Sacred Texts in English Translation LibGuide

Several months ago I was looking for a guide to reliable English translations of the sacred texts to major world religions. I didn’t find one online that I liked, so I made one and turned it into a LibGuide page: Sacred Texts in English Translation. The subpages for that page list English translations of texts relevant to Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam along with links and catalog records for my library’s collection. It’s based on an article I published this fall: “Sacred Books in English Translation.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 52:1 (Fall 2012), 18-25. The article has a bit more information about the various texts (such as the difference between Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism) that I don’t include in the guide, but that information can be found in many places.

If any of you want to copy, use, or adapt the page for your own LibGuides or other library guides, feel free to. Also, if you have any suggestions or criticisms, please email me or leave a comment.

Theories of Serial Weeding

One of the projects I’ve set for myself this summer is weeding serials with no online equivalents from the open stacks for offsite storage. I’ve done a lot of weeding over the past decade, but usually with books. Serials present harder choices. Firestone, our main library for the humanities and social sciences, is packed, and for the last decade we’ve had to ship out an item for every item brought in. And while there might be some withdrawals, especially of duplicate items, most of the weeding is for the ReCAP facility we share with Columbia and the NYPL. It’s a grueling process, but oddly enough one of the activities in which it’s necessary to theorize about if you’re going to do it well.

For books, it’s relatively easy. I factor in the age of the book, how long (if ever) since it has circulated, and its relative importance based on my own knowledge of either the author or subject in question and the language in which it’s written. Regardless of the complexities of languages and relative importance of given authors, books are always easier to deal with. By the time they make it to ReCAP, every book is completely cataloged and identified. This isn’t always true of books in open stacks. Yesterday, for example, I ran across a book that had been bound about 50 years ago with the wrong title and author on the spine. It wasn’t in our system, and according to WorldCat only three libraries have copies. Stuff happens. Anyway, since it’s cataloged and identifiable, it can always be retrieved and if necessary returned to the main stacks. If I make a mistake sending a book our two out, I can have them sent right back if anyone complains, not that anyone does. But with serials it’s a completely different story. If I send a hundred years of Rivista di Filosofia offsite, it’s probably not coming back, because I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it.

For the purposes of weeding for offsite storage, we divide the print serial titles into two types, those with online equivalents and those without, or, in the parlance of the database we use to manage this process, “B range with SFX targets” and “B range without SFX targets,” with SFX being the popular link resolver. Last year I went through 650-odd titles “with SFX targets,” and realized that while SFX is pretty good, it’s only as good as the data it gets, and it gets data from a lot of sources, not all of which are reliable. I encountered dozens of instances where we had more online that SFX indicated, and a few where we had less. Every title had to be checked. When I do projects like this, I document everything from my rationale to individual problems. I could post my nine-page, 2000-word report documenting that process, because that would be some exciting reading.

The biggest questions for me were, did we really have this online and is it from a stable source? The first was tedious but conceptually easy to answer, the second required some thought. What is a stable source? I first went the opposite route and identified unstable sources–aggregators like ProQuest, for example. ProQuest is great, but they just license their content, and some of their online journals go away. I considered JSTOR, MUSE, and anything direct from the publisher to be relatively stable, and shipped out most of those titles. (Plea to JSTOR: digitize more non-English language titles! I have a dozen suggestions to start with if you’re interested.) I also discovered that publisher backfiles for some otherwise expensive journals were pretty cheap, so I filled in some online gaps.

Some of you who have sent your JSTOR titles out years ago (i.e., some of my colleagues) might ask what took me so long with this. Mostly it was about practical space planning. Partly it’s because I really don’t like sending serials offsite, even ones we have online. That attitude is changing slowly as the technology improves, but it’s still true that there are some serials for which the online equivalent isn’t really equivalent at all. It’s slow and clunky, and browsing the print is easier and faster. I ran across a couple of French examples recently that were so clunky I yearned to have the printed journal in my hand. But space is tight, and I have close to a thousand print-only serial titles sitting on the shelves that are potential candidates for offsite storage.

“Space is tight” has to compete with another policy to save the time of the reader. What, if possible, is the best arrangement for scholars using the collection, not easiest for librarians? Sending out titles en masse is easy for librarians, but not always best for library users. Deciding that is difficult, and required (by me at least) a title by title decision in many cases. Deciding that for print-only serials, many of which aren’t indexed anywhere or at least anywhere you’d think to look, is the toughest of the weeding decisions. You can’t go by circulation data and you can’t go by age.

Even going by whether something is indexed is questionable. Okay, the Philosopher’s Index covers the last 30 years of this 60-year-old title. If the last thirty years were online, I might send out the online and keep the print in the stacks. However, of the first 250 titles I’ve dealt with, only three had any extensive indexing, and never for the complete run of the journal. And is indexing enough? Can it be browsed? An indexed journal can be “browsed” through the index, but it’s sometimes clunky. We subscribe to the major indexes in my area from Ebsco, and they do a pretty good job, but it’s hard to replicate the experience of browsing print journals. Regardless, the bulk of the titles reviewed so far have been non-English titles that standard subject indexes haven’t covered.

Some people might think that just because it’s old or a dead serial, it can go, but that’s not true, either. Sometimes, readers really need large print runs, especially if there is no online equivalent. Cultural historians might find a lot of interesting material in looking at 40 years of Life magazine, but if their best access was through an index or offsite storage then the project becomes much more difficult. Every search, every article request takes a bit more time. Most people might just want to access a particular article, but that’s not the only way people use journals.

Access to historical periodicals is sometimes crucial for a research project. For example, while working in the stacks I ran into a scholar working with a number of English, French, and German philosophy journals from 1910-1940. He’s tracing the influence and growth of  phenomenology through Thomistic and neo-scholastic philosophers in the early twentieth century, and the only way to do it is to slog through decades of journals. These aren’t online. They’re not indexed anywhere. But they are sitting on the shelves in Firestone. He spends his days walking back and forth from the stacks to the desk he’s using to work, reading a bit, finding a trace, grabbing another journal volume, and so on. Imagine how difficult that work would be if it all had to be done by recalling journals from offsite, or worse, strictly via ILL. It would be almost impossible, and extremely time consuming. Technically, it’s possible to view materials at ReCAP, but  there would still be the issue of reduced hours and access, as well as the problems of recalling 30 years of eight different journals to sit in the reading room. (I’m not even sure if that’s doable, but I assume it is. It’s a pretty slick operation.) The thing about a large research collection is that you never know how someone will be using that collection, or what scholarly projects might happen sixty years down the line that are possible only because of your wise decisions now. And if you’re thinking “who cares about such projects,” the answer is easy. The scholars who work on them care, and that’s who the library is supposed to serve. Scholarly needs should determine the collections and their accessibility as much as possible.

So far, I’m still working out the rationale. Partly, I’m making assumptions. For example, I’m assuming that no one will serendipitously discover the existence of a historical journal relevant to their research just by browsing the stacks. If you’re looking for a journal volume from 1920, for example, you probably either know what journal you’re interested in (like the scholar mentioned above) or you have a citation found in some source. This could be used to justify sending just about everything offsite, including the non-indexed content, and if I’m still doing this in twenty years and need the space, then it just might. However, there is also an assumption about what will save the time of the reader. What about the scholars who need long runs of journals, especially multiple journals? I’ve run into two instances of that this year alone, and the history of scholarship in various fields isn’t an especially unusual topic. Using imagination and sympathy, I put myself into the place of those scholars (plus I asked some). If I were using the collection for research, what would be a minor inconvenience, and what would derail my project?

