The Charleston Conference – top 10 thoughts

The following summary of the Charleston Conference was written by Sylvia Miller from the University of North Carolina Press, and author of “Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement” blog.  It is reposted with permission

Trains and battleships were two of the most telling metaphors that presenters at last week’s Charleston Conference used in their attempt to describe the strength, speed, and scariness of the changes currently taking place in academic librarianship and scholarly publishing.  The news media and press outlets that focus on education and publishing seem to regard 2009 as a tipping point for public acceptance and business success of e-books.   The speakers at this conference attended by 1,000 academic librarians and scholarly publishers clearly recognized that this enormous change is upon us.

In a talk entitled “I Hear the Train A Comin’”  Kevin Guthrie, President of Ithaka, asked, “When the tracks and the cars come up to everyone’s door, what happens to the beautiful old train station?”  He was of course referring to the impact of the Web on libraries, many of which may no longer be needed as physical repositories of content duplicated down the street, across town, and online.

Responding to this year’s conference theme “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” several speakers urged librarians to act quickly and strongly for positive change.   Ivy Anderson of the California Digital Library said that reorienting libraries toward the future was “like turning a battleship around.”  In an inspiring keynote speech, David Lankes of the Information Institute of Syracuse memorably referred to the dubious efficacy of “conducting exit interviews on the deck of the Titanic“!

Lankes urged librarians to recognize their mission “to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” and become innovative, proactive leaders.  When I described the speech to a colleague here at UNC Press, she immediately said, “That could also apply to publishers!”  I told her that in fact the first audience member to comment during the Q&A session said exactly that.  In another plenary speech, Douglas Armato of the University of Minnesota Press concluded, speaking of libraries and publishers, “If we’re not dealing with this evolution together, we should be.”

In an effort to digest my voluminous notes for my colleagues, I came up with the following list of 10 takeaways from the conference.

1. There is a great deal of uncertainty over what libraries will become in the future; large buildings and print collections may disappear, and the focus will be on services rather than the housing of stuff.
2. The economic crisis is pushing libraries to eliminate duplication quickly; they choose electronic over print formats.
3. The drive to eliminate duplication is extending to regional consortia both established and newly formed; the trend is to store 1 copy of the print and share the electronic access costs.
4. Library purchasers are increasingly resistant to e-content packages; they are re-evaluating all subscriptions and seeking to negotiate lower prices and pick-and-mix deals.
5. There is a need for better, more consistent metadata for ebooks and for third parties such as wholesalers to step in and manage approval plans that include both print and ebooks.
6. The invisibility of content in silos, such as single-publisher ebook collections or subject-related journal aggregations, is still an issue, but libraries are beginning to break apart the silos by implementing federated searching software; there are several sophisticated options (including Endeca, recently implemented at UNC-CH and the Triangle Research Libraries Network). There is a related fear on the part of librarians that the more transparent they make their websites and the more Google-like they make the library search experience, the more invisible and unappreciated they will become.
7. Demand-driven acquisition is one answer to the economic crisis while it also fits the new focus on service; consistent user stats become even more critical to decisions to renew subscriptions. User stats also help librarians demonstrate the worth of their services.
8. “No DRM” (digital rights management)! Librarians hate it when end users ask them why they can download and print one item but not another. The inconsistencies make patrons complain that the printer or the system is “broken.” They also want ILL (inter-library loan) rights.
9. Library and publishing visionaries say that in the future, monographs, grey papers, and vetted articles will all be searchable together online; libraries and publishers will support scholarly communication and knowledge creation. There will be new mechanisms for creating, storing, and accessing scholarly content.
10. Academic librarians have a warm attitude toward university presses, whom they see as their partners. (In contrast, the attitude toward large STM [scientific/technical/medical] journal publishers remains one of deep distrust.) Nevertheless, the service that publishers provide and the value they add seems underappreciated. That is just one of the ways in which libraries and publishers are in the same boat (which we hope is NOT the Titantic)!