AL Direct linked today to a blog post I hadn’t yet read at the Book of Trogool blog. In that post, and in another linked from it, Dorothea Salo responds to a challenging question she received at a meeting at UCLA:
“How do libraries justify spending on open access–making local materials available to the world–if our guiding mission is to buy appropriate materials specifically on behalf of our patron base?”
Her answers were that promoting open access is better for us financially in the long term, and that unless we achieve a “collective openness,” libraries will die as their and the publishers’ business model dies. These are good answers, but not the ones I would give.
Instead, I would choose to challenge the original assumption, that the guiding mission of research libraries (and I’m assuming research libraries only, which UCLA has) is to buy appropriate materials for local (and presumably currently existing) patrons. That’s not now, nor has it ever been, the guiding mission of research libraries, or in the interest of the research institutions they support. The guiding mission of research libraries is to collect the human record in its totality and make it accessible for study by all scholars. We have not yet achieved a “collective openness,” but we’ve achieved a remarkable amount of collective organization.
Salo is primarily concerned with journal publishers and open access, but considering other areas will help us understand this mission. Archives and special collections exist at every research library, and yet in my experience archives and special collections aren’t funded specifically because the local patrons want to use them. The purpose of archives is to collectively preserve the human record. Visiting scholars are as common in many archives as local scholars. Special collections exist because someone somewhere may want to study them because they are important. If local scholars study them, so much the better. And libraries are increasingly digitizing these archives because the mission of the library is to disseminate as well as collect and preserve human knowledge. Scholars everywhere benefit from the preservation or digitization of knowledge by libraries at institutions they don’t work for.
Another way libraries try to fulfill this mission is through interlibrary loan and other forms of resource sharing and cooperation. No library is an island, and librarians have worked very hard for several decades to build up networks to share resources and information. Stand outside the profession for a moment and think how amazing it is that thousands of libraries are connected through OCLC and other organizations, and that a scholar in Florida who needs a book available only at libraries in Oregon and Alaska could probably get the book in a few days without traveling.
The interconnectedness of libraries today is no trivial fact. And the more that libraries cooperate and share and digitize and allow open access, the greater the totality of resources available to all scholars. It’s the totality and access that are important. Scholar A at University B also benefits when University C digitizes content or shares it through ILL or an institutional repository, and all scholars and librarians should remember that.
Research libraries are not like, say, community college libraries, because the driving goal for every purchase isn’t that a resource fills an immediate curricular need. Research libraries also buy materials for immediate need, but they have to consider the needs of scholarship in general, both now and decades from now. A lot of scholars are able to do their work now because some librarian some time in the past collected material just for the sake of collecting it, and the same will be true of scholars in the future. Or it won’t be true, depending on whether research libraries live up to their mission. Research libraries that purchase only what is absolutely necessary for their current local patrons fail in their mission.
The mission of research libraries is motivated by the mission of research universities, which were founded to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. Sometimes this new knowledge has practical and commercial applications, and so often receives more funding, but that’s not necessarily the case. The mission to create new knowledge extends to every area of human experience, from the mundane and practical to the esoteric and purely abstract. Knowledge creation in history, literature, philosophy, or even higher mathematics doesn’t lead to startling commercial products, but still research universities support this work to the extent they fulfill their mission. Unlike undergraduate teaching, which until recently was necessarily confined to local classrooms, the research mission of universities and the community of scholars have always been international in scope.
Thus, an answer as to why research libraries should spend money promoting open access publications is because open access publications perfectly fit in with the mission of research libraries to collect the human record in its totality and make it as accessible as possible to all scholars. While the bean counters at every university may think only of short term expenses and gains, librarians and the current and future scholars they serve have an obligation to think globally and collectively. Research libraries and research universities are all part of a vast network to create, preserve, and disseminate human knowledge, and while they have many challengers with less pure motives, and are far from perfect in fulfilling their mission, it’s still astounding how much they have accomplished. Whether they can better accomplish this mission in the future considering the current economics of information is still an open question, but that they should do what they can to accomplish the mission should not be in question at all. Instead of being contrary to the mission of libraries, open access to the results of scholarship would be the ultimate fulfillment of the mission of research libraries and universities.