Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Library in Every Pocket?

Do they have their membership cards and/or mobile
devices for instant library access? People,
probably Aucklanders, on a Coromandel beach.
Have library card, will travel. That was my feeling about Auckland public library membership, even before the local government amalgamation that gave us “1 city. 55 libraries” on 1 November 2010. Close cooperation between the region’s public library systems, starting years earlier, meant that members of one already enjoyed access to the benefits of all, at least when it came to online subscriptions.

Thus from the first decade of the twenty-first century I used the digital library. It was an amazing experience to be at home, at work, in another town, or even overseas, and still to be able to enter the world of knowledge that came with being a member of the Auckland Public Library.

Love, Mustard, Black Holes and More
Most valuable to me was Oxford Reference Online (ORO), a library in its own right, and one that I could search in a couple of clicks. The access to this Oxford University Press resource prompted me to take my library card everywhere, just in case there was something I needed to know and an internet connection was available.

It was like the heady feeling of being in love. In fact, that particular word came up: “Dear —” I emailed friends of mine once, “I love the Oxford Reference Collection. Please find below some info regarding ‘keen as mustard’...”

The ensuing message quoted three of the online titles — The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and An A–Z of Food and Drink — on the origins of that spicy condiment (mustard, not love) and various expressions relating to it. I was, quite probably, an Oxford bore.

Are these the keys to the Information Kingdom?
In preparing posts for my Egg Venturous blog and this Latitude of Libraries blog, I’d rate consulting ORO as a favourite activity. I’ve also found opportunities to search there while immersed in other projects: among my papers, I recently rediscovered something I’d printed out an aeon ago from The Oxford Companion to Cosmology, to aid a poetic quest relating to black holes.

As an editor and proofreader, too, I’ve found ORO invaluable. If I need to query something with an author, that particular publisher carries more weight than Google or Wikipedia — even than Encyclopaedia Britannica. My Auckland Libraries membership offers me free use of the latter, and I refer to it now and then, but ORO used to be open on my internet browser at all times and I consulted it daily.

Waitakere Central Public Library.
A Connection Severed
I talk of ORO in the past tense because, although the university press continues, as does the online presence, our connection has been severed: Auckland Libraries has cancelled its subscription (though online subscriptions to two stand-alone Oxford publications remain; see the end of this post). One morning early in April I logged on to find that... I couldn’t. I emailed my library — “Help, help!” I implored — but to no avail.

“Unfortunately,” came the reply, “the Oxford Reference Online database is one that we no longer subscribe to. The reason given is that in order to ‘keep rates reasonable for ratepayers, Libraries reviewed their list of eResources in October 2012 and rationalised them to keep a broad range of content while still providing best value.’”

Cutting Coats and Costs
About a year ago I had expressed concern about the funding cut that the Auckland Council proposed for our libraries: “When I look at libraries”, I wrote, “I see pretty lean operations whose people are practised at stitches in time and saving nine, seeing pins and picking them up, taking care of the pennies, cutting their coats according to their cloth, and (not least) wasting not.” (I was quoting The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs at the time, courtesy of ORO and my Auckland Libraries membership. But that and various hyperlinks on A Latitude of Libraries are now redundant, due to the closed ORO connection.) 

Former library entrance at Glen Eden,
which does still have a public library
The reduction mentioned then was one per cent, but the figures since seem to have been larger; nothing like the cuts that have closed public libraries all over the United Kingdom, but large enough to affect services.

After budget cuts were announced, Auckland Libraries made a fair bit of noise, in a discreet and strategic manner, about how they might have to reduce services. The Grey Lynn and Snells Beach libraries might have to close, they said, though Mayor Len Brown put the kibosh on that. More recently Freegal, the free music-download service that the libraries promoted heavily following its arrival early in 2012, was mentioned as a possible sacrifice.

Use or Lose; Fear and Favour
But despite the posturing above, and when push comes to shove, library managers will understandably seek to save money where it will be least noticed. That is probably among certain electronic resources of whose existence library members are largely ignorant, and which they therefore do not use very much, if at all.

Oxford Reference Online is probably an example of this. It is only by accident and extreme curiosity that I found, some years ago, that I could slip through some fur coats, out the back of a wardrobe, and into Oxford, equipped only with my library card. I went there ever after. Googling was mundane and limited by comparison.

Exhibition window, National Library, Wellington.
Few others may feel like this about something that is just, when you boil it down, a database. All the same, I would like to have seen the libraries promote ORO as a resource before they decided to get rid of it. Perhaps its usage figures would have gone up, prompting them to keep it.

That’s not to say that the contents of a library catalogue should depend on a popularity contest. My understanding is that on principle, librarians collect and supply diverse information from diverse viewpoints; that it is against some primary law of librarianship for them to show fear or favour. So even if ORO isn’t the most used resource, that alone shouldn’t exclude it.

Helpful sign, Takapuna Public Library.
Vexed and Valid Questions
The category of information expertise that the Oxford collection inhabits — “reference” — has suffered in the last decade or so, because so many people think that Google answers everything. It doesn’t. Questions always remain. One valid question might be, how are we to know that the answers — or even our questions — are right?

I’m an information snob, I suppose. Google, Wikipedia et al are sometimes perfectly capable of giving me what I’m looking for, but on occasion perhaps I crave the gravitas that Oxford invokes; its hallowed halls, its centuries of scholarship, its air of superiority and the stamp of approval that comes when I bandy that particular brand-name about. Perhaps this snootiness is a colonial cringe and a misguided Anglophilia, too: preference for an apparently British source over American ones.

