Selling Placement in Library Search Results

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This morning's Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus blog has a story with the title "Should Colleges Sell Ads to Pay for New Technology?" that links to a blog posting by Martin Weller of the Open University in the U.K. As it happens, a colleague and I were talking about a strikingly similar topic at lunch yesterday: not just that advertisements could pay for new technology but that ads could pay for content in the libraries. I felt strangely uncomfortable with the concept, and I still do, so (in jester fashion) what better way to explore the discomfort than in a posting here on DLTJ.

The second paragraph of Martin's blog posting is this:

I think we should be clear that any Vice Chancellor will already tell you that education is a business. Even if students don't actually pay themselves and are funded by government, freedom of choice as to where they go, effectively creates a market. Lecturers, administrative staff and librarians don't work for free and buildings don't build themselves. Universities are therefore competing for students, and so will offer courses they think are attractive, facilities that are appealing and trade on a brand name. To this extent education is already 'for sale', and it is difficult to see how within current society it will change.

He goes on to describe the economic forces putting pressure on higher education in the U.K., and it is a list that will certainly be familiar to those here in Ohio, too. Martin arrives at the thesis that a "pragmatic response" is needed for these pressures -- one where the term "business model" is not foreign to those of us in higher education.

The Wired Campus blog entry brings the concept even closer to home. It leads off with this paragraph: This might upset you: You log onto your university library Web site to research a history assignment, and alongside the literature citations there is an ad for Dell computers or Microsoft Office or several books from university presses. The colleague, who may wish to remain nameless or who may identify him-/herself, was thinking through the consequences of publishers paying libraries to promote content from disaggregated textbooks.

Let me back up -- the concept of the "disaggregated textbook" assumes that a textbook can be broken up into discrete chunks of content. These chunks (sometimes referred to as "learning objects" when they take a digital form) represent a unit of knowledge that a student is seeking to understand. The chunks are tied to some learning objective or outcome, and as I understand the concept, chunks that target the same learning objective are somewhat interchangeable. The chunks may vary by learning style (visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic), amount of detail, assumed level of background understanding. By breaking the textbook up into these chunks, it becomes possible to remix and substitute content to meet the particular learning objectives of a student or the style of an instructor. It also becomes easier to insert non-textbook content into the syllabus as learning objects. Content such as, say, a journal article or book chapter or video clip that a library has acquired through its traditional, non-textbook channels.

Which brings us to the discussion at lunch yesterday. What makes a plain-old-digital-object a learning object is tying it to learning objectives. In other words, adding a little bit of metadata to it that makes it discoverable by learning objective criteria. What if libraries remix their existing article, book, and multimedia content into learning objects and put it in the same search interface as the disaggregated textbook chunks? My colleague proposed that a textbook publisher (or "learning object publisher") may want to pay the library to give preferential placement to its content. In fact, the business model might be such that the publisher of things formerly known as textbooks may want to "give away" the digital text form of the content with the expectation that money will be made by selling students other forms of the content -- MP3 downloads, videos of instructors explaining the content, study guides, printed forms, etc.

All of this still leaves my vaguely uncomfortable, and I'm not yet sure why. (Writing it all down in this posting hasn't helped.) It would be one thing if "preferential placement" meant "invisibly raising the relevance of such content" in the search results list. That clearly would seem to be out of bounds: invisible mucking with search results placement leads to distrust of the underlying service. Google has shown us, though, that it is possible to sell conspicuously marked advertisements on search results pages and make billions doing it. Could the same thing work for libraries selling conspicuously marked, relevant results that could lead users to an e-commerce transaction at a publisher site? Is the value libraries (and our users) could receive in exchange for such placement the free access to the digital form of the content?

The "about" page for this blog says, At times, ideas and concepts are offered as straw-men -- to be ripped apart and dismissed as fantasy or a hoax. This is one of those times. What do you think?

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 20th, 2011.