" that often needs the expertise of the librarian. The library building may be less important than it was in the past, or it may be as important in different ways. I just don't think you can have this conversation without acknowledging the expert work that librarians are doing in the aid of research, in or out of the library proper.

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