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Librarians and H-Net

James P. Niessen, Co-Editor and Book Review Editor, HABSBURG
Texas Tech University

In 1989, James Schick noted on the pages of this newsletter that "Telecommunications will transform the manner in which historians publish their work, hold conventions, maintain contact with each other in on-going research projects, conduct discussions with students, and serve as resources for classes around the nation." (1) Other contributions to the current issue discuss H-Net's role in the transformation of how historians do their work, this essay will focus on the relevancy of H-Net to librarians and changes in librarianship.

The changes brought on by innovations in computers and electronic communication are lent urgency by what is called a "crisis in scholarly publishing," resulting from inflation in the cost of scholarly publications and a relative decline in institutional funding for acquisitions. One librarian is not alone in asserting that "[t]he crisis in scholarly publishing has had a devastating effect on academic libraries in recent years." (2) In 1992, A Mellon Foundation-funded study on the nexus between publishing and academic libraries concluded: "However one might regard present technological developments, no amount of nostalgic longing for traditional practices, in our view, will serve to forestall the application of the new technologies to scholarly communication ..."(3)

Librarians believe in making a virtue out of necessity. Not only do they routinely use databases, file transfer, and e-mail for many acquisitions and cataloging functions and for communication among themselves, but they are anxious also to see that funding is stretched through the electronic option for indexes, interlibrary loan, and end-user Internet service in order to provide users with access to needed information. Open stack collections and classification systems that collocate books on the same subject have made scholars comfortable with the notion of browsing serendipitously for material. With the current crisis this method of access to new publications is less and less satisfactory, for which librarians are often criticized. Not even the largest research libraries are able to purchase as comprehensively or systematically as they once did.

Periodical indexes and union catalogs like OCLC and RLIN, when combined with borrowing of actual volumes, photocopies, faxes and scanned articles sent via e-mail, reconstitute a sort of comprehensiveness through the "virtual collection." Digitization is also used for the creation of electronic reserve rooms and preservation copies of brittle or rare items. It is twenty years since the invention of MARC (machine readable cataloging) records made online cataloging utilities a reality. Now OCLC and RLIN are providing public user interfaces for their databases, and libraries are linking to them on their library information systems. The next generation of library information systems will be mounted on the World Wide Web, with custom designed, easily used, interfaces to remote web sites and their freely or commercially available databases.

The vast majority of academic institutions now subscribe to electronic journals, have access to the Internet, and have electronic catalogs in their libraries. (The percentages in each category are highest for public doctoral institutions, but are comparable at liberal arts colleges.) Library staff provide instruction in the use of electronic databases and of the Internet on most campuses. Libraries are expending an increasing share of their resources for electronic resources and for training in their use.(4) Consortia of academic libraries are an increasingly common framework for the reduction of unit costs for interlibrary loan and subscriptions to online databases. Libraries' and librarians' organizations are seeking politically to influence such public issues as electronic copyright (more will be said on this topic in a moment), publishing, and intellectual freedom issues. Collaboration --among libraries, with scholars, and with kindred organizations--is a prominent theme in the Association of College and Research Libraries' strategic plan.

Historians--partial to publications and documents as paper artifacts because of their disciplinary insistence upon stable and verifiable information--have been far more reluctant to rely on electronic formats and technology than their colleagues in the sciences. This is why a session (July 7, 1996), entitled "Clio and the Net: Historians in an Electronic Age" (including a presentation on H-Net), at the recent American Library Association's annual meeting in New York drew more than 200 attendees. Librarians in the audience were fascinated by, and wanted to know more, about how e-mail and digitized text were changing scholarly discourse, research, and teaching, and what feedback the presenters were getting about the usefulness of their Internet resources. A meeting of the ALA's History Section in New York enthusiastically approved a motion to affiliate itself with H-Net.

Librarians and historians need to know about H-Net book reviews as they make decisions about books their libraries should order, and also so they can monitor trends in scholarship. At larger libraries the approval plan may supply these books before they have been reviewed, but if they are books in series they may have been excluded from the plan's profile and not arrive automatically. At smaller libraries with no approval plan at all, these reviews provide far more satisfactory information than those in Choice and Booklist, and sooner than those in the scholarly print journals. H-Net's area studies lists increasingly provide rapid, substantial reviews of foreign books that are rarely covered on approval plans and may not even be reviewed in the American print journals. History librarians should subscribe to H-Review, the list that publishes reviews from all the member lists. A link to the H-Net book reviews directory on the gopher and web sites is becoming a logical necessity for library information systems.

Joining H-Net lists is a valuable option for librarians who want to keep abreast of scholarship in their primary collecting areas. If they have an anthropological bent, they may care to lurk on the lists or even query the participants in order to better understand historical discourse and the ways of using evidence and the literature. Browsing these lists' discussion threads can serve the same purpose. At schools with strong programs in particular areas, it makes sense to link the library's home page to the relevant lists' sites.

Electronic copyright is an area of H-Net activity where librarians' involvement is essential. Libraries enter into contractual agreements with journal publishers and the vendors of electronic information. Because they are legally responsible for the observance of copyright law, about which they have specific knowledge, librarians often help formulate campus copyright policies.(5) But they have a strong vested interest in the continued viability of the current understandings of fair use. They need to ensure the lawfulness of the spontaneous copying of commercially available, copyrighted text for personal or strictly defined instructional uses such as the scanning or photocopying of articles for interlibrary loan. Finally, they have to preside over the licit digitization of materials for local use, of the limited photocopying of materials held by a library, and of the e-mailing or downloading of articles from full text databases.

Vendors have shown anxiety about possible abuses of fair use in an electronic environment. But for now, they have also chosen to make downloading and e-mailing of texts possible. A delicate balance exists in the current uncertainty concerning electronic copyright. Redistribution via listservs and the placement of documents on gopher and web sites offer opportunities for users to "push the limits" on fair use. Ill-advised "pushing the limits" can have harmful effects for libraries and hence for all scholars.


1. James B. M. Schick, "What Will the Historian of 2001 be Like? What Will the History Survey Class of 2001 be Like?" , in OAH Council of Chairs Newsletter, issue on "Computers in History" Volume 1, Number 5 (1989), http://www.indiana.edu/~oah/chairsnl/v1n5.htm

2. The quotation is from Jim Parrott, the compiler of a directory in the University of Waterloo Electronic Library's Scholarly Societies Project web site that he entitles "The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing:" http://www.lib.uwaterloo.ca/society/crisis.html

3. Anthony M. Cummings, Marcia L. Witte, William G. Bowen, Laura O. Lazarus, and Richard H. Ekman, University Libraries and Scholarly Communication, A Study Prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation(Washington, DC: The Association of Research Libraries for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, November 1992), p.165; gopher://gopher.lib.virginia.edu:70/11/alpha/mellon

4. Mary Jo Lynch, "How Wired Are We? New Data on Library Technology," College & Research Libraries News 57, 2 (February 1996): 97-100.

5. Tjalda Nauta Belastock, "Writing a Copyright Policy for the Campus," College & Research Libraries News 57, 5 (1996): 297-99.

James P. Niessen is at Texas Tech University Libraries, Lubbock, TX 79409-0002. habsburg@ttacs6.ttu.edu

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