A minor inconvenience might be recalling just a few volumes from offsite storage, whereas having to recall multiple volumes of multiple serials and finding a place to store and work with them would be very difficult and time-consuming. Assuming the first, short runs (10 or fewer volumes) of dead print journals can safely go. We have a lot of those from the 19th and 20th centuries. Recalling the entire six-volume run of a Russian philosophy journal and handling it is easy. Recalling decades of one or more serials and handling them isn’t. Thus, for now, long runs stay, especially long runs of live journals. Another assumption is that long runs are some indication of the relative (perhaps historical) importance of the journal. If a journal published for seventy years, it obviously had an audience of some kind. It’s historically important, and historians might be interested. Length is merely one measure, though, since there are, for example, numerous little magazines from the Modernist era that had short runs but significant cultural importance (Blast Magazine would be a good example). But in the history of scholarship, long runs are a good sign. Look how many journals in JSTOR run back into the 19th century.

I’m still working out the kinks, and there are still exceptions. Nevertheless, trying to balance the need for space with the possibility of supporting certain kinds of research is one of the trickier practical problems I’ve encountered. The complexities are partly the result of having a lot of stuff, which is what scholars want us to have. Purely patron driven acquisitions or completely online collections are only possible if you ignore the vast majority of material published before this century and outside this country. I suspect this will change over the next 50 years, but I have no way of knowing the rate of digitization of non-American materials, the intellectual property rights that might be invoked, and the affordability of that material for American research libraries. I’m trying to save space and the time of the reader. And if it turns out I’m too cautious, some successor can happily toss out the whole collection.

A Couple of Points about the Elsevier Response

Elsevier has briefly responded to the steadily growing petition by researchers to refuse to publish, referee, or do editorial work for Elsevier journals until they change how they operate. Last summer I speculated that a faculty boycott would be a necessary step towards more open access. That was in response to the OUP, CUP, and Sage suing Georgia State University. We might finally get to see what, if anything, will happen. 3500 or so researchers have signed the petition so far (about 40 just while I was writing this post), but it’s hard to know how many of those are actively involved in work for Elsevier journals. If the bulk of the people actually providing the research and the free labor quit doing it, what actions can Elsevier take? If they start paying for the articles and editorial work, there goes their profit.

The response so far is that business as usual is the best thing for everyone. At least that’s how I understand their response. To be fair, it’s a clever response, and you can tell that Elsevier has the money to hire intelligent and articulate people to do their marketing. I don’t want to address the entire post, but a couple of the points made especially stuck out. Here’s one quote:

Although it’s tempting to boil issues down to catch-phrases like “Publicly funded research should be free to the public,” it is much more difficult to divine the implications of such statements. I was recently told about a dynamic government-funded research center to develop flexible display technology. What portion of that research should be free: the research report to the funding agency; the peer-reviewed published article; or the new flexi-plastic tablet as the result of that publicly-funded research? How did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article meets that obligation? I think this is an important discussion; one that needs much more thoughtful debate.

The opening rhetorical move accuses the thousands of scientists and librarians who support open access to scholarship of oversimplification. The implication is that anyone who believes that publicly funded research should be open to the public just doesn’t understand all the complexities of the issue, even if they’re the ones funding or performing the research. Instead, the people who really understand the issue are vice presidents of global marketing for large publishers with a serious investment in defending the status quo.

The use of a specific example is a good move. Draw attention away from the general debate and the accusations against Elsevier (which admittedly are very broad) and focus that attention on a specific piece of research. Of all the stuff that goes on in a research project, “how did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article should be free? It’s a fair question, but not a particularly difficult one to answer. We didn’t “come to accept” that proposition. We began with that proposition. For the past 300 years scientists have been doing research with the goal of publishing and disseminating that research. The article isn’t the research, but merely the report of the results of that research, and scientists have always been interested in having the reports widely available. The petition says it’s about “right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work,” and that’s what scientists have wanted since the 17th century. Moreover, scientists expect to have access to all the published results of other scientists, regardless of whether their particular institution can afford the very high prices of most scientific journals, which is why they’ve always shared amongst themselves regardless of copyright.

This isn’t to say that scientists haven’t been implicitly responsible for the inaccessibility of much of those results. Unfortunately, while scientists have been very good at furthering science, they haven’t been so good at creating mechanisms for the wide distribution of the results of their research. The network of noncommercial scholarly journals didn’t keep pace with the output of scientific research, and enterprising publishers with commercial values at odds with scientific values emerged to fill the gap. Scientists were so intent on publishing, they didn’t think about the implications of creating a large commercial network of journals to publish research that was often publicly funded. They also haven’t thought much about the refereeing and editorial work they did for these journals, treating all scholarly journals as equal, regardless of whether they were published by a commercial firm dedicated to profit or by a noncommercial association dedicated to the dissemination of scholarship.

Which brings me to the second quote from the Elsevier response, in which my claim that international science and Elsevier have different values is implicitly challenged.

Elsevier aims to make research more accessible and discoverable while ensuring the integrity of the scientific record. We’ve always supported the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research. We believe this can best be achieved in an environment without government mandates.

I would be puzzled by how they could support the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research and then fight to counteract a law that tries to uphold that very principle, except that I doubt even the person who wrote that response believes it. I understand why they want an “environment without government mandates,” because those government mandates could cut into the profit they make by publishing the results of publicly funded research. But if they supported that principle, they wouldn’t have been paying members of Congress to push the Research Works Act, and if they hadn’t been supporting the Research Works Act this petition against them probably wouldn’t have happened. Of the three accusations against Elsevier, only the third–the support of SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act–is even remotely new behavior. It would be ironic indeed if a push by Elsevier to overturn a law supporting a principle they claim to uphold leads to radical change in scholarly publishing.

Ebrary Ebook Downloads: the First Time

Ebrary now allows users to download ebooks to devices. Ebrary users can download up to 60 pages of a book into a permanent PDF file or an entire ebook using Adobe Digital Editions, which seems to load onto every ebook reader except the one I own (the Kindle). Ebrary has always had an ebook model similar to the ejournal model we’re all familiar with, where multiple users can access the same item just as they can with journal articles. Reading on the computer screen isn’t great, but having the searchable full text of the ebook is great. The ebook download is a bit trickier than downloading an article from ProQuest or Ebsco, though. Here’s what it’s like the first time:

1. Once you choose your ebook, click the “Download Button.” 


 

2. In order to download a book, you have to create an Ebrary account, which you don’t need just to view the books online. I had an old one, but couldn’t remember my password.

 

 

3. Once you create the account, you have to sign in, of course. From now on, you’ll be prompted to sign in when you want to download.

 

 

4. You’re not quite done. Getting the partial ebook on PDF is easy, but to get the entire book you have to download Adobe Digital Editions. If you miss the tiny print, you won’t be able to read your book.

 

 

5. At the Adobe Digital Editions site, you have to click “Install.”

 

 

6. After you click “Install,” you get another screen, where you have to click “Install” again.

 

 

7. Adobe needs you to be really, really sure you want this and that you’re not just toying with their affections, so after clicking “Install” twice, you have to click “Yes” to actually download Digital Editions.

 

 

8. Then the setup begins.

 

 

9. And another step.

 

 

10. One more click and we’re done!

 

 

11.Well, almost. You still have to agree to the license terms that you’re almost certainly not going to read, hoping as with all software installations there isn’t something tucked away about you owing anyone the souls of your unborn children.

