From Library Babel Fish, August 18, 2010

Dorothea Salo has an interesting post at the Book of Trogool. She wonders about the mission of academic libraries, and about one paradox in particular: Can libraries support the open access movement by reallocating funds from paying for content to providing support for open access publications, or does that somehow go against the library’s mission to support its local clientele?

I should back up a moment and define some terms. Most academics are now familiar with the Open Access movement, an effort to make scholarship free to all rather than intellectual property owned by publishers and only available to those who can pay for it or are affiliated with institutions that will purchase temporary access to it on their behalf. Many libraries have supported open access by providing the technical infrastructure and human support for archiving materials in institutional repositories. These local archives make various kinds of digital publications created by the institution’s faculty, staff, and students available to the world. Salo, author of a famous article about why institutional repositories fail to thrive (with the memorable title, “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel“), has challenged libraries to be more strategic about repositories, rather than operate on the “build it, and they will come” philosophy. We know from experience that doesn’t work.

She is frustrated when she hears librarians say that if they had to cancel a journal to put funds into open access, they would be betraying their clientele, because the library’s mission is to serve their community, not the world. The political reality is probably more of a hurdle. Canceling a journal to support a new initiative will cost a library significant social capital, even if the journal is rarely consulted. But many journals are now bundled into Big Deals, so canceling a single journal isn’t even an option. It’s all or nothing, even if most of the journals in the big bundle are of no interest to anyone at a given institution.

These Big Deals are a huge headache. True story: we recently faced a $12,000 increase in cost for one journal database when its publisher decided in the middle of an academic year to discontinue a Not So Big Deal. We had to go with the Giant Economy Size Deal that cost close to $40 K or cancel our subscription entirely. We asked what it would cost to subscribe to just the handful of journals we really needed. They came back with a quote of $90,000. I am not making this up. Since we really needed those journals, we ended up with the Giant Economy Size Deal, even though we really couldn’t afford it.

The fact is, in the Big Deal era we aren’t really using our resources to build a collection around what our local community needs. We’re accommodating those expressed needs by subscribing to journals we don’t want or we’re buying one article at a time for users, with the library getting nothing out of the transaction but the bill. The most recent Ithaka survey of faculty confirms that libraries are increasingly being seen as the purchaser of information, but not a communal resource or a cultural institution. We are in danger of becoming no more than a purchasing office for disposable goods.

Salo questions the short-term wisdom of building an institutional repository, then starving it of staff and adding to it only things that are easy to acquire but which won’t help solve the financial crisis caused by escalating journal prices. As she puts it, “we can keep feeding the same broken system in hopes it will become less broken. . . . Or we can place some longer-term bets, with the explicit understanding that some of them will turn up losers.” Her conclusion: “I’d rather place the longer-term bets, myself.”

I agree. It’s hard to take any access away from our students and faculty. But hey, they’re used to it. At my college, we’ve had to sit down with the departments three times in the last ten years to decide which journals to cut. That’s what happens when your budget doesn’t keep up with increasing prices and you’ve already cut all the fat.

The fact is, we’re no longer in control of our mission. We can’t tailor our collections to the specific needs of our clientele; publishers won’t let us. Rather than wait for the whole thing to come crashing down around us, we need to take a good look at where we’re putting our resources. Right now a huge percentage of our library budgets go to renting temporary access to walled gardens planted by publishers who decide what grows there. This is not sustainable. It’s not a responsible use of resources. We need to work with those who create knowledge to find a model that serves all of our needs and not just locally, but globally.

I’m looking at you, faculty. Are you ready to help us figure this out?


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