Fans of baseball, football, and basketball, you all have something in common: it’s easy for you to tell what team is on the field, which one is off of it, and when players are changing their roles from offense to defense. In baseball, of course, three outs and the team at-bat retreats into the dugout, picks up its mitts, and trots back onto the field. In football, there are many variations and tricks of the trade. For example, a “hurry-up” offense is designed to move so quickly that the defense doesn’t have time to substitute fresh players onto the field. But in general, the exchange of players in our nation’s major sports is a slow and stately process that’s based on principles that kids learn when they first begin playing a particular game. There’s one sport, though, that’s totally different from the others—and I suspect it has a lesson to teach those of us in library land.
Unlike other sports, in hockey, players “change on the fly.” That is, a coach signals a group of players to jump onto the ice even as the others are whizzing off—the exchange happens in the middle of a play, as the puck is speeding down the ice. Hockey is such an exhausting sport that players only last a few minutes playing at full tilt, so a coach is constantly deliberating over whom to put in while trying to outguess the other coach’s moves. It’s a speeded-up, live chess match on ice.
I’m put in mind of hockey because of some recent developments in digital publishing. We’ve long known that Overdrive offers libraries subscriptions, rather than full ownership of books. Now Amazon has gotten into the act, offering its Prime members (who pay an annual fee) an ebook subscription. It strikes me that collection development is similar to the easy ebb and flow of offense and defense that I first described. A librarian knows her collection, sees where she needs to add titles, and from time to time, weeds those titles that have outlived their usefulness. But subscriptions are more like hockey.
In the digital subscription world, a librarian isn’t expecting her collection to remain the same for any length of time. She subscribes according to her current needs, knowing that the materials she has made available to today’s patrons may significantly change in the near future. For instance, she wants the latest and greatest of, say, news and financial databases. But in a subscription model, the constant churning and turnover isn’t just a matter of adhering to the latest dateline. A librarian may gain, or lose, an entire chunk of her collection as her subscription funding comes and goes, or as publishers’ digital policies change, or as patrons’ favorite digital devices shift.
What if we embrace a library model that’s part baseball and part hockey? What would such an arrangement look like? Print books, and some databases, would move in and out of the library at a leisurely pace, similar to ballplayers taking and leaving the field between innings. But digital subscriptions would constantly change on the fly: with new materials in, the old out, and the librarian playing the role of a highly tactical hockey coach, constantly matching ever-changing needs to ever-evolving resources. If that’s the case, the question isn’t “What do you own?” it’s “What do you need this very second?”
I can imagine a two-sport library, but there’s one caution. As you hockey fans well know, there’s one thing that can stop the rapid change of lines: when the game itself stops. The NHL and its players spent much of 2012 embroiled in a battle over money, and as a result, the players lost more than half of the current season. The one real danger in a subscription model is that it could break down totally and publishers could turn to some completely different plan. Well, if that happens, then librarian-coaches will just have to change partners and dance—on the fly.
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