 

 

12. Oh, and you still have a little setting up to do.

 

 

13. It turns out you can’t download the ebook without creating accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe. So it’s time to do that.

 

 

14. Fill in all that information and “Join Adobe.” Now’s the time to start getting excited about reading that book, because there are only four steps left to go.

 

 

15. Success! Adobe Digital Editions activated.

 

 

16. Only you don’t have any books yet. So go back to the Ebrary download page and click “OK.”

 

 

17. Now you’ll get a prompt to download the ebook into Adobe Digital Editions. If you’re still going at that point, click “OK.”

 

 

18. And now we have our book. Through Adobe Digital Editions, it can be moved to various ebook readers and devices. Unfortunately, despite having accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe at this point, it doesn’t sync across computers. So if you download a book onto one computer using Adobe Digital Editions, you won’t be able to log into Adobe from another computer and access the book, which is functionality I expect at this point.

 

 

So, there you have it. How to download your Ebrary ebook for the first time, in 18 easy steps. It’s not quite as seamless a process as downloading an article from JSTOR, but Ebrary is doing the best it can with what it has. As with a lot of things, the first time is the hardest, and the download process is much smoother once you have the right accounts and software downloaded. I just wonder how many people will get through that first time.

PDA and the Research Library

I didn’t attend the panel about “Is Selection Dead? The Rise of Collection Management and the Twilight of Selection” at ALA Midwinter, but fortunately my head of collection development did and pointed me to the recent summary at Against the Grain (he provided “Response #2). The panel discussed the role of patron-driven acquisition (PDA) in academic libraries, with at least two of the panelists, from the Universities of Utah and Arizona, advocating a greater role for PDA in libraries. One said, “This isn’t to say that all libraries should immediately stop building traditional collections, only that we should be willing to rethink the universal appropriateness of such collecting, and willing to experiment (even aggressively) with new models.” If I understood correctly, and I may not have, the person at Utah is experimenting aggressively enough to have gotten rid of several subject specialists and relied increasingly on PDA.  That’s aggressive, indeed.

Before even addressing the collection issues, we should note the importance of subject specialists in reference and instruction. One assumption seems to be that if libraries adopt more PDA that subject specialists aren’t necessary. We don’t
need experts to choose appropriate material, because the only expert is
the current patron. For most libraries, the days of musty bibliographers
sitting in back offices selecting books is long gone. Subject
specialists don’t just develop and manage collections; they also teach
people how to use them and provide help for the difficult and high level
research questions. Maybe there just wouldn’t be much high level
research skills to teach anymore. Knowing how to search Google would be
just as good as actually knowing something about a scholarly field.
Reference as Yahoo Answers.

I have no problem at all with selective PDA, and think it would be a great way to explore possible gaps in a collection, but what would happen if it were taken to its logical, if also absurd, conclusion. Here i want to consider what would be the most aggressive form of PDA, and argue that it would ultimately eliminate any claim for a library to be a research library. To do this, I need to explain what I mean by the most aggressive form of PDA, which I will call Radical PDA (RPDA). I’ll also need to explain what I think research libraries are.

RPDA would eliminate all librarian input into the library collection. Approval plans and librarian-driven firm orders would disappear. Nothing would be purchased or licensed that hadn’t been directly and immediately wanted by a patron who was currently associated with the university in question. The entire library budget would go to support RPDA. There would have to be some form of rationing or allocation so that the collecting would continue year round. Perhaps the money could be allocated by week or by month, and when that money was gone, collection would stop until the next week or month. It would have to be rigged so that all the money wasn’t spent in the first couple of months or so. Subject specialists might be gone, but libraries still need people to deal with acquisitions and licensing and such, and you can’t just leave those people with nothing to do from October to July, unless you wanted to make them temp workers, which I suppose would the cheaper way to approach this. A university library could try this experiment to see what it’s effect would be.

I have a hypothesis, which could be confirmed or refuted by about 20 years of such a practice. That seems long enough to see the results, and research libraries have to think about the long term. If a library starts the experiment, I’ll probably still be working and can write about the results on whatever long-form writing platform exists in 20 years. A library using RPDA as its collection model would have an esoteric collection to say the least. Instead of any systematic collection in any area, let’s call them seas of information about a given subject, it would have streams and rivulets disconnected from each other, and connected only to a research project someone happened to have been working on in the past. It would be as if the library purchased only what was contained in the bibliographies to the articles and books that people happened to be working on. It would be eclectic beyond even that, though. Imagine a library collection driven by what 18-22 year olds are interested in. I don’t really know what they’re interested in, but I know it’s not usually scholarly research. The library would probably have a lot of books about sports. A lot of money would be wasted on material of little value, because patrons have no interest in spending money wisely. They just want stuff. It probably wouldn’t have much of a reference collection. A lot of useful and used databases and indexes wouldn’t be purchased, because people wouldn’t know they exist. They are usually tools librarians use to help people.

This would be okay, say the proponents of PDA, because a given collection doesn’t matter. Anything that we don’t have, we can just buy or borrow when it’s requested, after someone discovers its existence through Google or Amazon or Wikipedia. It’s true that, assuming it has the budget, a library can buy books and other materials, and a great deal is readily available, but will it always be? It’s refreshing to see the faith of some librarians in the future easy accessibility of material being published now. There are all sorts of scholarly books now that are hard to come by, and are available to some libraries because some other libraries purchased them. There’s also all the primary materials libraries collect that won’t be available in the future. Research libraries collect for the future, not just the present. The
assumption that everything will be online and accessible is a shaky one
to build your future on, but it’s the assumption of RPDA. Don’t get it
now, because we can’t afford it. But we can always get it later. What if we can’t? Research libraries also have to consider other parts of the world, where the digital present is nonexistent and the digital future not so rosy. Imagine how useless an area studies collection would be after 20 years if it was patron-driven.

No problem, right? There’s always ILL! After 20 years of this, the library collection would be such a hodgepodge that systematic research would be impossible. Scholars wanting older material that hadn’t been purchased because 20 years before nobody happened to be researching that topic will begin turning to ILL in droves, assuming that with DRM ILL is even still possible. But would they be allowed to? What if other libraries started noticing that the RPDA library was borrowing extensively, but not loaning much, that it was free riding on the more systematic collections of libraries that were formerly its peers? They might stop loaning to that library. If enough libraries adopted RPDA, the collections would be so eclectic that ILL would be useless anyway. The PDA agenda seems also to be driven by something called webscale
discovery, but such discovery in scholarship is only possible because so
many libraries build research collections. You can’t discover what was
never collected.

Research libraries as a group attempt to collect as much as possible of the human record in every format possible. No single research library, no matter how wealthy, can afford to buy everything, but the hope is that with some cooperation and some luck, the system as a whole will provide scholars with the support they need. Even scholars at colleges and non-research  universities benefit from this endeavor because of the robust system of ILL that most academic libraries participate in, and the archives available both in the library and online. The goal of a research university is the creation and discovery of new knowledge. That goal has trickled down into the faculty of small colleges around the country that can’t possibly support it, but that’s okay because they can depend on research libraries for help. Small colleges aren’t free riders because they’re not pretending to be research universities and they still build coherent collections for their users, and research libraries help because research is an international exercise with every library playing its smaller or larger part.

