The Mission of Research Libraries

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.

2 thoughts on “The Mission of Research Libraries

  1. I can’t help feeling that you may have missed the point of the original question. “Mission” may not particularly refer to a philosophy of what a research library is about, but a formal statement of a specific library’s mission and/or objectives, agreed with its governing committee. In this case, the answer is that the mission statement may overdue for revision due to changing culture and technology in both libary and academic worlds. Certainly “buying” sounds out-of-date as the sole means of delivering services. Also, since the library exists to serve a particular institution and its aims, serving the institutions aims and patron base will be its main aim, the one that it cuts back to in hard times, with participation in the wider scholarly world second to this. The library may not be an island, but it exists and comes into existence within a specific context, which will define its unique concrete mission more closely than abstract ideals that do not take that specific context into account.

  2. David, I might indeed have missed the context of the original question. I checked, and the UCLA library does have a mission statement:
    It does indeed state its mission to support the work of UCLA students and faculty. It also states that,
    “The Library develops, organizes, and preserves collections for optimal use and provides links to remote information sources…. The Library provides resources and services to non-UCLA users to the extent possible.”
    Thus, as you note, possibly limiting participation in the “wider scholarly world.”
    If I’m correct about the implicit mission of research universities and their libraries, then a lack of participation in the “wider scholarly world” would merely mean that such a university would cease to be a research university. In this case, it comes down to a matter of definition. If the university does such and such, then it is a research university; if not, then not.
    However, I was trying to point to two examples in which any research university necessarily participates in the wider scholarly world–special collections and ILL. These are shining examples of how academic libraries both at research universities and at colleges around the world already participate in the broader scholarly world. Almost no scholars at any institution of higher education could function solely on the resources of their own institution. Fortunately for us all, libraries large and small cooperate to the extent they do to aid scholars at every institution, regardless of its size and wealth.
    I take issue only with the criticism implied by the final sentence, where “unique concrete mission” is contrasted with the presumably airy “abstract ideals that do not take that specific context into account.” Negotiating concrete situations with the guidance of abstract ideas is a necessary part of ethical action. If the concrete mission embodied in a written mission statement conflicts with a coherent and reasoned ideal mission, then the problem is with the statement, not the ideal.
    Scholars at UCLA (and Princeton, and every other university) depend upon the resources not only of their own institution, but those of countless others as well. To argue that a given research university has no obligation to scholars at other institutions would be a denial of the fact of reciprocity that allows the scholars of that research university to function. Libraries that refuse to spend money on initiatives that benefit scholarship in general and in the long run, but only indirectly their local clients in the short run–whether because of “hard times” or not–are short-sighted and ultimately foolish.
    The UCLA library mission statement says, “The mission of the UCLA Library is to provide access to and delivery of information resources to UCLA students, faculty, and staff in support of the research and instructional mission of the university.” The best way to do that in the short and long run is to participate in and fund initiatives that make the results of scholarship more widely available for everyone. The UCLA library could ONLY fulfill that mission by cooperating with other universities around the country.

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