Thing called Love: Further thoughts on #lovegate

I wasn’t planning on writing anything else about #lovegate, but then others chimed in (publicly and privately) with their concerns about Ithaka writer Rick Anderson’s proposal in Can’t Buy Us Love.  Some voiced reluctance to engage publicly due to the tone of some of the comments on both James Jacobs’ blog post and on Barbara Fister’s column.  Since Rick’s paper offers a proposal for a radical shift in focus for academic libraries, I think it deserves wide and open discussion. I think it is particularly important that librarians who are not (perhaps yet) in positions of senior leadership feel free to chime in on the issues addressed. As one more junior librarian expressed to me: “questions about the ‘future of libraries’ directly impact us–we’re just starting. We are the future.” I think it is important that many visions of the future of libraries are publicly discussed, in open and respectful ways.

First, I encourage everyone to read Can’t Buy Us Love for themselves. As Rick has taken pains to point out, it is quite possible that those of us who aren’t persuaded by Rick’s proposal simply don’t understand the nuances of his argument. Please read the whole paper (several times, if you need to), and don’t rely on mine or anyone else’s summary.  Note especially that although Rick uses the term “radical shift” to describe his proposal that libraries “shift our focus from the collection of what we might call ‘commodity’ documents (especially in physical formats) to … the gathering and curating of rare and unique documents, including primary-source materials”, he includes plenty of caveats at the end of his paper, including the admonition that libraries must strike the right balance for their own institution, and that for many libraries the radical shift ought to be done gradually.

Here are my thoughts on some of the issues Rick raises.

On the impact of a more efficient marketplace for “commodity” books, and how libraries ought to respond:

I agree with Rick that the market for “commodity” books has become much more efficient. The likelihood that many people can now easily find a relatively cheap copy of any given book may indeed be quite high. I don’t think, however, that this trend means “that the library’s patrons simply no longer depend on the library for access to that book in the way they once did.” I suspect our disagreement lies with who we consider “the library’s patrons”, and with just how much more efficient (and for how many people) the commodity market needs to be before libraries ought to cut back on their role in providing free access to commodity books.

James describes well  one of my primary concerns here:

“Yes, I can get “East of Eden” on amazon for a few dollars, but can I also afford to get East of Eden PLUS the various critical analyses of Steinbeck shelved (or cataloged) nearby PLUS the journal literature about Steinbeck? Can the vast majority of readers?”

 There are plenty of people for whom even a buck a book is a prohibitive enough price to discourage broad, eclectic reading.  The fact that circulation statistics are declining does not mean that there aren’t sill people who depend on the library for access to books  – and I consider those people “my library’s patrons” too. For the record, all the circulating copies of East of Eden available from Stanford Libraries are currently checked out, so apparently some patrons still rely on libraries for access to that book.

Even those of us who might theoretically have the means to purchase our own copies of all the books we might want to read are still likely to exercise considerably more frugality in what we read if less material is available via the library, and if we therefore have to base our reading decisions on financial considerations.  The fact that libraries collect, preserve, and provide access to commodity books means that the ideal of equal access to information still exists. The degree to which libraries divert resources from commodity collections is the degree to which they contribute to increasing educational inequality, as individual access to information will become more dependent on individual financial means.

Even for those of us who seemingly have the means to obtain the commodity books we might want to consult, we would likely read less broadly were fewer of those items available from libraries. I currently have 19 books checked out of Stanford Libraries. Of those 19, there are only a few that I would have purchased (even for a few bucks) if they had not been available to me through a library. I am absolutely convinced that the thinking and writing I am trying to do on a queer & feminist agenda for libraries is better because I am reading more broadly on the topic than I would if I had to pay for every book and article I have looked at.

I don’t want anyone’s research agenda or learning to be restricted because libraries prematurely decided that the market for commodity documents has become efficient enough that we can all fend for ourselves.

On opting out (or sidestepping) the scholarly communication wars:

In a section of the paper titled “Opting out of the scholarly communication wars”, Rick asserts that “A library that shifts a portion of its budget and staff time in the direction of making noncommercial documents more findable and accessible is neither undermining the existing scholarly communication system (except to the extent that it pulls collection money away from commercial purchases) nor supporting it”. For those us who had trouble understanding this argument, Rick helpfully clarified a bit in his comments at IHE:

“when I say that my proposed “shift in focus… allows us to sidestep the whole Open-Access-versus-toll-access controversy,” I’m saying that we are able to sidestep it (or “opt out” of it) to the degree that our focus shifts.”