One of the complaints PDA enthusiasts have about research libraries is that not enough of the books are used. Libraries buy books that are never used, and they get dusty, and then we have to take care of them forever, etc. They think the way to make sure every book is used is only to buy books of immediate use. That’s probably true, though it would also lead to the buying of a lot of books that might be used only once, books that before might have been borrowed through ILL. I’m assuming this is mostly an economic argument, as in, a library just can’t afford to collect systematically anymore, so it’s gambling on desperate measures. Sometimes I wonder if the argument would be there even if the money was, too. One speaker argued, “Thirty years ago it was easy to justify buying a book just in case someone might want it in the future — but what is our justification for doing so now?  The purpose of a collection is not to be a wonderful collection; the purpose of a collection is to meet the information needs of library users.” I would agree completely with that last bit, but I’d interpret it differently. Who are the users of a research library? Only the people currently on campus? What about scholars at nearby colleges who depend on public research libraries, but who won’t have the benefit of any PDA? Or scholars at other universities whose library also didn’t collect systematically and now has enormous gaps? What about users of the future? Shouldn’t they have a say? Can we poll the newborn to make sure we can guarantee that their scholarly needs 40 years hence will be met?

I might disagree that one purpose of a collection isn’t to be a wonderful collection. That’s exactly what it should be, and the more of them we have the better chance of covering everything. All the “just in time, not just in case” reasoning is fine if you’re not trying to support a research university. The complaint might then be that libraries just shouldn’t be buying stuff that will get little or no use, period. It’s more a moral complaint against “useless” research, similar to the claims addressed in this CHE article (subscription required). The author responds to those who think there should be less scholarly publishing because so much of the scholarship is bad, or useless, or never used. Only the good stuff should be published, and for librarians with this mindset, only the good stuff should be purchased. The problem presented by the author is that one can’t always tell the good stuff from the bad without time passing. We might measure the impact of journal articles a decade after their publication and see that 90% of them were never cited, but at the time of publication nobody would have been able to say which 90% of them would go into scholarly oblivion and which 10% would be the most cited. In the humanities, the time scale would have to be increased significantly. How much history has been lost because it seemed too ephemeral at the time for libraries to collect? How many authors have come into style that can be studied now only because some research libraries in the past had the foresight to collect for the future?

We have to save as much as we can now, because we don’t know what will be of interest in half a century or more and we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to acquire it then. That’s why research libraries have traditionally done what must be anathema to the PDAcolytes, collect to strength. Research libraries collect to strength not because scholars who currently happen to be using one library will use that collection, but because research is an international endeavor all research libraries participate in, and the hope, often fulfilled, is that someone, somewhere, someday, will want to use it. Libraries that don’t participate in this communal effort are no longer research libraries.  It’s one thing to say, we just can’t afford to be a research library anymore, but another if anyone wants to make a virtue of this necessity. I know some readers might be thinking that this is easy for me to say, working for a relatively well funded private university library. However, I don’t think like this because I work at Princeton; I work at Princeton because I think like this. I also know how much scholars at all universities, including my own, benefit from having a network of research libraries that think of the future and not just the immediate present. Without those libraries, the future of research would be bleak indeed.

Notes on Truth and Librarianship

In a blog post at Sense and Reference, Lane Wilkinson asks whether misinformation is information, and proposes a project over the next few weeks that shows “how and why a realist approach to truth and information is the only way to meet” Standard Three of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I look forward to following the progress of the argument.  If, like me, your recall of the Information Literacy Standards is fuzzy, I should remind you that according to Standard Three, “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.” According to Wilkinson, though the ACRL Information Literacy Standards don’t mention truth, Standard Three requires an account of truth. (One might add that the Information Literacy Standards require a missing account of information as well.) Librarians sometimes have the oddest beliefs about truth, as Wilkinson shows in this excellent pair of posts on Wikipedia and truth.

The post also references an article on truth in librarianship that Wilkinson finds less than compelling, to put it mildly: The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship, by Labaree and Scimeca. He promises to dissect it for fact-value conflations and anti-realisms, which I also look forward to. In that article, the authors evaluate three traditional theories of truth–the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories–and conclude that since none of them are adequate for a conception of libraries as a collection of the historical record, they must introduce a supposedly new theory of truth, the “historicist” theory, inspired by the historicism of Herder. I’m assuming it’s this new theory, or perhaps the belief that this is a theory of truth at all, that Wilkinson finds ridiculous, which makes sense when we see that the historicist theory of truth is merely the suspension of belief in truth, supposedly because a belief in truth might cause us to eliminate parts of the historical record that we consider untrue. From the article:

Our suspension of truth value does not arrive at epistemological certainty about the propositions contained in the many volumes housed in a library but rather at certainty that the historical record has not been compromised by the elimination of any these volumes. In other words, librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood. As Herder states: “If history in its simplest sense were nothing but a description of an occurrence, of a production, then the first requirement is that the description be whole, exhaust the subject, show it to use from all sides”…. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind. Only in a free and open society could Herder’s historicism become possible for scholars to use.

One might be tempted to read this as blatant, though well intentioned, nonsense. One should not resist that temptation. This “theory” of truth is not only incompatible with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards (no great sin there), but with any intellectual standards at all. It asserts that for librarians to do their job well, they must cease to believe in the truth or falsity of anything in their collection. The published results of a falsifiable and replicable astronomical experiment have the same truth value as a Renaissance book of astrology, or rather, if we believe that one is in fact truer than the other then we can’t responsibly build library collections. The problem is that the authors of this paper don’t provide much of an argument for our suspension of belief.

As I said, this is well intentioned. Their claim is that if we believe that X book is true and Y book is false, then we might be tempted not to collect Y, or not to keep it, which would in essence be to destroy it for future generations to study, just as, for example, medieval scribes would scrape classical texts from vellum to give themselves a clean surface to make another copy of the Bible, because the Bible was true and valuable, while Cicero or Aristotle were not. Or like the legend that Caliph Umar destroyed the Library at Alexandria, because if the books agreed with the Koran they were unnecessary, and if they disagreed they were heretical. Thus, it is only by suspending our belief in truth of individual items in the library collection that we escape the desire to destroy falsehoods.

This assumes that such a cavalier attitude to library collections was motivated by a theory of truth as such, which isn’t the case. Totalitarians don’t burn books simply because they believe those books are false. They burn books because they are motivated by ideologies that require the destruction of any alternative points of view. They don’t burn outdated works of science that have been superseded by more modern studies; they burn books containing worldviews antithetical to their own. Medieval scribes scraped classical works from their vellum not just because they believed them to be false, but because they believed them to be unimportant, the way we throw away takeout menus when maybe we should be collecting them.

What’s different for us isn’t that we don’t believe some works are true and others false, even in areas that lend themselves to easy dispute such as politics or religion. Religious non-believers consider the truth value of the Bible or the Koran to be nil, but in the liberal Enlightenment worldview that provides the framework for modern libraries, that consideration is unimportant. Our “historicism” doesn’t dictate that we don’t believe in truth, but that we believe we want to understand the past, and we believe the way to do so is studying as many documents as possible to come to a true understanding. We attempt to comprehensively collect the historical record in ways that previous eras didn’t, but it’s not necessarily because we have different theories of truth, it’s because we believe different things are true, which isn’t the same thing.