At the same time, I’m the opposite of a snob: I want everyone to say, like the unnamed character in When Harry Met Sally (1989; see video clip below), “I’ll have what she’s having” — and, what’s more, to get it.


Auckland Libraries’ subscription to the online Oxford University Press resources seemed to me a very modern expression of a traditional idea: that a public library should be the people’s university”, unlocking more of the world of knowledge for all.

So it’s not entirely self-interest that leads me to ask if we can please have ORO back. Nor am I entirely a free-loader: as a freelance editor, I have invested at least $1000 in my own reference library. But without electronic access to Oxford, I feel like a freelance whose lance has been confiscated.

Withdrawn reference books
that my partner bought at
Papakura Public Library
Navigational Aides).
What We’ve Lost
The Auckland Libraries subscription to ORO gave remote access to more than 300 reference books. Any member of the public can enter a direct relationship with Oxford University Press and subscribe independently to about a third of these, the Quick Reference set, for £80 a year.

The rest of Auckland’s Oxford online list featured more indepth “companions” and some other titles of general interest (including The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, the full-length Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). These belong to a second group of online tools available only to subscribing institutions and their members: individuals cannot buy these subscriptions from Oxford, and in some cases the print editions of these books are not currently for sale. The number of hard copies in public libraries is limited.

Bookshelf (I forget where).
Nothing Compares...
On its e-library “News and Updates” page, Auckland Libraries suggests several alternatives to ORO. Among them are databases of numerous journals and periodicals, an index to New Zealand magazine articles, and the open-access Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. In my view, none is like ORO.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, listed there too, is the closest — but it’s a single publication, while within the Oxford collection I could compare information on one topic from numerous and diverse books. I think Oxford offers more depth and authority, as well as diversity.

The Gale Virtual Reference Library, to which Auckland Libraries also subscribes, might be regarded as another alternative to Oxford, though the libraries’ list doesn’t mention it. Gale, too, seems to cover subjects in less depth.

South African praying
mantis, my arm.
Out of interest, and because I recently posted on the topic at Egg Venturous, last week I compared Britannica’s and Gale’s entries on mantids (praying mantises) with the ORO source I had consulted about these fascinating insects. Britannica’s amounted to one A4 page and Gale’s to three. The Oxford information, gathered earlier from The New Encyclopedia of Insects and Their Allies, was four pages. “More” does not always mean “better”, but it did in this case. 

The local body amalgamation of 2010 made library “rationalising” inevitable. But when it came to the libraries’ holdings I would have expected cuts to journals and periodicals rather than a collection like Oxford, because the libraries’ relationships with several large suppliers at once may have resulted in overlapping journal and periodical subscriptions.

Intriguing title,
Takapuna Public Library.
And What of the Future?
I don’t know the ins and outs of supplier relationships, or plans for other subscriptions. A few other e-resource cuts were announced in November, and recently the libraries announced that they would not renew a subscription that ran out on June 30. Maybe there will be more.

In December, Auckland Libraries reported on its directions for the next 10 years. Oxford Reference Online seems an excellent fit with two of the ‘Te Kauroa — Future Directions’ report’s six focus areas.

The first of these, “the digital library”, aims to have “your library available anywhere, anytime”. The media release about the report took this angle in its heading, “Auckland prepares for ‘a library in every pocket’”. It was a nod to mobile devices such as smart-phones and tablets.

On the phone outside Auckland Central
Library during a book sale.
The last focus area in the report, “collections”, notes intentions to “safeguard open access to a broad and deep range of library materials... grow the range and ease of use of digital content”, adding that “more of our spending on library resources will move to purchasing access to online subscriptions and databases, e-books, and access to streaming media sources and downloadable content.” ORO comes to mind there as well.

The ORO subscription would also tie in with focus area 3, library spaces, where one priority is to “investigate and develop alternative delivery options for those who face access barriers to a physical library, e.g. rural Aucklanders or homebound”. 

The report talks of delivering a “world-class” library to Aucklanders: it uses those words eight times. I can’t help feeling that we already had a world-class library, but that a budget cut has slightly reduced its value. With the connection to Oxford Reference Online severed, my library card doesn’t seem to take me quite so far any more.

* * * * *

Other Oxford E-Resources
Auckland Libraries currently retain a separate subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary online. Its historical thesaurus is a favourite hangout of historical novelists such as Geraldine Brooks (she mentioned this at a Women’s Bookshop event a couple of years back). Like ORO, the OED is a treasure; for this post it gave me background on the wonderful word ‘bandy’. (It is a game related to tennis, its exact nature now lost in the mists of time. One meaning of the verb, however, is “To toss or pass from one to another, in a circle or group; to toss about.”)

The public library also still offers full access to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which concludes many (if not all) entries with a summary of the subject’s liquidity — financial — at the time of death.

Auckland Libraries copy of Emily Carr
autobiography, Growing Pains.
Oxford Elsewhere
A quick check of several other cities’ public library holdings showed me that the Wellington and Christchurch libraries currently offer Oxford Reference Online to their members, as do Melbourne and Darwin in Australia.

The full lists of ORO titles are here. Institutions can select any number of online publications from the Oxford Reference Library list.


  1. The ORO title links are broken

  2. Apologies, Anon. Now fixed, above - or try:

  3. excellent post, raises some questions about the planning and allocation of resources.

  4. Thank you Mark, and thanks to everyone else for dropping by.