Monday, November 21, 2011

Hard to Want It Online Until You Know You Need It

With some regularity, I find myself saying cheerily to students, "It used to be in print, but now it's online."

And just last week it dawned on me that they might think I'm talking about the free web.

Nope; I'm talking about subscription periodicals and books -- the library is still buying them, but they're online.

And then I realized we may have shot ourselves in the foot here, because a lot of the library's online subscriptions may as well be invisible now that they are exclusively web-based. Invisible, that is, until someone identifies a need for them and thinks to wonder if they are available on the computer -- a process and a step beyond many of the first year students I work with, I'm afraid. It takes being aware of the existence of scholarly books on a broad range of subjects to imagine that those same books could be accessible through a computer. At the community college, I'm pretty sure most students have little idea of the breadth of scholarship that's out there. I couldn't say precisely when I started to comprehend it either, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with walking through rows and rows and rows and rows of books on particular subjects.

Now that the community who previously relied on those rows and rows and rows and rows of books is happily whittling them down to just the core texts to keep in print, it should be time to celebrate that everything is online. But everything can be nothing if you don't already know it's there.


  1. Did you see this post about open access and the unexpected reader?

    It's funny, though, because a lot of the questions about making open access work are about finding things when they're organized by institution instead of, say, by subject.

    But you're right that it's really difficult for students to comprehend the volume of scholarship that exists--not too surprising when most of them are overwhelmed at the idea of writing a five page paper and have trouble imagining that there's really that much to say about the things they're writing about. And of course, it's difficult to get a good sense of that when things are online and undifferentiated.

    I hope that faculty are doing something to help them know what's out there in the literature, but it's a long process. Maybe seeing books around does help. Anyway, we still have a lot of those :P

  2. I didn't see that post -- thanks for linking to it.

    On the one hand I have a lot of respect for the open access movement, but on the other hand I wonder how they can ignore a big part of the whole process -- compensation. Would it truly be better to put everything online willy-nilly, or in the long run would it be better to compensate someone to do the work of curating it? Is it reasonable to expect some generous community of curators to volunteer their time? I question whether that is ultimately sustainable. It seems like institutions support these projects until it's time to balance the books & they realize there is no return on investment outside of the greater good. (I'll keep my eyes out for examples now that I've said that.)