From Library Babel Fish, July 19, 2011

. . . who knew?

As I write this, the Minnesota state capital has opened its doors after a nineteen-day state shutdown, and legislators (if they stick to their agreement) will likely pass a group of budget bills and end the longest legislative tantrum, er, state government shutdown in history. Though I was glad the state university systems were spared – they had enough cash reserves that they could continue teaching the courses students had enrolled in and paid tuition for – it was interesting to see just how surprised the public was when the state wasn’t there.

No fishing licenses. No driver’s licenses. No access to state parks. No AA meetings or family visits in state prisons. A racetrack appealed for an exception after a judge ruled the Minnesota Racing Commission is not an essential service. (She wasn’t persuaded.) So many services were not essential, 22,000 state employees and an unspecified number of race horses were thrown out of work, the largest layoff ever in Minnesota. It may not be sheer coincidence that the wheels of the state began to creak and start moving again just as people faced the horrifying realization that beer would start disappearing from store shelves, bars, and restaurants; Miller Brewing had not renewed its brand label registration in time for the shutdown. And boy, it’s hot here in Minnesota right now.

I shook my head at the ripples of outraged “hey, I need that” coming from people who think collecting taxes is a scam. I felt the same way reading comments on a new piece(subscription required) by Jennifer Howard at the Chronicle on libraries canceling “big deals” because they can no longer afford them. These comments tend to go like this:

  • Whoa, dude! We don’t get paid to write those articles. Why do they cost so much?
  • If they stop printing and mailing journals, that should save a ton of money, right?
  • All academic journals should be totally free. Why don’t universities just put them on their own websites? It wouldn’t cost a thing!

This is disheartening for librarians who have spent the past thirty years feeling like chicken little, only with actual chunks of sky falling on us regularly. “Hey, people! This stuff is unbelievably expensive. I mean, look at these numbers, look at this chart I made. Can you help us cancel some journals? Would you maybe take a look at those publishing agreements before you sign them, because it turns out . . . hello? Yo, this might interest you: have you noticed we’re buying half of the number of books we bought last year, and we’ve been doing this math for a while? That’s because . . . hello, can I get your attention for just a minute? Pretty please? I’ll buy you coffee.”

These are allegedly institutions of higher learning. Why is it so hard for faculty to learn what actually happens to their research? I know, I know. Everyone’s so busy and societies need the money to survive and besides, those lazy public employees make loads of money and our taxes are way too . . . oh, wait. I must be watching the wrong channel. Hang on a minute . . . there, that’s better.

Maybe wasting our time analyzing the issues and building thoughtful arguments was our mistake.

I was taken aback by those comments on Howard’s article, but I might have been more likely to fall out of my chair in surprise if I hadn’t already been on the floor after readingan interesting blog post, part of a lively blog series on problems with scientific publishing by Peter Murray-Rust who wrote that academic libraries “should have altered us earlier to problems instead of acquiescing to so much of the dystopia.” That made me feel the way Wyle E. Coyote must feel after having dispatched the Roadrunner once again, only to hear in the distance from a cloud of dust, beep beep.

But at last I think I know how to get the attention of academics and impress on them the extraordinary catastrophe we face. I’ve finally figured out how to make them care.

We need to take away their beer.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.