Modern scholars and academic librarians tend to believe that the following statement is true: “Understanding the past in as objective a way as possible is valuable for us in some way, and understanding that past requires saving all the documentary traces it leaves behind.” Totalitarians, book burners, and the like believe this statement to be false. Thus, when we build library collections, we don’t suspend our belief in truth; we just believe that untrue documents can also give us a sort of truth. It should be clear that I’m not objecting to isn’t so much the spirit of this article, but its letter. I agree that building comprehensive library collections is important, and even for the same reasons, but I don’t believe it’s true that we need a new theory of truth to justify this. We don’t really need a theory of truth at all. We just need to collect.

Which brings us back to the Sense and Reference post. Wilkinson believes that Standard Three requires a theory of truth, in particular a realist theory of some kind. That sounds plausible to me, at least for parts of Standard Three. We can’t really evaluate the reliability or accuracy of information without some standard against which to judge it. Nevertheless, I wonder whether truth is really the business we’re in, even when we’re working with students and helping them evaluate sources. By inculcating standards of information literacy, are we concerned with truth? Or rather, do we get to the level where a concern with truth is appropriate?

With students, we’re often helping them to find and evaluate scholarly sources, not assessing the factual accuracy of a statement. When doing this, is truth our standard? Is truth the standard of scholarship at all, especially in the humanities? Or is it something else? Maybe I’m not putting this right. Truth might be the ultimate standard, but how far along that path would we ever go with students? Even assuming information literacy is a meaningful goal for everyone to achieve and that it requires a theory of truth, how far towards information literacy do librarians ever take students? And if we don’t take them very far, do we need a theory of truth?

Librarians are typically there for the initial stages of research, when it really is a search for information. For students in the humanities, I suggest finding a good recent scholarly book or article on the topic and chasing footnotes. “Good” would typically mean an article from a good press or journal by a reputable scholar. Would such a book or article be “true”? Almost certainly not in its entirety, because there is bound to be a similarly reputable work that will disagree with the interpretation of various facts, if not the facts themselves. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the situation that Lebaree and Scimeca find themselves with true and false documents in a library. When evaluating a single scholarly source at the level we do with students, we’re not dealing with truth or falsity. We’re concerned with whether the work meets certain standards of scholarship, which are designed ultimately to discover truth, but which never guarantee the truthfulness of any given work of scholarship.

Despite recent claims that American college students don’t learn much, what “information literacy” they do learn takes place outside the library for the most part, in classrooms, dorm rooms, coffeehouses. And the part that takes place in libraries takes place without librarians. All that reading, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing necessary for understanding and knowledge is far beyond what librarians see.

Or so one might argue. If that’s the case, if the bulk of our jobs is to build collections and give some initial guidance on search and evaluation, then it’s possible that “truth” isn’t a direct professional concern of ours, that while the ACRL Standards as a whole do require a theory of truth, the relationship of academic librarians to information literacy does not.

Or maybe not. I’m still working my way through this one.

The Future and/of the Research Library

In my last post, I presented what I consider a likely scenario for the future of research universities and their libraries. Eventually, most of them could either go away or devolve into focused research institutions, but will cease to be “research universities” in the sense we have used that term for the past century or so. They won’t attempt to cover the universe of knowledge, and their libraries–if such still exist–could become information centers focused exclusively on the needs of the moment with no regard for the future. A true research library cannot take into account merely the desiderata of current researchers who happen to be working or teaching at a given moment on a given campus, but must instead consider what’s important to save in the world and preserve that heritage for future generations who will be doing their own historical research. Along with the treasures, research libraries must also collect a lot of trash, because trash and treasure are curiously shifting terms, and historical researchers often discover hidden treasures in what people at the time would have considered unimportant ephemera.

The problem with doing this is the cost. Collecting material from all over the world and cataloging and preserving it is a very expensive endeavor, which is why relatively few such libraries might still be around in a few decades. The model of the research library collecting broadly and deeply spread during the middle decades of the 20th century, when material was relatively inexpensive. This was the period when state universities started to become research universities and began to build very impressive collections, collections, I should add, that allow current researchers to do research they never could have done otherwise, and that preserved our and others’ cultural heritages for future generations to discover. This model is sustainable only if there is concern for the future. However, a large amount of library funding, especially in many public universities, is at the whim of people who notoriously have no consideration of the future beyond their next election. Because politicians usually have no concern for future generations, they cut funding of the tools and institutions we need to build a better future and preserve our world heritage. Thus, when state budgets get tight, they cut educational funding, and this has been going on steadily for several decades. The recent recession just caused a more rapid drop in higher education funding than usual.

In an era of declining funding for higher education and a lack of concern for the future, including future research, we will probably be seeing more things like the “patron-driven acquisition” model discussed in this article. The article profiles a librarian who is supposedly “part of a wave of librarians testing a different and, they say, more efficient mechanism for purchasing library materials: patron-driven acquisition. The idea is that the library users help determine what to buy. For instance, a purchase decision might be based on how many times an e-book is accessed via an online catalog.” This is allegedly “a fundamentally rational method of acquisition” because it doesn’t use resources to purchase and preserve material nobody uses. As the librarian notes, ”A big reason for [more libraries exploring this option ] is we’ve all experienced pretty significant budget cuts, and when the money gets tighter, it gets harder and harder to justify spending money on materials nobody wants.” The question not even considered is, how will we know what users 50 years from now will want from the collections we’re building now? That’s the sort of question that research libraries have to consider.

Depending on how extensive patron-driven acquisition is, it seems to me like a good idea. According to the article, Purdue has such a system, but only devotes a small percentage of their funding for it. “Purdue now spends 5 to 7 percent of its book-buying money this way, she says, and expects to increase that to 10 to 15 percent.” For getting contemporary scholars some of the material they need for their research, the method no doubt works quite well. However, if such an acquisitions model were extended to a significant portion of the budget, or even all the budget, and material acquisition was determined solely by current research needs and then discarded when their use drops, it would be difficult to consider such a library a research library because of a complete lack of regard for the needs of future researchers of the now discarded past. They will have to rely on the few strong research libraries left.

There are potential developments that would render this problem irrelevant. For example, the United States could develop a national digital library, as recently called for by Robert Darnton. The ideal digital library would be the universal library that scholars have been dreaming of for centuries. If every document contained in American libraries were digitized and fully available, there would be little need for research libraries of the sort we have now. In Darton’s words, “We can equip the smallest junior college in Alabama and the remotest high school in North Dakota with the greatest library the world has ever known.” This is remarkably similar rhetoric to H.G. Wells’ 1938 World Brain, in which, buoyed by a giddiness about the latest information technology, he predicted ”microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student….  The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica” (54).

The irony of his prediction should be clear to any librarian. Because of copyright laws, we are not even allowed to microfilm or digitize his 60-year-old book and make it freely accessible to the world. Allowing the Alabama junior college student and the high school student in remote North Dakota to search inside books they can never read isn’t much help. There is good reason to speculate that we’ll have a national digital library with significant accessibility of content created within the last century when Disney decides Mickey Mouse is no longer profitable. Right now, even successful preservation efforts like Hathi, LOCKSS, and Portico can acquire and preserve digital content that will only be accessible after some rather unlikely trigger events.

Or there is the chance that the future will be the rather fanciful one conceived in this article: The User-Driven Purchase Give Away Library: A Thought Experiment, which takes patron-driven acquisition even further. The vision is that libraries buy only the books patrons want and then give them to the patrons. It’s predicated on the assumption that Google Books and the Hathi Trust will have most books digitized and preserved, and that everything else will be digitized and available at least as a license.

