Politics, Economics, and Screwing the Humanities

My last post rhetorically analyzed a claim by Rick Anderson that it was a “mistake” on the part of librarians to “put politics ahead of mission and service” where politics means “our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” In response to a query from John DuPuis (who has also responded to the post I analyzed) about specific examples, Anderson offered this: “Another might be canceling a high-demand Big Deal package—not because it’s no longer affordable, but because the library wants to help undermine the Big Deal model in the marketplace or believes that the publisher in question is making unreasonable profits.”

In a previous post on vendor mistakes, Anderson elaborated on the mistake of responding to affordability statements with value arguments (and “value” is definitely a misused word in those situations) by remarking: “There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when we had the option of canceling marginal journal subscriptions and cutting our book budgets in order to make space for high-value, high-cost purchases, but for most of us, those days are over. All we have left are core subscriptions, and our book budgets have been gutted.”

Putting those comments together, we can describe a situation that has affected the budgets of a lot of academic libraries. Scholarly journal prices have been going up rates considerably above budget increases, or inflation, or just about any other standard measure, since at least the 1980s. Mass cancellations of journals led to the creation of the Big Deals, which was supposed to be a solution to the problem, although the “historic spend” which they like to take as a benchmark was of course the creation of the previous extraordinary price increases. Regardless, over time these inflexible packages have taken up more and more of the library budgets until many libraries have had to “gut” their book budgets, some to an extent where they have almost no money to spend on monographic purchases at all. We need to remember that book budgets aren’t just gutted. Librarians choose to reduce spending on monographs to purchase journal packages that increase in price and decrease the flexibility of library budgeting, and that choice has consequences for library patrons that librarians rarely want to tell those patrons.

If anyone “benefits” from this arrangement, it’s scientific researchers, because the highest-priced packages and journals are all for science, technology, and medical journals, not relatively inexpensive journals in the humanities. So over time, we’ve seen library support for scholars shift from what was perhaps more or less even or fair funding across the board to funding which struggles to cope with science journal costs and damns any programs that are monograph-heavy, which most humanities programs are. Some of these libraries try to support PhD programs in English, history, philosophy, or music with tiny monograph budgets while still entering into the Big Deals on science journals with the major vendors.

Now, the big question for discussion was, “To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” But let’s spin that another way. To what extent has it been appropriate to sacrifice the short and long term good of patrons in the humanities for the short term good of not having to resist price increases or rethink journal packages that slowly squeeze monograph budgets to death? Are historians or literary scholars or musicologists less deserving because they’re not in the sciences? If so, why bother to offer PhDs in programs that aren’t adequately, or even fairly, supported by the library? If anything, humanists need library support more than scientists. For scientists, libraries hold the report of work done in a laboratory, but for humanists the library is the laboratory.

The humanities are under attack on most campuses it seems, and will never win the fight for recognition if the standard is economic productivity, which many people seem to think is the only standard by which to measure a society, a university, or a human life. But if we’re looking at library budgets fairly, with an eye to all the stakeholders who rely on the library for scholarly research, we shouldn’t pretend that going along with Big Deals because they’re affordable if we severely reduce monograph budgets isn’t screwing over a lot of the scholars that libraries should be serving. Putting the economics of science publishing ahead of scholarly publishing as a whole has done a disservice to the humanities and any monograph-heavy field. So, as a humanities librarian, if I do what I can to resist that assault by encouraging open-access scholarly publishing whenever and wherever I can, I’m not just making a professional (not personal or political) decision based on how I think scholarly publishing should operate, I’m also making a professional decision to support the work of scholars in the humanities who have been shortchanged at so many libraries over the past 20 years. Those patrons have needs, too.

4 thoughts on “Politics, Economics, and Screwing the Humanities

  1. I get the sense that you ask those questions in your penultimate paragraph rhetorically. But there are people in libraries and in higher education who do believe that non-science disciplines are less worthy of funding and attention. And I do mean literally less worthy – as in, if it’s not about curing cancer (or inventing the next iphone or whatever), it’s a luxury and it has to go. Some more “esoteric” science disciplines are on the receiving end of this as well – eg, astronomy. I’ve had debates about this with colleagues in my library. With increasing pressure on the (publicly funded) academy to be in the business of turning out skilled employees, I feel this is going to intensify.

  2. No, I’m not asking them rhetorically, at least not in the sense that I’m unaware of the value of humanistic study among the numerous citizens, politicians, and university administrators who confuse higher education with vocational training and don’t care for the former. I’m also aware of the situation for science research that isn’t viewed as economically productive. Basically, that viewpoint is against all the values research universities were founded upon, but it doesn’t make it less relevant or worrisome. The worry comes not least because focusing on creating skilled employees in the short term isn’t a good recipe for preparing for the future for the country or for the individuals who graduate knowing how to do one job but not knowing how to learn and adapt.

    My argument here was really in the particular context of a claim that, say, cancelling a journal Big Deal with Elsevier would be acting against the short term interests of the library users when we can just as easily argue that allowing those deals in the first place and allowing their creeping percentage of control of library budgets have already been causing short and long term damage to the interests of library users in the humanities. How you answer the question depends on whether you consider the interests of all the researchers, or only some of them. Administrators at many universities have been actively trying to close humanities departments. But many libraries at universities with humanities PhD programs that are still active long ago started reducing their support for those departments without just coming out and saying, “screw you. all the money is going for science journals.”

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