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.