Possibly for the most popular content, but it seems unlikely that all the collections of major research libraries will be digitized in a decade, as this thought experiment envisions, unless we’re just talking about monographs published in the United States. If current trends persist, documents formerly printed on paper and sold to libraries could become digital content licensed and controlled in ways that will make it impossible to preserve for future research, whether by a research library or a national digital library. And even if Google Books and the Hathi trust have digital copies of most books, and even if those books are preserved, they will still not be accessible to many unless libraries can purchase and control them. And even if, somehow, the licensing agreements work out well for libraries and long term preservation as well as short term access are achieved, this is still only a portion of what research libraries actually collect.

Sustainable cooperative collection development would also mitigate the problem. Research libraries collect all sorts of material from all over the world, including parts of the world where print publishing is still the norm and might well be for decades. However, by divvying up the world and working collectively, consortia of research libraries could collect and preserve just about everything anyone in the future could possibly want. I suspect regional cooperative collection would be the best alternative, because access to much of this material would probably be restricted to a physical location for a long time to come. The ability to participate in these projects would distinguish the research libraries from others, but the great thing about this model is that regional consortia of even poorly funded research libraries could still develop a robust and diverse regional university library system upon which scholars everywhere in the region could depend.

These are all possible futures for research libraries, and not necessarily dark ones. I believe the ultimate goal of American libraries, as a system, is a universal library accessible to all, and to some extent we have achieved that for academic libraries through resource-sharing. While I hold out little hope for an Infotopia in which such a library exists digitally for everyone, it is still worth working towards, and ultimately is a measure of the success of all libraries, but especially research libraries. Nevertheless, the future of research libraries depends on the relationship between the future and research libraries. Research libraries that cease now to think about the needs of the future will cease to be research libraries in that future. Creating a national digital library, or a universal library of any sort, would be an appropriate goal for libraries collectively, and especially for research libraries collectively, but it requires thinking beyond the needs of the moment. It requires us to think about what scholars and students decades from now will either be thankful for what we have done, or regret what we failed to do.

Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions

[Update: a revised version of this post was published as "Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions." Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9 (2010), 47-54.

In the context of a project I'm working on about libraries and Enlightenment, I was asked what I thought about "Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect." (The latest draft I could find is here.) I'd read a little about it, but my only impression was that most of it seemed fine while some of it seemed to conflict with academic and library values. The basic thesis of the document is that librarians should be sensitive to the desires of indigenous communities regarding library collections of "traditional cultural expressions," i.e. objects, documents, etc.  created by members of those communities.

