Opting In

Back from a long vacation, caught up with work that piled up while I was gone, and ready to catch up on my library lit reading. So I started reading, backwards from this to this to this to this. I can say one thing for Rick Anderson, he knows how to get a debate going.

The debate concerns an Ithaka “issue brief” by Anderson called Can’t Buy Us Love. The basic thesis, as I understand it, is that research libraries should devote more resources to digitizing their special collections and making them discoverable. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that claim, which is probably why there’s not much discussion of it. This increased emphasis on special collections will require a shift of resources away from something, and for Anderson that something is “commodity documents,” by which he means documents easily available cheaply elsewhere, especially “trade books that are produced in large print runs.” The recurring example is a 1975 printing of East of Eden. If I’m reading it right, he’s saying that research libraries should maybe buy fewer popular books published in America, devote fewer resources to housing them indefinitely, and devote more of that money to special collections processing and digitization. That seems to me a plausible interpretation of the basic argument, which isn’t especially provocative even if one disagrees with it.

The controversy seems to be about two issues: the question of what constitutes commodity documents and their relationship to the mission of research libraries, and the claim that focusing on special collections and moving away from “commodity documents” somehow opts out of the so-called scholarly communications wars, because digitizing our own special collections “is neither undermining the existing scholarly communication system (except to the extent that it pulls collections money away from commercial purchases) nor supporting it.”

Anderson claims that, “With the advent of such internet-based outlets as Amazon Marketplace and Bookfinder.com, however, every home with an internet connection has direct access to the holdings of thousands and thousands of bookstores around the world, and the likelihood of finding a remaindered or used copy—often at a price of literally pennies, plus a few dollars in shipping—is very high.” It seems to me that the scope of “commodity documents” is pretty small compared to the breadth of research library collections. Anderson already eliminates the budget busting scholarly journals. University press publications aren’t nearly as cheap and readily available as old bestselling novels. Foreign publications aren’t so accessible after a while. Trade books in large print runs aren’t a huge percentage of a lot of research libraries’ expenditures, but possibly buying fewer of them, or perhaps keeping fewer of them as they get older and less used, would provide some savings that could be devoted to special collections. So what if it might be true, as Anderson claims, that “the library’s role as a broker, curator, and organizer of commodity documents is fading,” if commodity documents as such are a relatively small part of research library collections, which I believe to be the case. On this one, I could agree with his basic claim without thinking it particularly radical or controversial.

The other controversy about “opting out” of the scholarly communications wars could be puzzling, because as it’s framed the proposal has nothing to do with the scholarly communication wars. Whatever wars there are concern commercial scholarly journals, almost all STEM titles, and these are deliberately left out of the scope of discussion. That claim is simply irrelevant to the main argument about special collections versus commodity documents.  Reread Anderson’s article without the “Opting out of the scholarly communications wars” section, and see if that harms the piece at all. The key, though, is that the argument is framed to avoid problems in scholarly communications, except that can’t really be done.

Instead of being an unnecessary diversion, the section about scholarly communications wars is more a sleight of hand. It’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while ignoring the elephant in the room, if I can mix my cliches. The basic claim is that libraries should digitize and make available more of their unique content, which, of course, lots of libraries are already doing. The resources to do more of that have to come from somewhere. Libraries could buy even fewer popular books than they already do. Or, maybe, they could opt into the scholarly communication wars, do their best to promote green OA, and reduce the stranglehold of commercial STEM publishers, because that’s where most of the money goes. When it comes to discussing where resources go within libraries, nothing escapes the scholarly communications wars. You can simply refuse to talk about it. You can claim that librarians doing so are putting politics above patrons. You can pretend that budgets for books and other resources just gut themselves. But you can’t have an honest discussion about where scarce resources in libraries should go without talking about problems in scholarly communication, whichever side of the issue you’re on.

7 thoughts on “Opting In

  1. Wayne, thanks for your thoughtful comments. In response to this:

    The other controversy about “opting out” of the scholarly communications wars could be puzzling, because as it’s framed the proposal has nothing to do with the scholarly communication wars. Whatever wars there are concern commercial scholarly journals, almost all STEM titles, and these are deliberately left out of the scope of discussion.

    You’re exactly correct. What I intended to get across in that section was that to the degree we shift our focus away from commodity documents (i.e., those that are available for sale in the conventional marketplace) and towards non-commodity ones (e.g., rare and unique documents of the type found in Special Collections), we take our activities off the battlefield of the scholcomm wars, because non-commodity materials are not at issue in that conflict. I see this as an interesting and, frankly, kind of exciting aspect of the shift I’m proposing. I confess that I really like the idea of being able to make serious and important contributions to scholarly communication in a way that (to some degree) sidesteps the issues that are so hotly contested in the scholcomm debates right now. The controversy over that section of my paper seems to have arisen because some readers understood me to be saying that librarians shouldn’t be involved in that debate at all, which is not what I intended to convey. Clearly, I should have included more qualifying language in that section.

    • A remaining controversy is that some of us think libraries should not sidestep the scholarly communication issues at all. So what you see as an exciting aspect of the shift you are proposing, others see as not such a good thing.

    • Rick, I think I see what you’re getting at. I completely agree with you about digitizing unique resources. Depending on how we defined “commodity documents,” I think you could be right about the future, and I’m willing to suspend judgment to see what actually happens. And I definitely wasn’t accusing you of saying librarians shouldn’t be involved in the scholarly communication debate, even though I know we disagree on a lot of issues there.

      If the debate was just about boosting special collections or digital projects, many librarians would agree. I do wholeheartedly. But once you start talking about what part of the library you’d have to rob to do it, you have to talk about the distribution of scarce resources, and you can’t do that without addressing the issue of commercial STEM journals. It’s like the old joke about why people rob banks. Because that’s where the money is.

      However, the basic argument could be made successfully without addressing acquisitions spending at all. Digitizing is mostly about staff reallocation. That brings up other thorny issues, but not ones that obscure what I think is a worthwhile debate on the value of unique resources to a library’s function/ brand/ value/ whatever.

  2. Chris, are you suggesting that the digitization, preservation, and distribution of rare and unique documents is problematic to the degree that it distracts us from the scholcomm wars? (I’m having a hard time coming up with another interpretation of your second sentence.)

    • By the way, I at least see no reason why digitization and scholcomm can’t be separate discussions, and I don’t see why one would have to distract from the other.

    • Didn’t mean to imply that.
      What I think is:
      –Digitization, preservation & distribution of unique and rare materials does not per se distract us or cause us to sidestep the scholarly comm debate. I see them as orthogonal issues.
      –If I’m wrong above — i.e. if an inevitable effect of putting more resources towards special collections is to distract us from the scholarly communication debates — I would consider that an effect we would want to mitigate rather than celebrate.
      –I don’t mean to imply that putting resources into special collections — especially into digitizing and making accessible– is problematic in any way. Like Wayne, in and of itself it is a very good thing. I think we can and should do all — commodity documents, special collecting, participating in the scholarly communication debate and future.

  3. Pingback: » What’s love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections #lovegate Free Government Information (FGI)

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