Let’s have a little argument with Rick Anderson. His recent article from Ithaka S+R makes a lot of good points. The primary thesis is that libraries should concentrate on building up their special collections (non-commodity collections, he calls them) because that is what makes each library unique and building these collections will also result in the preservation of the widest possible selection of our intellectual record. I don’t argue with that. No sense in libraries all developing the same collection of commercially published products.
The backstory of Anderson’s thesis, however, (the backstory of all Rick’s articles) is that we live in an information-rich environment (check) and that (commodity) library collections are of declining value because so much of the information they might contain is more cheaply and readily available elsewhere. BONK!
Today’s more efficient online marketplace features much lower prices and much lower barriers to personal collection-building, a pervasive full-text searching capability that makes traditional cataloging less obviously necessary, and widely distributed storage and access points that undermine traditional approaches to preservation and curation. (p. 3)
Some elements of that are partly true. There is a tremendous growth in full-text searching capabilities (“pervasive,” I don’t know), the Internet generally offers many storage and access possibilities that did not exist before, and the cost of some things is lowered by the 1000-pound-gorilla-ness of Amazon e-book pricing. But here’s my point: only a fraction of the scholarly communication record is affected by these factors.
Anderson suggests (p. 2) that because it is more possible (technologically) for scholars to share articles with one another, the need for such materials to be held and distributed by libraries is diminished. Clearly, it is faster and easier for scholars to share articles with one another today than it was 40 years ago, but there is no evidence I have seen in the literature that says this amounts to a majority of uses of scholarly articles or that this kind of sharing is responsible for a decline in library access. In fact, presumably scholars could by-pass use of the library copy in only three situations: for articles they wrote themselves (easily shared with others), for articles from journals for which they hold a personal subscription (easily accomplished but of dubious copyright and ethical status), or for articles that are freely available in an open repository (the sense of sharing in that case is not quite an accurate representation). It is implausible, in the first instance, that EVERY use of a scholarly article would be mediated by the author of the article. If that were true, the need for scholarly journals would cease to exist altogether. In truth, a great deal of sharing within the scholar community is accomplished, I would suggest, from downloading PDF files from library holdings. Obviously, the open access movement plays a significant role in the enhanced sharing of publications outside the commodity environment, but does anyone believe this is now the primary way scholars share information? The continued promotion/tenure scramble to be published in “top-tier” journals suggests otherwise.
The idea of lower cost and lower barriers to personal collection-building being the drivers of diminished library use (or at least relevance) certainly warrants study, but I don’t think it has been demonstrated and I doubt it would hold up under careful analysis. Do scholars today personally buy a greater percentage of the resources they use compared with scholars of the past? Perhaps marginally. Are scholars acting as intelligent consumers in the scholarly communication marketplace, finding the lowest price in all instances? Doubtful. At any rate, if they were behaving in that way, a free library copy would always be the best option. Interlibrary loan anyone?
The cost of almost all scholarly publications have, in fact, continued to go up relentlessly. Journal subscription prices outstrip the CPI every year. Even purchase-by-the-article services tend to run in the $25 to $50 range per article. Scholarly monographs are rarely cheaper than $50 per title. The existence of efficient distribution channels and digital options have not changed that very much. As an example, here are a couple of items my acquisitions team has dealt with recently:
- Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard University Press, 2013. We paid $33.24 through our regular academic book vendor. The hardcover edition is listed on Amazon at $35.67. There are 11 used copies listed there as well. None is cheaper than $34.50. There is a Kindle edition available at $31.16. No great savings in any case. What may make the Kindle version appealing is the instantaneous access rather than the price, but Kindle would not serve every user need.
- Guidelines for Chemical Process Quantitative Risk Analysis. American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2000. Again our vendor is selling it for $254. Amazon lists it at $190. Used copies are more expensive than that. It doesn’t exist in the commercial, individual-user e-book market. Knovel offers it through a subject package and several other library platforms have it at $254 or more. This is content that some of our users really want, but they are unwilling to pay $200 for it themselves.
- Plessy v. Ferguson (Landmarks of the American Mosaic). Greenwood Publishing, 2012. $58 from our vendor, $37 from Amazon, $35 for a Kindle edition, $32 for a used copy. Some savings over our commodity-priced version, but not much. This is the kind of semi-academic title that might serve student needs very well, but they wouldn’t want to pay $30 for the right to quote a few lines. (Although that IS a use some students might find for the Google Books edition, provided that the appropriate snippet could be found in the limited-preview.) Faculty might be interested in using the book as a teaching text, but it probably wouldn’t serve their research interests. Few would pay for it themselves. Thus, the savings through Amazon is still not that appealing.
