Day: June 12, 2014

A Note on Dust

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By Ken Fox

The 2014 CALL Conference Programming Committee invited controversy and fireworks when they invited two lawyers, two librarians, and a marketing expert to debate on the rebranding of librarians. Shaunna Mireau has already commented in slaw on the session titled Should We Still Be Called Librarians? I weighed in on the question in a comment on Melanie’s post from before the conference.

I enjoyed the discussion, but thought some of the non-librarians underestimated the extent to which librarians are leading the transition to digital resources, and that some of the librarians overreacted in their defense of print materials. I’m also not sure about the idea of rebranding ourselves into something other than librarians – are we supposed to all rebrand together, or go our separate ways?

But in this post I am concerned with dust, because the image of book dust was invoked more than once in the session, especially by Allan Fineblit, who was otherwise witty and insightful. We should not call ourselves librarians, so the argument goes, because the idea of librarians is associated with old, dusty books that nobody reads anymore, and dusty, brick things called buildings that are apparently obsolete in this brave digital world.

Law books, journals, reference books, and in particular law reporters and legislation, by nature are used infrequently. This has not changed. While individual volumes can go years or decades without being touched, the series as a whole remains valuable. The dust on their covers was never used as an indicator of usefulness before the creation of online databases, nor is it an indication of value now. When print resources are no longer needed, librarians will happily discard them, and a small portion of the legal community will protest that old books are still important and should be kept.

Maybe dust is being used symbolically by Mr. Fineblit and others. The dust of time comes to rest on the unused relics. But the same kind of dust is gathering on fire extinguishers, which have not been replaced by a digital device, yet languish unused, as Michael Plaxton reminds us in a recent slaw post on the U of S College of Law Library.

And the vast majority of documents in CanLII and QuickLaw are gathering symbolic dust, as is the great bulk of content in every other legal database, and more so as older cases and statutes are added to the pile. In fact, the current worldwide store of digitally documents already dwarfs the combined print collections of the world’s libraries, housed as they are in the much despised brick & mortar. Only a few in this growing mountain of electronic records will ever be looked at again, and even less will be destroyed. Throughout the great digital hoard, dust gathers. How to navigate such a growing galaxy of dusty online documents?

Nothing in a law library or in a legal database is ever needed, until it is needed. By some strange alchemy, something happens to transform what is worthless into something valuable, and urgently sought after. How do we find the gold in such a mammoth dust-heap? With the help of ancient archeological tools known as metadata, description, access, and database management – the same tools librarians have used for centuries to locate forgotten, dusty books in their labyrinth stacks.

And what should we call the people whose work it is to build and use these finding tools, and instruct others in their use? What to call the brave souls who venture into the dust-heap to locate the valuable, forgotten treasures? Call them digital archivists. Call them digital librarians. Then drop the digital.



Law Book Cost in 1927 (Throwback Thursday)

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HudsonCostThe Law Society Library purchased a copy of Hudson’s Law of Building and Engineering Contracts in 1927 for $15.94. Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator indicates that a basket of goods and services that cost $15.94 in 1927 would cost $221.74 in 2014. Just out of curiosity, I checked out how far away from reality it would be to hope that the current edition of the same title could be obtained for under $300. The prices I found varied from £450 to £560. Using today’s exchange rate, it would cost between $823.15 to $1024.36 to buy a copy of the 12th edition of Hudson’s Building and Engineering Contracts.  This represents a 5,064% increase over 87 years. The Library paid $1,020 (plus shipping and tax) in 2010 for the 12th ed.  Even after factoring in the higher British inflation rate, book costs are still increasing at a much higher rate than other consumer items.