While the resources we put towards noncommercial collections might be orthogonal to our involvement in the scholarly communication wars, I don’t really see this issue as a zero-sum game. To my mind, libraries are by definition involved in the scholarly communication debates, and attempts to quantify the degree to which a library is involved strike me as pointless. And even if the degree to which a library is involved in these debates were a meaningful measure of something, I’m not clear on how exactly that would be measured. Is it by total budget dedicated to commercial collecting, or by proportion? Is a library with a very large budget that devotes only 50% of that budget to commercial documents more or less involved in the scholarly communication wars than a small library that devotes 100% of its budget to commodity collecting? And what exactly would that tell us?

The scholarly communication wars are about access to scholarly information. Unless libraries completely abandon the brokerage and management of commodity documents — which Rick is very clear he is NOT advocating — they are involved in the scholarly communication debates. I guess I see involvement in the scholarly communication wars as like being pregnant — you can’t be just a little bit involved.

Moreover, where Rick sees decreased attention by libraries to the debates over the future of scholarly communication as a benefit, I would see it as an abdication of a major social responsibility of libraries. Perhaps others are persuaded that side-stepping the scholarly communication debates would be a benefit of shifting focus away from commodity collections, but I am not convinced that it would either have that effect or that the effect would be a positive one if it did. Room for debate, I suppose.

General thoughts on The Library as an ideal:

Shifting resources from commodity documents to special collecting certainly seems like a rational way for libraries to prioritize limited resources in such a way as to enhance their own unique contributions to both local communities and to the public good. After all, maintaining large collections of commodity documents (especially in print) when fewer items are being checked out by fewer patrons is horribly inefficient. But I would argue that the fact that the provision of public goods is rarely efficient renders them no less important. In my opinion, a true radical shift would be for library leaders to focus more on promoting the value of libraries as a public good, essential to a healthy democracy and to promoting equal access to information, and less on seeking efficiencies as a way to save ourselves. It’s a thing called love … love of democracy, equality, community, and the ideal that public goods still matter.

21 Responses to “Thing called Love: Further thoughts on #lovegate”


  1. 1 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Hi, everyone —

    Just a couple of comments here, and I hope my tone won’t be such as to discourage a junior librarian (or anyone else) from being willing to engage in the conversation. I freely admit that my tone was a bit… mmm… brisk in the IHE and Freegovinfo exchanges (especially the latter). I felt that Jacobs (not Jakubs) in particular was particularly off-base in his comments (to the point of fundamentally misrepresenting some of my points) and I responded in kind, which was probably a mistake.

    Deborah, I see the “commodity” status of a document as something that exists on a continuum. To the degree that a document can be easily found and purchased, it’s more of a commodity; to the degree that it’s hidden, unique, or otherwise unavailable for purchase, it’s less of a commodity. From that perspective, the kinds of materials you discussed above would, in fact (in my view) be considered “non-commodity documents” of the kind that it makes increasing sense for research libraries to concern themselves with. The harder (and/or more expensive) it is for the average person to get, the greater a role there is for the research library in providing it, in my view. The more likely it is that you can find a cheap copy for sale (or online for free, or in your local public library) the less likely it is that you’re going to depend on a research library for access to it. The circulation trends that I’ve documented in ARL libraries seem to bear this out. But these distinctions are clearly not binary.

    Chris, if you’re aware of anyone who is interested in this topic and would like to engage with me in discussing it, please encourage them to do so — I’m happy to discuss privately if they’d rather not to do so in a public forum. Honestly, I’m a pretty approachable and gentle guy, though one of my weaknesses is a tendency to come out swinging when I feel I’m being unfairly attacked or actively misrepresented.

    • 2 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      Rick-Thanks for commenting and for owning up to a brisk tone and a tendency to come out swinging when you feel attacked. I can certainly sympathize with, and have been guilty of both myself from time to time.

      I hesistate to encourage anyone to engage privately with you (or anyone else) on these issues, as I think any radical proposals for the future of libraries (yours or anyone elses) ought to be debated publicly.

      • 3 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm

        I’m happy to discuss with anyone in any forum.

      • 4 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm

        Hang on, though — it sounds like you’re saying that private conversations about this issue are inappropriate by definition. Is that what you intend to suggest?

      • 5 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm

        Sorry to be unclear. No, I think private conversations are fine. But I certainly prefer public ones. Especially in response to a public document.

      • 6 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 2:17 pm

        Fair enough. But I hope you won’t discourage anyone who is interested in talking with me privately from doing so. You’ve suggested here that there are people who are scared to engage me in a public forum. If that’s the case, and if you also discourage them from talking to me privately, then that doesn’t seem entirely fair. I’d like the opportunity to answer questions and respond to concerns if people have them, and I hope you won’t try to stop them from asking in whatever way is comfortable to them.

      • 7 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 2:26 pm

        No, I’ve not discouraged anyone from contacting you privately. I have, however, sympathized with their concern that disagreeing with you publicly didn’t feel safe.
        And I would never try to stop anyone from talking to anyone else – privately or publicly. I’m embarrassed to think I may have implied that.

