What if libraries stopped selecting?

What happens to the very definition of a library if (or when) libraries stop being selective about what goes into their “catalog”?

In eBooks and the Sony Reader, Stephen Abrams poses the very important question:

Do we need a public domain collection development policy or do you just add the whole batch to your OPAC with freetext, fulltext searching?

Abrams is referring primarily to the public domain books available in Google Books Search, but the question is key to how libraries will handle the coming flood of public domain, full-text resources from everywhere.

My sense is that many libraries (including academic libraries) are leaning towards just dumping it all into their discovery environment. For one thing, it will be far easier to just take everything than to manage some sort of selection process. Plus, as soon as a few major libraries do so, there will be pressure for others to do the same.

The idea that library catalogs will eventually include all books available to their patrons (either physically in the local library, or digitally as full-text) could represent a whole new paradigm. Libraries have traditionally housed carefully selected collections, and have prided themselves on that. At major academic libraries, this selection takes place mainly at the publisher level rather than at a book-by-book level; but librarians still control what kinds of items get to be part of the collection. If libraries start adding all the free, public domain, full-text books from Google Books into their “collection”, we will be getting lots of great classics along with some stuff that would not otherwise have made it into an academic library collection.

I actually have no objection to this, and think it is one of the steps on the way to an inevitable future where “collection development as we now know it will cease to exist” (Taiga 4 Provocative Statements).

It does have implications across libraries and library services though. One implication that is of interest to me is in the area of information literacy training. Librarians (and faculty) have traditionally avoided actually teaching students how to evaluate resources by using the shortcut of advising students to stick with the library catalog and databases; based on the idea that items in library resources had been pre-screened. The notion that “library resources” are automatically more reliable and authoritative than resources found in unmediated environments has been a dubious assumption for some time now anyway. Adding all Google Books public domain items to our catalogs makes it official somehow. Once we start adding items to our catalogs based solely on accessibility, without consideration or evaluation of appropriateness of content, we can no longer use “it came from the library” as a shortcut for “it is an authoritative, appropriate resource”.

In my mind, this is a good thing, because it forces libraries to teach actual information literacy skills, and concentrate on teaching kids how to evaluate an item on its own merits rather than on where it came from.

1 Response to “What if libraries stopped selecting?”

  1. 1 Respect my authoritay! « Feral Librarian Trackback on May 13, 2009 at 7:47 pm

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