Let’s face it, the nature of library collections and collection use is changing due to an expanded digital infrastructure, but scholars and students continue to rely for the most part on the same kinds of resources: scholarly journal articles, scholarly monographs, and reference resources. The fact that these are available digitally and in a piecemeal fashion does not change their overall cost or make them more collectible by individuals. Their pricing, I suspect, still puts them beyond the reach of most users. But I’d be willing to be proven wrong. The mere existence of Amazon and e-book readers or Google and its Books and Scholar platforms does not necessarily demonstrate that these are the causes of declining library use or expanded information-consuming power for users. I’m not sure correlation is evident, let along causation. I think we need a lot more ethnographic studies of user behavior and its subsequent impact on scholarly publishing before we can make those kinds of assertions. But I’m totally on board with asserting that we should expend more effort and money on developing locally relevant special collections. Go for it.
Someone should write this history of librarianship: the longstanding tension between “give them what they want” and “teach them what to want.” Both have been with us almost from the very moment of birth of professional librarianship. Both have elements of nobility. Both have elements of condescension.
“Give them what they want” grants agency and, hey, even intelligence to library users. “Teach them what to want” is aspirational. We all can learn something new and keep on learning throughout our lives. Let’s look away for now from the nasty verso that each bears about the worthiness of library users–that what they want is of dubious quality–one says, “so what,” the other says, “this must be remedied.”
“Teach them what to want” had the upper hand in this fight for a long while, but “give them what they want” has made some serious inroads lately. Ah, but maybe it’s all a false dichotomy. Maybe we really can do both, even though it seems like they are diametrically opposed. Maybe we can add anything to the collection that someone wants but continue to teach skills about finding something better. No conflict there, eh?
The 2012 Ithaka Faculty Survey of information behaviors hit the street this week. I’m not sure there are any great surprises in the report. The progression towards use of electronic materials continues at about the same pace. The disciplinary differences between humanities, social sciences, and sciences seem about the same as previous years. They are all shifting in their behaviors in the same direction.
What is fairly constant as well, is that most faculty continue to think that the most important activity of the library is to acquire or provide access to scholarly material. “The library pays for resources I need…” is uniformly the highest response in several questions about the role of the library. (See pages 63-76.) Of course, anyone who has looked at Libqual data will know this as well.
Contrast this with responses from library directors, especially regarding the development of library support services for scholars, and you begin to see a disconnect between scholar desires (or knowledge of library services, at least). On some issues there is almost a 40% difference in response rate between faculty and library directors. “The library supports and facilitates my teaching activities,” for example, or, “The library provides active support that helps to increase the productivity of my research and scholarship,” are both questions to show a wide gap between faculty and library directors.
Library collections continue to be very important for scholars. We need to continue thinking about the best ways to serve those scholarly information needs.
All collection development librarians have found themselves facing the acceptance of materials into the collection that they know will be under-utilized and we’ve also all been in the position of having to turn down material gifts. Donated gift materials are such a fine line for all of us. We want to make sure we do not pass on something that could be a significant addition to our collections but at the same time we’re trying desperately to not be saddled with materials that will have little to no use and end up in storage or potentially being weeded within a decade. Apply the three “w” rule to gift acceptance to give yourself the wriggle room for making your library material gift acceptance or denial.
First off and probably most importantly, WHO wants to make the donation/receive the donation? If the person making the donation is a well known public official either within your organization or within your local environment, accept the gift materials graciously. Even when you have twenty other copies lurking in various places within your library, accept these materials. Annotate the notes on the records for the copies currently available or replace current copies available with the donated titles and make it clear these material were provided by distinguished person X. It is not unheard of for a long time distinguished donor of library materials to follow up with a monetary donation and or bequeath to your library. At academic institutions this situation can be applied to prominent and distinguished faculty and administrators. There is also a corollary to this type of library material gift acceptance. If a prominent and distinguished faculty, administrator, or public official wants your library to accept a particular material gift, then accept it. Acceptance does not have to mean retaining in the collection. You can still make your local decisions regarding the condition of the material received and/or number of copies held locally or within your consortium. For the material that shows up unannounced and unsolicited, feel free to reject readily. You are under no obligation to add library material just because someone has taken the time to send it in your direction.