  2. 8 Lisa Hinchliffe September 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Great reflections and food for thought. This is a crucial discussion and debate and I hope people will venture forth and find safe spaces for discussion – and even space to change their minds over time. Thanks for working to create such a space through your blog.

    So … I’m a bit puzzled by the statement: “Unless libraries completely abandon the brokerage and management of commodity documents…they are involved in the scholarly communication debates.” Wouldn’t the choice to abandon (and then the continuous choice to remain in the state of abandonment – one presumes a library would be challenged on this for at least a few years since we’re still being questioned by a few people for not updating the card catalog – by which I mean to emphasis CARD), wouldn’t that be involvement in the debate? Just from a very different stance than the one libraries historically/currently occupy? And, aren’t decisions about how to engage with those non-commodity documents engaging in the debate too? This is a small quibble with your point but I’ve been pondering for the last day whether a library can ever not be in this debate and be a library…

    Other reflection – not much related to my first though to your comment about the range of books you read because of availability. I think another key way I use a library collection is for all the books I “examine” but then don’t “read” … so, it isn’t just about determining what is worth reading but also about what is not. And, this goes beyond “discovery.” Much harder, I think, to argue that people should be buying things they only know they want to examine at that point … but may or may not want to read.

    Thanks again!

    • 9 Chris Bourg September 8, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      Lisa-Thanks for commenting.
      That is a really good point about even abandoning commodity documents altogether is engaging in the debate. I guess I was trying to come up with some extreme hypothetical where Rick’s assertion might make sense to me. I was thinking of a library that was entirely Special Collections – but maybe you are right that that would be an Archive or a Museum. To be a library means being involved in this debate.
      I also think you make an excellent point about the books we examine but don’t read. Not only have I not read all 19 books on and around my nightstand, but for every 1 I checked out, there are 2 or 3 I looked at and didn’t check out. The act of deciding which Queer Theory reader I wanted to check out was a crucial part of the research process — and the ability to browse several choices before deciding was part of that. AND — that browsing would have taken much longer if I had to do it online only. Maybe someday that kind of browsing will be just as effectively and efficiently accomplished online, but not yet.

  3. 10 Deborah Jakubs September 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    OK, here comes Jakubs again with the global thing. I appreciate the time and thought Rick has taken in his piece, and he is right that our special collections are what differentiate us from each other as research libraries. It sounds like at Utah they just haven’t yet made the management decision to focus more resources on special collections so they can organize them and make them accessible to a wider audience, as they deserve. But I admit that I see things in global perspective, or maybe it’s with a global focus, and “commodity books” is just way too big a category for me. Trade books, I get. University press books, ditto. They are easily accessible. But books published beyond the US (and, let’s say, beyond the UK, and Germany, and maybe France, or at least Paris) that are sought by scholars and students alike are just plain not that easily available, nor are they likely to be. And to me that is a very large part of what it means to be a research library: making the world’s knowledge available. So unless those are all considered non-commodity documents, maybe special collections with a small “s” and a small “c,” I have to view the proposal with considerable skepticism.

    One more thing (not global!). Last Friday I visited a 99-year-old emeritus professor who has given the Libraries many gems over the years and as he moves into a new place to live he is giving us more from his remarkable collection of rare books. He told me about his introduction to Faulkner, “before Faulkner was Faulkner,” and how he went out and bought every book by that author he could find, some remaindered at department stores. Now he is giving Duke a wonderful, rich collection. I write this as a reminder that we can’t really know which “commodity books” will be tomorrow’s special collections.

    • 11 Chris Bourg September 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Deborah- Excellent point about books published outside the US — I suspect that like government documents, Rick considers them out of scope.

      Your point about Utah perhaps not yet making the decisions needed to put resources into special collections is an important one. Frankly, I was having a hard time seeing exactly what was “radical” in the call for each library to determine for itself the right balance between commodity and special collections — if we really need a special white paper to exhort us to do that, perhaps we are in bigger trouble than I thought. But maybe my perspective is off, because I know that places like Stanford and Duke have been doing that for quite some time — and rather effectively, I might add.

      • 12 Deborah Jakubs September 8, 2013 at 6:27 pm

        Thanks! I think it comes down to what you consider to be the role of a true research library. I am certain that before too long the number will be smaller, as resources shrink and decisions are made to diminish attention to some areas. But at the same time (as you know) we are all globalizing — so just where do our commodity or non-commodity collections fit into that equation?

      • 13 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm

        Chris, FWIW — I should point out that you’re mistaken in saying that I “(use) the term ‘radical shift’ to describe (my) proposal that libraries ‘shift our focus from the collection of what we might call ‘commodity’ documents (especially in physical formats) to … the gathering and curating of rare and unique documents, including primary-source materials.'” What I characterize as “radical” is the shift that has taken place in the larger scholarly environment from analog/print-based to digital/networked. (See the section headed “The Radical Shift Is Not the Format Shift.”)

