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January 11, 2004

ALA Technology Peeve #1: The Current Reference File

From time to time on Council list, I have vented, fruitlessly, about the Current Reference File. But why stop there? Let me bore you folks, as well! Seriously, it's an important issue, a very pivotal issue in terms of moving ALA to new technologies, and one the ALA young'uns should think and talk about.

To explain the Current Reference File (henceforth, the CRF), we need to step back one level and discuss the ALA Handbook of Organization. This is a print publication, currently over 200 pages long, distributed annually by mail to all ALA members. The Handbook includes ALA bylaws, the policy manual, information about the divisions, contact information for key ALA members (those on committees, for example), and other important information.

Because the Handbook is a large print publication, expensive to compile, print, and distribute, it has been longstanding practice to print only portions of policies and other key documents in the Handbook itself, and to refer members to a resource called the Current Reference File. For a lengthy paper document, this makes sense.

Access to the Handbook is a Good Thing. Not only do we have a paper version, with the expected companion resource, the monstrously large PDF version also placed online, we also have a really useful digital version. The Handbook has been faithfully recreated as a Web page, which is a seemingly Good Thing, as well--except for a catch. The reproduction is faithful to a fault: all of the policies truncated in the print version, for perfectly reasonable cost-saving measures, are also truncated in the online version.

This is how the Policy Manual refers to the CRF:

"The full text of pertinent position statements, policies, and procedures is retained in the 'Current Reference File' at ALA Headquarters. Outdated policies will be retained in an historical file at the ALA Headquarters. Both of these files will be available at the ALA Headquarters and at the Midwinter and Annual meetings."

This is exactly the case. These files are retained at ALA, and paper versions of these documents are literally placed in a large trunk and shipped to every ALA conference.

Most of you by now can appreciate just how antiquated ALA is in this practice. You understand that these days, nearly all documents shared among ALA members start as digital content, and all of them end up digitized in the process of becoming formally part of ALA's content history. You also appreciate that the justification for omitting content from a print manual disappears entirely when the document goes online. (As for additional space required for the content, I would be extremely surprised if the entire omitted content took up more space than that on the tiny USB flash drive I stuff with key materials and pop into my dress pocket on the way out of the hotel room.)

The embargoed CRF documents may occasionally see limited paper publication during the earliest part of their life cycles, when members of ALA review, revise, and consider these documents, but for the most part, early on, these documents exist exclusively online, scattered across divisional lists, portions of the Web site, and personal collections. It is only in the process of producing a paper document, which is used to generate the online document, that the documents are "disappeared" in the manner of Latin American dissidents.

The net result of this antiquated practice is that when you read the policies in the Web version of the Policy Manual, you get the "resolved" clauses--the action items--but you do not have access to the "whereas" clauses which frequently provide crucial background to the logic that went into the policies, and you are also bereft of the many outstanding background materials that ALA members produce in the course of drafting ALA policy.

These background documents--reports, backgrounders, and so forth--are an important part of the historical record of oru association, and also deserve our attention and respect as resources generated through the blood, sweat, toil and tears of ALA members, either on personal time or through the largesse of their library institutions.

On the Council list, I have repeatedly recommended that the items in the Current Reference File should be placed (and organized!) online and linked to in full from the Policy Manual (as well as other ALA documents). Councilors understand and appreciate my point, but I have not made similar inroads with ALA staff. My last request met the response that it would take too many staff resources.

I'm sympathetic to the fiscal constraints on ALA, and I accept some blame for not tackling the problem more directly. After all, I'm not simply suggesting we convert and link to existing documents (although that is part of my request). I'm recommending that ALA change its process, so that the online, Web-available version of the Handbook becomes the "Current Reference File." Implicit in my questions, my pleas, and my requests is the understanding that business as usual would change with respect to all ALA policies and related documents, and that we would anticipate the availability of these documents almost as soon as they became the law of our association.

And if we did that, it's possible we could evaluate automatically printing and mailing close to 100,000 bulky manuals every year. Maybe the paper handbook could be restricted to information that is best distributed in paper, or we could boil it down to several pages that outline the full handbook and explain to members what it offers and why they need it. Imagine how much paper--and money--we would save if every handbook, every year, were several hundred pages shorter.

Sometimes people object to electronic formats because they are hard to read. I prefer reading the New York Times in paper. I don't have the same problem with the Handbook, because I read short portions for it on an as-needed basis. And frankly, even with the best indexing, I'll put online keyword access against a paper index any day. As I sit here in Council on my live, free wireless connection, ask me what I would rather do--thumb through a heavy paper manual (wearily lugged from home to conference to Council chambers and back), or nimbly keyword search an online document.

I am not looking for much right now--just a sympathetic comment that this issue would go on the docket at some vague point in the future. Or shall we do it ourselves, and call for action with a timeline attached, create a task force, and do it that way? I just feel that ALA staff can make this happen without extensive member involvement in planning and guidance.

These are not a huge number of documents. If they can fit in a trunk, along with many other things we drag to our conferences, they represent a reasonable, none-too-ambitious digitization project any library would tackle if it wanted to improve access for a core collection. And of course, once ALA commits to providing these documents online, linked from the Policy Manual and elsewhere, there won't be any more retrospective conversion, because we will be placing documents online and linking them from the manual in "real time."

ALA, would you like to step up to the plate? Or shall we help you get there?

Posted by kgs at January 11, 2004 09:40 AM

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If ALA can afford to outsource the development of the "online community" service they are sending out to RFP, then they can surely afford to outsource the scanning and OCRing of these documents. That immediately takes care of the backlog, and they then need only worry about modifying processes going forward. (If you add up the shipping cost for all those trunks of paper twice a year, FOREVER, then eventually the whole digitization process must pay for itself, too.)

Posted by: Genny Engel at May 20, 2004 01:05 PM