I'm doing some exploratory poking around an issue that is of dual importance
to me as a librarian and writer: the fidelity of the print journal in online
databases. I feel as if this is such an obvious issue that there must have
been EXTENSIVE discussion about this over the last ten or fifteen years, so
bear with me if I am missing the fly on the end of my nose.

Here's the issue in narrative form: a library subscribes to a small-press
journal. The journal's articles are also indexed in some database or other.
The library runs out of space and money to physically house the journal, and
drops the print edition.


The journal issue itself now has no physical representation in the database.
It's a series of articles. It is (and we now move into the alternate
universe where Michael Gorman and I think alike and even use the same
vocabulary) atomized. Even if you can force the database to bring together
the related articles, it is a kludge at best.

For some journals, maybe that never mattered anyway. But for many journals
in the humanities, the issue is the experience. There are some very nice
online journals, and increasingly, small presses, which operate just barely
above cost-recovery, are reinventing themselves online. But take the recent
issues of Missouri Review or The American Scholar... like a book, a journal
issue is its own event (though unlike most book-length narratives, one that
can be enjoyably experienced incompletely and in the reader's own preferred
order, which is part of the fun as well). Even though the individual content
of the journal may be preserved piece by piece, the totality of the journal
has not.

Let's set aside some of the characteristics that can't be dragged to the
online medium (the feel and smell of paper, for example) or arguments I find
specious (how many people take baths any more, anyway?). That said, to what
extent do databases (or do not...) recreate the "issue experience"-that
sense of aboutness and completion for a journal issue? Do we care?

I see some work is done in metadata that can express the relationship
between articles in a journal. But I'm curious how much we (librarians) care
about this business of fidelity or whether it's just another silent victim
of change. I worry that without intending to we could hasten the death of an
entire area of literature.

Though with some intentionality, we could also help save this literature, as
well (because mailing and printing costs are the obvious threats to the
small presses-a number have moved online, or started online, and thrive
there in their small-press manner; if a database could represent, say, The
American Scholar in a way that did it justice, that might be a very good

Again, maybe I'm just missing something really, really obvious... please do
step in to say, Karen, where have you been? ... or perhaps there are some
e-humanities initiatives already working in this area... but the more and
more I engage with small presses, the more this concerns me.

K.G. Schneider
Free Range Librarian
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