      • 14 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm

        Ah- thanks for clarifying.
        Any response to my concern that it is premature for us to declare the market for commodity collections efficient enough that we can assume that enough of our patrons no longer rely on us for those types of items? I’m terribly concerned that cutting back on commodity collecting will contribute to even further educational inequality and elitism.

      • 15 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

        Any response to my concern that it is premature for us to declare the market for commodity collections efficient enough that we can assume that enough of our patrons no longer rely on us for those types of items?

        Well, I didn’t make that declaration. If you look again at my paper, you’ll see that I phrased my discussion of this issue very carefully, using lots of qualifying language. “Today’s more efficient online marketplace features much lower barriers…” (I didn’t say there are no barriers); “Libraries are no longer needed in the way they once were…” (I didn’t say libraries are no longer needed at all); “Our role as brokers, curators, and organizers has itself been fundamentally undermined” (I didn’t say those roles have been obviated); etc. I’m talking about spectrum phenomena here, not binary ones.

        I’m terribly concerned that cutting back on commodity collecting will contribute to even further educational inequality and elitism.

        I guess I see that as a concern that cuts both ways — who but the elite currently has access to Stanford’s special collections? Digitizing them and making their intellectual content available to all could have a powerful democratizing effect. But in any case, I think the problems of inequality and elitism are far more systemic and complex ones than this very specific issue is equipped to handle.

      • 16 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 4:45 pm

        Yes, I see that this is a spectrum issue not a binary one. But you are using a more efficient commodity marketpalce as justification for shifting some resources from commodity collection management to special collections, yes? And you very strongly imply that a library that loses its copy of East of Eden shouldn’t worry about replacing it, because patrons can get it cheaply on Amazon. I long for the day when commodity books are available freely and easily for all; but until we get there I do think libraries have a moral obligation to continue to provide such resources to patrons, and to not use the “you can get it cheaply on Amazon” as an excuse to divert resources.
        And yes, digitizing Stanford’s special collections and making them available does have a powerful democratizing effect — it is one of the major reasons we do so much of it and aggressively seek extra funding for those activities so that we need not drain resources from our commodity collections.

      • 17 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 4:53 pm

        But you are using a more efficient commodity marketpalce as justification for shifting some resources from commodity collection management to special collections, yes?

        Yes, the key word in that sentence being “some” (the amount to be determined locally, based on local needs and mission).

        And you very strongly imply that a library that loses its copy of East of Eden shouldn’t worry about replacing it, because patrons can get it cheaply on Amazon. I long for the day when commodity books are available freely and easily for all; but until we get there I do think libraries have a moral obligation to continue to provide such resources to patrons, and to not use the “you can get it cheaply on Amazon” as an excuse to divert resources.

        Again, I would caution you about thinking in such absolute and binary terms. Are you saying you don’t think that the radically different book marketplace (compared to the one that obtained, say, 25 years ago) justifies any diversion of resources away from collecting and preserving cheaply- and easily-available commodity books and towards the digitization and dissemination of rare and unique materials? For any institution?

      • 18 Rick Anderson September 9, 2013 at 4:55 pm

        Apologies for the formatting anomalies in the previous response. It should have looked like this:

        But you are using a more efficient commodity marketpalce as justification for shifting some resources from commodity collection management to special collections, yes?

        Yes, the key word in that sentence being “some” (the amount to be determined locally, based on local needs and mission).

        And you very strongly imply that a library that loses its copy of East of Eden shouldn’t worry about replacing it, because patrons can get it cheaply on Amazon. I long for the day when commodity books are available freely and easily for all; but until we get there I do think libraries have a moral obligation to continue to provide such resources to patrons, and to not use the “you can get it cheaply on Amazon” as an excuse to divert resources.

        Again, I would caution you about thinking in such absolute and binary terms. Are you saying you don’t think that the radically different book marketplace (compared to the one that obtained, say, 25 years ago) justifies any diversion of resources away from collecting and preserving cheaply- and easily-available commodity books and towards the digitization and dissemination of rare and unique materials? For any institution?

      • 19 Chris Bourg September 9, 2013 at 5:06 pm

        Not yet. Not unless that institution is OK with knowing that such a move disproportionately impacts the learning of lower income students.

        And I appreciate the caution – especially since I’m rarely someone who thinks in binaries. But I’m perfectly comfortable with my thought process on this issue.


  1. 1 » What’s love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections #lovegate Free Government Information (FGI) Trackback on December 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm
  2. 2 Opting In | Academic Librarian Trackback on September 9, 2013 at 10:16 am

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