In a general sense, this seems a reasonable and ethical position, and upon further analysis, I realized I supported many of the document's claims, but not at all for the reasons given by the document. A very small portion of the TCE document does indeed conflict with core values of libraries and universities, but a lot of the rationale does. It took me a while to parse out which parts I thought were in conflict with library values and which not, and also to figure out why I supported most of the document despite the flawed rationale. I'm still working through the labor of the notion, as Hegel might say, and the result is below. I think this is supposed to be debated by ALA Council. My opinion is that the Council should probably support a revised version of the document, but that the document as it stands is unsatisfactory. 
Philosophical Objections
Librarians can object to bits and pieces of this document, and those are the bits and pieces which should be revised. First, we can simply analyze the document to see if the statements all make sense.  The portion on "Meaning and Social Context" is the most problematic from this perspective, and the least necessary for the document as a whole. In that section it is claimed, for example, that "Traditional cultural expressions do not exist separately from the living cultures they reflect. Tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage." Quite frankly, the first statement isn't true. If it was true, then there would be no need for such a document as this, because libraries wouldn't own any of these "expressions." They obviously do exist separately from their cultures, as all expressions do. And yet, this statement is somehow supposed to justify the claims being made. The position of the writers is that there aren't objects in libraries, but "expressions," and an expression must have an expresser. But "expressions" as such don't exist as "expressions." They exist as objects or texts or whatever. Calling them "expressions" is presenting an interpretation of those objects preferred by the writers of the document, but difficult to support if you don't share their assumptions.
It's definitely true that these objects or texts are meaningful in their cultural context, and such a context is the best way to try to determine their original meaning. Objects and texts out of their appropriate context can be interpreted many ways, though, and their meanings can never be restricted or contained by any one context. If there is any value to poststructuralist arguments about texts and interpretation--and I think this is the most valuable part of the poststructuralist enterprise--I'm not even sure how anyone would begin to prove that an "expression" doesn't exist beyond its expresser. 
The second sentence, that tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage, makes much more sense, but it's not clear how it's related to the first sentence, or how it is related to an argument about how librarians should treat objects and texts in their care. If the tradition-bearers are indeed the repositories of their cultural heritage, then once again there's no need to worry about other repositories like libraries. If "expressions" can't exist without the expressers, and if the expressers are the repositories, then what could there possibly be in libraries? What are those things librarians collect?  Statements such as this do little to support the main claims of the document. The rest of the statements in that section might be true, but aren't necessarily relevant to an argument about what librarians should do with TCEs.
Librarian Objections
The document claims that "the special sensitivity and care TCEs require are supported by the fundamental tenets of librarianship. These principles serve as a reminder of core library values and our mission to safeguard and provide access to materials without sacrificing individual liberty or respect for cultural differences." I don't think this is correct, and it's certainly not proven in the document, which references librarians' core values but doesn't analyze the claims regarding TCEs according to those values. Here's the list of ALA "core values":
  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education and Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Preservation
  • The Public Good
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility
We could take them in turn. Access requires that librarians strive to make collections as freely available as possible to all comers. In addition to the commendable statement that libraries should help indigenous peoples preserve and even digitize their cultural "expressions," we also have this statement: "Libraries should be sensitive to the possibility that digitizing traditional cultural expressions could expose the content to a world beyond the boundaries of the library, making it potentially more vulnerable to misuse." I'll address "misuse" in a moment, but even without that this is an odd statement. First of all, there's not just the possibility that digitization would expose the content beyond the bounds of the library; that's the entire purpose of digitization. We want to make our collections more accessible. That's why we digitize. 
Confidentiality/Privacy could conflict with this statement: "Libraries strive to provide the necessary social and cultural context in connection with use of indigenous materials in their collections, and make every effort to ensure appropriate use of materials." It might not conflict, but it all depends on what one means by ensuring appropriate use. To make sure someone isn't going to destroy or deface an object? Definitely.  But what if the object or text is used as a source for a research project? Should librarians inquire about how the object will be used, and not allow access to those who aren't "using" the objects "appropriately"? This relates to the worry over "misuse." What would it mean to "misuse" a digital collection? To interpret it badly? To use it to mock or criticize a culture? These are certainly possibilities, but they are "misuses" that must be allowed for educational and intellectual purposes. If someone interprets something wrongly, they should be refuted, not prevented. This is the essence of democratic debate and education. The language here isn't very clear, and doesn't explain what appropriate use might be. That alone should be reason enough to require revision.
Democracy would also possibly conflict with the claims that indigenous peoples somehow control the meanings of objects in libraries. Democratic values protect, but don't privilege minority groups. It also conflicts with the claims about misu
se. Democracy requires open inquiry and debate, that requires access to information and the freedom to debate it. These are core library values that we disregard at our peril.
Diversity is a contested term, but would probably be one of the most relevant values to support the parts of the document worthy of support. Because libraries have diverse collections in a diverse society, it's important to make the effort to understand that diversity and to be sensitive to the needs and desires of diverse communities. This would lend support to the more reasonable and defensible claims in the document, such as, "Librarians have a responsibility to develop an understanding appreciation of the traditions and cultures associated with materials held in their collections." Absolutely, they do. 
The next two values--Education and Intellectual Freedom--are perhaps the most crucial to academic libraries, and the values that have the best claim to provide the foundations for libraries in the first place. If we consider these values absolute and universal, they undoubtedly trump some of the claims being made in the document about sacred knowledge or (potentially) restricted access. The modern research university is a product of the Enlightenment, for better or worse, and its values are that anything can be considered an object of investigation, and that in most circumstances the importance of  the production and dissemination of knowledge takes precedent over other concerns. We study and investigate peoples, texts, objects, nature, etc. because knowledge is both good for its own sake and useful for the progress of society. Together with other Enlightenment values such as democracy, freedom of speech and publication, and toleration of dissent in a marketplace of ideas, these provide the rationale for the research universities and their libraries.
Here also is where possible difficulties lie. Some parts of this document are utterly incompatible with such values. In the discussion, the other librarian posed the problem as possibly one of colonialist versus indigenous people's values. This is the cultural relativist perspective. But the Enlightenment perspective would pose it as a problem of universal versus local values. Who's correct here? Your position on this will probably determine your position on some of the more mystical portions of the document. 
The tempting position to defend is that the values of the indigenous peoples should take precedent because they were both the victims of aggression and the creators of the "expressions." I'm tempted by this argument. However, one can be sensitive to the suffering of indigenous peoples without sacrificing universal values.
Think of what happens in other, more fraught contexts when universal Enlightenment values that underlie librarianship are considered merely the relative values of European colonialist oppressors. Do we consider it morally acceptable to stone homosexuals to death? To perform forced clitorectomies on women? To keep girls away from educational institutions and throw acid in the faces of little girls who dare go to school? To forcibly marry preteen girls to older men? These are all practices among some cultures. What should our position be on them? If all values are relative to particular cultures, and Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and racial and sexual equality are merely the local values of Western cultures, then we can't criticize them. What librarians would be willing to stand up and defend such a position?
There are times when librarians must respond like General Sir Charles Napier in India. ""You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours." You say it is your custom to venerate certain objects. It is our custom to study them.
But if we can't defend such practices, or at least refrain from criticizing them, it's because we believe that values such as liberty and equality are necessary and universal human values, and that humans who don't believe this are wrong, and in extreme cases evil. Isaiah Berlin makes the rather existential argument in "Two Concepts of Liberty" that values pluralism, the belief that there are many ultimate but irreconcilable human values, is what makes the liberty to choose absolutely essential to the human condition. Liberty, equality, security, order--they are all ultimate and necessary for humans to thrive. Because there are many such values, we have to choose among them, and because this choice is essential to the human condition, then it cannot be justly restricted.
For librarians, this supports the value of intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom isn't an ultimate value because we like the sound of it. It's an ultimate value because educating ourselves about options and choosing among them are a necessary part of being human. It is a universal value. If we believe it is a universal value, then we believe in universal human values. And if we believe that, then we also believe that local values that conflict with universal values must lose in competition. We don't restrict access to materials based on cultural or religious grounds for the same reason we don't believe homosexuals should be stoned to death. We make objects and texts from other cultures available for study because we think educating ourselves about everything--including other cultures--is important. 
Let's skip to social responsibility because the other values are less clearly relevant, and because I've gone on long enough. According to the "core values" statement, "The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement." [Note to ALA: that sentence could definitely use some editing.]
Supporting efforts to inform and educate Americans about critical problems would support all of the statements in the TCE document that want librarians to educate themselves and others about the “expressions” of indigenous peoples and those peoples themselves. But that education is concomitant with the fullest and freest access to the texts and objects the library possesses. We can do our best to present such objects in their most relevant context, but ultimately “misuse” or misinterpretation is beyond our control.To use the objects and texts to try to educate the public about what they really mean and about their relationship to indigenous cultures is part of the universal values of education and intellectual freedom as well as social responsibility. We do this because of our universal values, not because of our cultural relativism, which is the same reason we would digitize collections or make them available to library users.
This is also why we might return items. “Indigenous communities understand that some traditional cultural expressions are private or sacred knowledge and share this insight with libraries that may have these works in their collections. Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge should consider returning those materials to the indigenous communities or
to institutions in which such restrictions are appropriate.” From the relativist perspective of the document, libraries would return sacred objects because they are sacred, but libraries don’t recognize the value of sanctity. An object or text is there to study. We may find it interesting and relevant that some groups consider this object or text sacred. The Bible is sacred to Christians and the Koran to Muslims. But from a more universal and academic perspective, that is but one fact about these texts. It doesn’t change the nature of the texts for the researcher; it only adds a relevant and important fact about their context. The same is true of objects from indigenous cultures. If I am from that culture, I might consider an object sacred. But I’m not. And even if I was, the values of education and intellectual freedom would still trump the supposed sanctity of objects. 
Reasons to Support a Revised Document
At this point you might think I disagree with the general idea of the TCE document, but I don’t. What I disagree with are its reasons for making the claims that it does. The values of one group in a society don’t trump the universal values of education and intellectual freedom, nor do they trump library values of access or privacy. But the most important desiderata of the document can be defended in terms relevant to library values, even though that isn’t done in the document as written. Education and intellectual freedom and access means we make objects and texts as available as possible, but it also means we do all we can to understand these objects and texts and the people that produced them, and also do our best to pass that understanding on to library users. 
Returning some collections is also completely justifiable, but from the universal perspective of justice, not the local perspective of sanctity. Justice trumps even education and intellectual freedom. The important question is, how did these collections come to exist? Were they stolen? Purchased? Traded for? Acquired as gifts? The prominent libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick based his philosophy of distributive justice on the principles of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer. In other words, if property was initially acquired justly (via the Lockean proviso that enough and as good is left for others), and transferred justly, then whoever owns it in the end is the just owner.  If we find at the end of the line that ownership isn’t just, the principle of rectification requires us to reallocate resources in a just manner if possible.
Casual libertarianism is usually the political philosophy of people who can only hold one idea in their heads at a time (freedom!), but  Nozick’s principles don’t support his libertarianism very well, because if we go back far enough, little was ever acquired justly. The history of acquisitions of property can probably be traced back to force or trickery or exploitation. He also supports a principle of restitution of property, if it can be shown that ownership didn’t follow the two principles of justice. Jeremy Waldron analyzes Nozick’s principles from this perspective in his essay “Superceding Historical Injustice.” Waldron argues that reparations for historical injustice have to consider changing circumstances and what would currently be just. For example, it wouldn’t be just to send all non-indigenous persons in the United States back to whatever part of the world they or their ancestors came from, even if that were possible, because that act in itself would cause tremendous amounts of suffering and injustice. However, this doesn’t preclude reparations for actions that were historically unjust, if such reparations don’t create injustice in the present. 
Something like this might support the return of some objects. Libraries shoudn’t return objects or documents because they are sacred, but because they were acquired unjustly or transferred unjustly. Their sacredness as such is irrelevant to library values. Returning items or negotiating with cultural communities about their use are forms of reparation, and could only be justified within a library framework as works of justice. This argument smuggles in a plethora of problems regarding the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonists, but it helps us make more sense of some of these statements from within the value structure of librarians, rather than from an external and incompatible set of values. If libraries were to return objects or restrict access, it’s not because the objects are sacred or because they’re “expressions” of a culture. That could be said of many objects and texts and carries no special weight for librarians. Instead, it would be because the objects or texts were acquired or transferred unjustly at some point, and their return itself wouldn’t cause injustice in the present. Figuring this out for every collection would be difficult, if not impossible, but only this type of reasoning could be compatible with core library values. One group’s claims about sacred knowledge tells us what they believe, but gives librarians little cause for action.
However, there are probably cases where even a return of unjustly acquired objects might do an injustice to education and knowledge. Let’s say for the sake of argument there’s an absolutely unique collection of TCEs in an archive somewhere. I don’t mean unique like yet another Civil War diary is unique, but unique in a strong sense. There’s nothing quite like this, and it’s the only public available collection of objects from a community available for study. And let’s assume that if the objects were returned to their cultural community, they would be restricted so that only members of that community could see them. Even if the provenance wasn’t completely pure, there’s an argument for keeping them in the library, because restricting access to that extent would be impossible to reconcile with the values of education, intellectual freedom, and the public good. It’s a thorny area, but once librarians betray their values we could be on a slippery slope to other problems.
The majority of of claims in the TCE document are fully compatible with library values, but not for the reasons given in the document itself. A revised document, with more rigorous reasoning about how the core values of librarianship support the claims about education and context, and a revision of the claims not supported by those core values, specifically those on restriction of access, would be an appropriate document for ALA support.

