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The future of resource sharing: is there any?

Editor's note: This excerpt is from Meckler's recently published Advances in Library Resource Sharing, volume 1, 1990, edited by Jennifer Cargill and Diane Graves. It is taken from Ra's chapter on "Technology and Resource Sharing: Recent Developments and Future Scenarios. " It is also the first of a series of articles on online public access, to be edited by Greg Anderson, MIT Libraries, Room 14S-216, MIT, Cambridge, MA 2139.

A critical factor in forecasting the role technology will play "in resource sharing" in the decades to come is the manner in which scholarly information is developed, shared, and transmitted. This is changing so drastically that it will be a challenge to librarians to find their place in this brave new world of communications and access.

Since scholars and writers work on word processors, and publishers use computers for the creation of their products, the electronic database becomes the product. As academics use microcomputers for writing and communicating over networks in the pursuit of research, more scholarly information is in the electronic medium.

It seems a natural progression for electronic publishing to proliferate, and, in the academic world, to short circuit and eliminate the incredible expense of publication. If the scholarly community doesn't figure out how to avoid the expense of publications, the publishing world will figure out how to charge for the electronic databases, which are becoming more important as a revenue base than print media in some cases. (Chemical Abstracts, for example, now finds that cost recovery for the production of its database is found in its electronic product whereas just five years ago, it was found in the printed product.)

Librarians now expound the view made acceptable by economics that libraries strive to provide access rather than to amass comprehensive collections. But why is a library necessary to provide access when the technology permits access at the scholar's home or office?

Rather than the traditional model of researchers using their own library, visiting or borrowing from other libraries over interlibrary loan ILL), and then producing a book or article which is transmitted through publication, some envision a network of library and database resources that are held locally and remotely. The researcher uses the same network to access information, share files with colleagues in the production of research, and publish the results electronically.

It is to this end that many of the new standards are being developed - not to the end of easy access in and out of each other's OPACS. In addition to Z39.50 and Z39.58 standards, the Standard Generalized Markup Language (ISO standard 8879) and NISO Z39.59, accepted by the Association of American Publishers, facilitate the transfer of articles, books, etc. on word processing so that the publishers can avoid rekeying.

This is being taken further by TEI, the Text Encoding Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the goal of which is to flag accurately contents of a document for easy and precise indexing. Standards for storing and transmitting hypermedia are also under development.

Eventually, resource sharing in the most profound sense may go on in academic communities with little involvement by librarians. Robert L. Parks, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the American Physical Society, testified before a congressional hearing on access to electronic databases: We are fast approaching the day when electronic databases will largely supplant conventional libraries as the repository of scientific and technical information and will become the preferred means by which scientists communicate their findings.2

But a role for librarians in the immediate future can be considerable. Ronald F. E. Weissman, the assistant vice president for academic computing at Brown University, writes about the change in academic computing from programming to the collection and analysis of information:

The UniversTry will increasingly see its role as that of online information provider to aid exploratory learning and research. And providing a rich body of online information will be a growing challenge for academic libraries worldwide, and will foster much cooperation, sharing and joint development efforts between libraries and computing centers. Indeed, the provision of such a data-rich world will make academic libraries significant change agents in higher education, and key to our next-generation technology architecture.'

The day may come when libraries as we know them become museums of materials that predate this truly electronic age, and serve as repositories of books for recreational reading. In the meantime, there are issues to be faced relative to the diverging goals of the librarian and the academic computing world.

First and foremost is the question of mediated versus nowmediated access. Today's scholar in the United States can access at least sixty OPACs electronically at no cost to the scholar. Some day, the scholar will probably be able to access one thousand. If 1,000 libraries are available, how does the scholar choose and what does he do with the information he finds? A world of information is available to him. What does he do with it? (The possibility of expert systems and knowledge navigators that would let the searcher know the best approach to the subject to be researched is a possibility.)

Of most relevance to the issue of resource sharing as it exists today is the question of what access to forty, sixty, or one thousand OPACs and bibliographic files really means - in the practical sense of getting the material represented by these systems to the user. If I have direct access to the catalogs of Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, etc., does this mean I have access to their collections? Does that mean that I know, understand, and accept the carefully negotiated arrangements for economically fair resource sharing that librarians at these institutions have made?

Providing direct access to die world" is not necessarily desirable. The need for a mediating librarian is seen as necessary not only by the librarians who would mediate, but also by those librarians at the institutions whose catalogs are being accessed by the scholar at his or her workstation. What user will submit requests that follow national interlibrary loan codes? Who would be responsible for making sure that the user's own library doesn't already own the item?

Conclusion For the immediate future, resource sharing and document delivery continue to be enhanced by the evolving computer and telecommunications technology. However, librarians at the institution level should be involved with the research computing community so that they remain a vital part of the delivery of information.

Librarians can play an important role in assuring that technology does not lead to chaos, that order is maintained. Librarians may be able to prevent technology from causing major disruptions in our carefully structured resource sharing arrangements while they are still necessary.

For the long term, librarians may have to choose between two diverging paths: either increasing involvement in the emerging electronic world of scholarship, bringing their skills and knowledge to this new world, allying with scholars and producers of electronically created and disseminated information; or becoming curators in the more traditional type of library.

The librarian may also serve as a bridge between the traditional and the new, serving the needs of the less educated by mediating, teaching and bringing them up to a level where they can become part of the electronic age. Whichever path the individual librarian chooses, resource sharing as we now understand it will probably cease to exist.


1. Charles Goldstein, "Full Text Retrieval from Structured Text," Bulletin of the American Society for Information Sciences 16, no. 6 (Aug/Sept. 1989):11.

2. Quoted in Judith Axler Turner, "Effort to Limit Access to Unclassified Data Bases Draws Criticism," Chronicle of Higher Education 33 (Mar. 4, 1987): 12.

3. In Brown Online 2 (May 1989): 3-6.
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Title Annotation:libraries
Author:Ra, Marsha
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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