by Bennett Graff (Publisher, Music and Dance Collections, Alexander Street, a ProQuest Company; Phone: 203-494-7018)
On June 22, 2016, ProQuest announced its acquisition of Alexander Street. As the news rolled out, librarians sat up a little straighter and took note: something was afoot in the marketplace, and this acquisition was a signal.
I should know. I work for Alexander Street.
What’s afoot is a recognition among large content providers to academic libraries of how much has changed in the ways students learn — and how far ahead of the curve small companies like Alexander Street were in their efforts to differentiate themselves in the marketplace from such text-driven giants as Gale, Ebsco, and ProQuest.
In the world of library content providers, what’s on offer usually chases changes in technology, business model, budgets, generations, and pedagogical habits and expectations. The digital universe for learning has broadened dramatically, with the once standard offering of bibliographies, abstracts, and indexes — all still with us — sitting side-by-side today with aggregations of full-text content in various formats, still image collections, audio and video materials, and even fully interactive materials from online testing tools to shareable and customizable user-created content platforms.
Where to Begin?
When Alexander Street Press was founded, its start-up size required that its first content offerings catch the attention and meet the needs of academic librarians sufficiently well to let them to take a chance on so small an operation. In corporate lingo, Alexander Street’s mission was to deliver a new kind of value — and the value it delivered early on was semantic indexing. At a time when larger content providers were beginning to explore the ways costs could be saved by automating the creation of indexes and abstracts that stood at the front end of any search activity, Alexander Street took a step not so much backwards as to the side and ahead by bringing to online databases a type of indexing of full text materials threatened by automation. In brief, it doubled down on the application of human intelligence, by asking its indexers to look at the discipline-specific requirements of the content scholars studied. For scholars and students of anthropology, you could thus look up materials by “cultural group,” in fashion studies by the “garment discussed” or “fashion event,” in dance by “choreographer,” in theater studies by “production company,” in psychology by “methodology,” and other categories for its other disciplinary specialties, from food studies to engineering.
This customization at the disciplinary level contrasted with the bland homogenized indexing that left keyword or full-text searches to do the work of tracking down those garments and choreographers. It was an enormous benefit to the researcher and more than fulfilled Alexander Street’s espoused purpose of deepening and enriching the research experience.
Beyond the Textual Event Horizon
What was particularly compelling about semantic indexing was not merely its contribution to the research experience, but what it did for the undergraduate classroom experience. Unlike seasoned scholars — faculty members, postdocs or advanced graduate students who largely knew what to look for because of their time-honed research background — the undergraduate student, when faced with a classroom assignment that pushed up against her ignorance of a discipline, couldn’t help but be flummoxed by those age-old term paper questions: “Where do I start?” “What do I write about?” While semantic indexing in and of itself didn’t answer these questions, it did grease the wheels for decision-making, so that students in an introductory psychology class tasked with writing on a “presenting condition” could quickly isolate critical information or, if at a complete loss about where to start, then select a topic from a drop down list of primary sources for research on catatonia or cutting.
Through semantic indexing, Alexander Street offered its answer to the question of how students conducted their research. But it wasn’t long after the company’s start that it also sensed a dramatic shift in what kinds of content students — and researchers — sought. In the history of media, as audiovisual materials got ever closer to the consumer — from the movie theater and the concert hall to the television and radio to the VCR player and Walkman to the personal computer and the cloud — educational market players sought new ways to bring this new content in these “closer-to-you” formats to students and scholars. For library markets, Alexander Street proved small enough and ambitious enough to serve as an early adopter, bringing aboard the early online music service Classical International in 2004 and moving on to incorporate video products in recognition of the reality that there was simply no other content provider serving the academic library market. In the world of music streaming services, other than Rhapsody — now Napster — online streaming services like Spotify, Google Play Music, Groove, and Tidal did not emerge till after 2007. YouTube itself launched in 2005, and Alexander Street Press itself was not far behind with its first video streaming product in 2007.
Now What Do I Do?
Alexander Street was the rare, although not necessarily unique, animal in bringing multimedia content to its users. In many respects, it contributed to the realization that Millennial students are not only far more voracious consumers of information from audiovisual formats, but they interact with it differently as well, far less passively, if you will, than those of us raised on network television and FM radio. Teaching and research are by their nature interactive in the tracking down, absorption, selection, and re-presentation of content from multiple sources. Alexander Street made a critically significant decision in response to its customers’ requests to create multimedia products when it offered from the outset a common platform across media formats, all the while applying to these objects the same semantic indexing that had distinguished its first text products.
But for students and faculty assembling content for their courses and those who look beyond the textbook or coursepack or e-reserve, it is not enough to have the content online, indexed, and searchable. In a world where distance learning has taken root, MOOCs abound, and learning management systems for on-campus and remote learning are standard, the ability to bring Alexander Street content into the classroom reflects business requirements that continue to push the boundaries of how content is used. The first questions that librarians and patrons continue to ask are: “Is this the right content for the targeted user?” and “Is the content accessible?” Now the question of “What can I do with this content?” has pushed its way ever higher up the list of priorities.
Consider the case of music. Alexander Street presently carries more than 50,000 scores, over 2,000 videos comprising some 1,600 hours, 800,000 albums covering over 10 million tracks, and some 500,000 pages of reference material. For the institution that subscribes to one of our comprehensive packages, it is a given that all of this material should be searchable on a common platform, so that a search on J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” will deliver into the user’s hands not only a vast array of recordings, but also editions of the score, reference work entries, liner notes, and video performances.
But it’s not enough anymore in this day and age for the classroom user — and especially the instructor who is deft with his learning management software — to just find content quickly. That is to say, locating content may be a necessary condition, but it may no longer always be a sufficient one. Today’s librarians ask new questions of their content providers:
- Can I cite the work easily in MLA format or export it to RefWorks?
- Can I email, share, or post a link to social media?
- Can I download or print out the work?
- Can I add selections to a personal playlist?
- Can I clip out bits of audio and video for my classroom?
- By the way, does the video include synchronized transcripts?
- For the scores or photo collection, can I create a visual clip of just part of an image and blow it up?
- How many of these activities can my students perform with a mobile app on their phone or tablet?
But these questions, which presently describe many of the functions that Alexander Street products offer, are but the start as new questions emerge. I offer a sampling here for the brave new world emerging for the digital score:
- Does your product offer synchronized scores with the operas or classical performances my students will be watching?
- Does the score that my performance student wants to display on her iPad Pro for a recital have an autoscroll function so she doesn’t have to turn pages?
- Do you have ‘live scores’ that allow me to change the key on the fly?
- Does your score product have an audio playback option so I can hear what I’m seeing since there’s no recording of the piece yet?
Semantic indexing, multimedia content on a common platform, and an ever-growing number of tools that expand the ways in which we use content may well be emerging norms. How do we know this?
Did I mention that Alexander Street was acquired by ProQuest?