Dealing with the Pusher Man

We’re discussing some of our journal packages from large publishers, so I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately. Those who work in or have paid much attention to collection development for the past couple of decades are aware of the impact serial price increases have had on library budgets. I think this has been one of the most pressing issue in academic libraries for a long time. In general, I believe libraries should pull out of most package deals with publishers and go back to managing subscriptions on a title by title basis, as well as have the willingness to cut those titles with exorbitant price raises. This provides libraries their only bargaining power with publishers.

I’ve heard a number of librarians over the years claim that Elsevier or Wiley or Springer or whomever were “evil,” and I can’t say I’ve always been more generous in my appraisals. It doesn’t help us to bemoan our fate or ask why the publishers act like they do. They do things for the same reason all corporations do anything: to maximize profit. Why this big increase? To maximize profit. Why that pricing model? To maximize profit. That’s all the “evil” publishers like Elsevier do, and they do it well. As long as they’re not being fraudulent (like publishing advertising as medical scholarship), they’re no more evil than any corporation. Publishers aren’t there to be information providers. Providing information is just the way they make money. I think scholarly information is a public good and should be kept out of commercial hands for the most part, but that’s certainly not going to happen. Blaming commercial publishers for maximizing profits is like blaming fish for swimming.

We’re never operating in an equal bargaining position, partly because journals aren’t commodities. Each journal is a monopoly. We can’t unsubscribe from Brain and choose Mind instead just to save $10,000. Publishers know how unlikely we are to sacrifice key titles. Many years ago they tried to maximize their profit by raising journal prices at four times the rate of inflation. When libraries finally cracked and started cutting subscriptions, they got us to give up all control and agree to multi-year packages where they would raise the prices each year by only twice the rate of inflation, and we agreed to ease our pain. Then they threw in a lot of stuff we neither want not need and pretended they were doing us a favor, while in reality they were just trying to get us hooked so we’d do anything they asked later just to keep getting our fix. Plus, now we’re charged for “access,” and don’t even own anything that we can preserve in some cases. They were performing as rational agents in the marketplace. The question is, can we?

It doesn’t do any good to try to bargain with publishers if we have nothing to bargain with. They’ve seen for 20 years how willing we are to make deals which benefit them more than they benefit us. The only way to have any bargaining power is to get out of the packages and resume control title by title. Someone might ask,  what if they go back their old ways and start raising journal prices exorbitantly? The only answer is that we have to cancel the journals they do this for, and with hindsight know that moving into multi-year packages won’t solve our problems, either. If we’re not willing to go back to title by title control, and we’re also not willing to cancel subscriptions even to high profile journals if they start raising prices exorbitantly, then we have NO bargaining power whatsoever, and probably never will. Unless we do this, there’s certainly no use in trying to fix the blame on the publishers; we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

There has probably never been a better time for libraries to start acting more aggressively in the marketplace. Librarians have been putting the case against commercial STM journal publishers for years, and the faculty don’t like it when publishers do this stuff any more than we do. But now libraries have an even better reason to act. Libraries and universities are under enormous financial strain, and this is the perfect time to try to regain our bargaining power. This is the time to stop paying for packages containing a lot of titles we don’t want, don’t need, and don’t use, and to take back what control we can. It’s no use damning the Pusher Man. The only way to deal with the Pusher Man is to push back.

Book Challenges in Academic Libraries

Thanks to Banned Books Week, we’re all familiar with book challenges in public libraries in the United States. Does this ever happen in academic libraries in this country?

I ask only because I’ve been intrigued by this story over the past few days. The challenge isn’t in the United States, but New Zealand. A New Zealand Nazi and Holocaust denier has complained to a university library that a master’s thesis examining his Satanic Neo-Nazism is a "smear document." Though, as the Chronicle article notes, "ironically, only a few years ago, Mr. Bolton complained bitterly when another New Zealand university pulled a master’s thesis because of its Holocaust denial. He asked, ‘Is Canterbury University in the business of denying academic freedom?’" He wants the thesis removed and some money from the university to sooth his damaged feelings. The university library has in fact removed the thesis while the complaint is being investigated.

At a certain level, the story is comical, obviously. The hypocritical Nazi Satanist doesn’t like criticism. Those Nazi Satanists never do, I suppose. That a thesis approved by the university has been removed even for an investigation is a bit troubling, but I’m hoping that it’s just a ploy to get the Nazi Satanist to shut up for a while.

While think about this, I ran across this post in my Google Reader (I’m slowly catching up on my blog reading after the overscheduled hell of last week). It’s one of the Gypsy Librarian’s useful article summaries, this time an article on academic freedom and academic librarians. It’s depressingly clear that the Gypsy Librarian has no protections for his academic freedom, but what would he need protection for? Well, lots of things, including teaching and just generally speaking about anything. I’ve always avoided the tenure track, but I’m thankful for my own quasi-tenure nonetheless.

Collection development is typically the place librarians would want their academic freedom protected. I’m just not sure of any places where the academic freedom of collection development is challenged. Do things like this happen in American academic libraries? There’s mention in that blog post of things like the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights." But if anything like that were to apply to libraries, surely it would be to request more books representing conservatism than the attempt to suppress alternative titles. This doesn’t seem too radical. Provided the money was available, are there academic librarians who would refuse to buy conservative books? No, I take that back, there might be. But should we consider those librarians anything other than partisan ideologues who don’t share the values of scholarship? I’m not particularly concerned with the Coulters and the Limbaughs, but academic libraries with any sort of politics collection should have some Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver.

It seems to me there’s little ground for book challenges in academic libraries. Public libraries have an obligation both to the principle of representing various viewpoints as well as to their communities. Like it or not, they have to at least respond to book challenges from their public. Who in the academic community would challenge a book, though? Professors? That seems hard to believe. Students? I can’t imagine they’d care, but even if they did they have no authority over a library collections, and for good reason. In research libraries, at least, students are not the primary community for the collection. They use only a residual part of the collection.

However, it’s always possible I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve only worked in collection development for two libraries – one college and one university, both in the mid-Atlantic – so maybe challenges of this sort would be taken seriously in Texas, where the Gypsy Librarian resides, or in Alabama, where I spent my college years. I’m hoping not, though. I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen here as happened in New Zealand.