Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1996

From the Director's Chair

Miriam A. Drake
Dean and Director of Libraries
Georgia Institute of Technology

I am delighted to contribute a column to this first Web issue of ISTL. Distribution of this journal on the Web indicates the importance of electronic publication and the immediacy of scientific and technical information.

One of my responsibilities is to forecast, plan and build the future of the libraries at Georgia Tech. In carrying out that responsibility, I find that I walk the fine line of transition from print to multimedia digital publication. There are many questions and a cloudy crystal ball. While I feel confident that electronic publication of scientific and technical information will be the norm in 15 to 20 years, I cannot forecast, with any confidence, the mix of paper and electronic publication for the next 3 to 15 years. I have many questions and few answers.

The literature on science and technology publishing has dealt largely with supply issues; that is, how material is supplied not how it is used. Questions relate to print, electronic distribution, archiving, access and pricing. Librarians are concerned with how they will acquire the material needed by faculty and students and how they will pay. In the immediate future there is likely to be a mix of print and electronic publications. There also will be a mix of electronic subscriptions, acquisition of specific articles online and, perhaps acquisition of materials in a specific discipline.

It is difficult to foresee the disappearance of print. The initial intent of journal publishing was communication. Now print is used to authenticate and document the work of scientists and engineers. Electronic publishing is problematic in documenting original work. While scientists exchange preprints online, they need the imprimatur of a publisher to establish authenticity and certification.

While scientists in rapidly growing fields need immediacy, others need history. They need access to older works. This need for access raises the issue of archiving in the electronic world. When electronic publication becomes the norm, who will archive the material? How will scientists and engineers obtain documents published electronically twenty years in the future? Will publishers or libraries be responsible for archiving scientific and technical works? How will works be archived? Retention in electronic form may be the most expensive because changes in storage technology will require constant shifting and refreshing. Storage in paper has worked for a few hundred years, but the space required is scarce and increasing in cost. The most efficient and effective method of long-term preservation is microfilm. It will last for a few hundred years and requires less space than bound volumes.

Librarians are confronting a variety of dilemmas in providing access to scientific and technical information. In some fields electronic distribution of technical reports, dissertations and preprints is thriving. Other fields are adapting slowly to new forms of distribution.

Another aspect of the access issue is generational. Today's younger faculty and graduate students do not understand why everything they could possibly want to read or consult is not readily available online. They do not realize that most of the world's knowledge resides on paper and that the cost conversion to digital form is high. If it is not on the computer, it does not exist for many young people. Older faculty want to browse and read material on paper and are upset by journal cancellations. They do not understand why librarians are leading them to online alternatives. If young people are to avoid redundancy and errors, they need to consult older literature. In some of the sciences, mechanical engineering and civil engineering, the past is crucial.

The demand side of the service equation is evolving. In ten years, some of today's Nintendo freshmen will be in the classroom teaching a new generation whose learning methods and styles will be different from previous generations. We are just beginning to understand that young people reared with television, computers and electronic games do not learn in the same way as people brought up with books as the primary source of information, learning materials and entertainment.

Access and delivery of scientific and technical information will undergo dramatic change. Our challenge is to forecast this change and equip ourselves and our libraries to be key players in leading the change and delivering the right information, at the right time and in the right format.

We invite your comments about this article. Please send e-mail to the editor for possible inclusion in a future issue.

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