From Library Babel Fish, January 14, 2015

Like many academic libraries, mine is small and highly focused on an educational mission. Our faculty are engaged in research, but they learn from the day they interview for a position that the library offers an undergraduate collection and excellent interlibrary loan services. Whenever we think about budgeting our time and money, we ask “what’s in it for our students? How will this promote their learning?”

There was a time when we assumed most undergraduate research needs could be met by a carefully curated collection, supplemented now and then by interlibrary loan. Getting an article from another library took up to two weeks, so only the most advanced students used the service. That’s no longer the case. A first-year student writing a five-page essay can order articles and get them within 24 hours. For libraries with token-based article databases and patron-driven ebook options, students can push a button and get sources immediately, without ever knowing an invoice is triggered and money is changing hands. Our role as curators of a collection aligned with our curriculum theoretically drives decisions, but increasingly we see ourselves as the content-providing back end to Web of Science, Google Scholar, and every other discovery tool members of our communty might use. This has subtly changed what we mean when we say “we serve our community needs.” Our job today seems to be to get members of our community the stuff they want, quickly and at the least cost.

When we say “community” we don’t really mean it; we mean “serving the interests of individuals who are currently affiliated with our institution.” When we pay for an article for one community member, only one person can use it. The rest of the community gets nothing. When we license bundles of content, we pay tens of thousands for one year of access. For the students who enroll next year – well, we’ll have to figure that out later. It’s a weird shift. Once we were talking about a group with shared interests, but now it’s a narrowly-defined and temporary consumer demographic. Academic libraries have become shopping platforms that offer a kind of Library Prime membership – if you’re a member, you can order whatever you like. If you’re not, you’re screwed.

Finding ways that libraries can use their skills and funds to organize new ways of sharing knowledge openly is the only way I can see out of this mess.

I’m thinking these uncomfortable thoughts after another meeting with colleagues about how to collectively support an open access press that serves the mission of liberal arts colleges – not unlike a nifty new monograph publishing program that the University of California just launched, but designed to carry out our liberal arts mission. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, because librarians at each of our institutions will think “why should I put money into publishing something when I could use it for stuff my students need right now? Do I even have the right to spend money that will benefit people outside my community?” These days that seems weirdly unethical, as if we’re stealing tuition dollars from students who have paid for the right to choose, whatever the long-term cost.

Our sense of community is members-only and wasteful. A huge proportion of what we subscribe to is of no use to our community members, but it comes bundled with the things we know we find useful, and if the publisher acquires more journals, they hand us the bill whether or not we want them. A giant database of ebook options seems like a great bargain – even if it’s full of books on subjects we don’t teach. Yet we feel this serves the community and funding open access, somehow, doesn’t.

We need to think harder about what we mean when we invoke “community” with such fervor. How does it serve a community to spend $35 on an article only one person can use? Why does a huge proportion of the community suddenly vanish upon graduation? Why does this concept of community trump putting some of our time and money into fixing this absurd and costly mess in a way that will genuinely benefit our students today and next year and beyond?

The fact is, funders of research are beginning to fix the problem at their end by mandating open access, and commercial publishers who have gobbled our budgets are developing ways to provide open access options while preserving their extraordinary profit margins. While access to these published research results will be open, paying to play will shut out valuable voices and our budgets will never be big enough.

If libraries want to live up to their values, it’s time to think critically about what we are really saying when we talk about serving our communities. To truly serve them, we need to do more than buy access for individuals and passively wait to see what the big publishers will do next. We can’t just sit back and hope someone else will fix it. We need to start allocating time, money, and imagination to serving our communities in a way that lives up to our missions. We will have to work collaboratively beyond our community boundaries and our fiscal year calendars so that the future of scholarship doesn’t turn into just another profitable business model that provides a publishing platform for the privileged few.

This may seem like a huge change, but the reality is that libraries have already gone through a transformation. What we once chose on behalf of our communities we now only rent. The choices we made that reflected our community’s needs are now buried in costly one-size-fits-all packages supplemented by one-off payments for individual access. Who are we really serving?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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