Secondly, consider WHAT is being donated as potential library material. Sometimes that quirky phone call you receive from the timid voice on the other end of the phone line is worth following up on and investigating. If possible, ask all cold call donors to provide you with a list of material they are considering donating. People with material worth personal interest will take the time to do this and you can avoid accepting the gift at this point if a list is not provided. People not willing to make lists have already boxed up the material and have made a mental break with it and just want to move it out of their space now. Seven out of ten times, the person will make you a basic list, author title of what they want to donate in part because they feel a connection to these resources and want them to go to a good home. The list gives you the ability to either spot check and/or go through the entire collection in a remote way to see how much you would want to accept. If the person calling with the library material donation sounds particularly frail but the person has an interesting story to tell of their collection or due to a connection to a particular department or professor, offer to go to them to review the material being offered. Yes, this takes some time but this is where the treasure is found and how special collections get built. Again, the unsolicited library material donations that show up at your desk for the most part are not things you will want to add. However, every now and again, there are things of interest that appear this way so always open up these packages to give a cursory review.
Lastly, consider WHERE the library material gift is located. Is it a departmental library that is being abandoned on your campus or within your local government? If so, taking a cursory look at what is there is not difficult or too terribly time consuming. A good rule of thumb is the fifty mile radius. Is this material gift located within fifty miles of your library; usually, then it is not a problem for retrieval or acceptance. For gifts residing more than fifty miles away, the decisions regarding WHO and WHAT may over-ride the location or need to pay for shipping. In which case, you work out how best to delivery the material to your processing units. Most call-in donors are willing to delivery their collections to you and it is always best to state upfront that you do not have a policy for picking up gift material early in your conversation.
One last caveat, it is also good to relate to any given donor that since their library material donation was unexpected and potentially of a large size, that the material will not be processed or added to the collection immediately upon acceptance. This allows you any extra time to review duplicate copies for retention, determine the best location for the material, and work into processing queues or quotas in a thoughtful and strategic way.
There has been quite a bit of library news over the past five years about libraries stopping the acceptance of library material donations but we all know that it is impossible to not accept some library material donations. In all honestly, the best any library can do is to minimize the amount of effort that goes into accepting library material donations. By applying the three “w’s” of ready evaluation to each donation call, you can speed up both the decision making process and material donation process.
There is a dysfunctional and codependent relationship going on in libraryland. (No! Not ebooks!) I’m looking at you, print books! We’ve shacked up with print books for so long, everybody thinks it’s a common law marriage. And still we won’t admit that this is a “books who hate librarians and the librarians who love them” relationship. Denial.
Let’s look at this crazy relationship:
First of all, our lover turns out to be a hoarder. A&E show got nothing on this loony. Did you ever think maybe there are enough books? How about throwing something way? It’s bad enough that the collection grows like a cancer with what you’ve forced us to buy, but then you get your lunatic relatives to call us up as well: “I’ve got a garage full of textbooks on accounting from the 1950s and 60s. I’d like the library to have them.” Uh uh, Jack. Then, the whole family is trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody who suggests that something has to go. OMG! What about the cultural record!
Secondly, what we do have won’t stand up to a good reading. Oh, sure, try to preserve this stuff that starts falling apart after 3 uses. I think HarperCollins was being generous with 26! No chance replacing it because the stupid thing has gone out of print. OUT OF PRINT! What the hell is that? You end up borrowing another copy and tipping in a bunch of tacky looking photocopied pages. Hey book! Why don’t you just send all your pages in a box?
Then there’s the lack of standard format. Try organizing a library with all the wildly different sizes that Mr. Print Book comes in. Sometimes we end up with the “over there in the BIG area for no good reason” collection. Don’t even talk to me about those 6-foot tall book nutcases. Sometimes we just say, “screw it!” and cram stuff on the shelf any which way…fore edge down–ripping the cover right off at the spine. Whatever. Who cares? We have not even addressed the question of language. It’s like everybody has a different word for EVERYTHING! How are we supposed to be able to read all this stuff? Some books are even right to left. Back to front.
Here’s a good one. You’ve spent $700 on book and then he says, 9 months later, “there’s a new edition. Everything in the old edition is out of date.” Here’s the thing though. You checked. There are a total of 11 word changes and 7 punctuation changes. RIIIIGHT. New edition. $900 this time. This has a variation too: something that looks like a new book altogether, different title, different ISBN, different author even…turns out to be EXACTLY like a book you already have. Word for word.
But with all these crazy rantings, don’t even dare bring up separation. He starts screaming and wailing. “No, baby. Please. Don’t leave me! I’ll be better. I promise.” But it’s just the same old story over and over again. Whole bloody family ought to go in for therapy. That’s all I’m saying. Or maybe it’s time to think about saving yourself. Get out of this relationship altogether. He’s never going to change.
[Oh lord! Have I become like THAT library columnist?]
There is a remarkable artistic meme happening all over the world in recent years which involves using books as the material for constructing works of art. This technique is probably not new at all, but its occurrence has definitely exploded in recent years. So much so, that I’ve started maintaining a Pinterest board that I call “Books that aren’t books.” These works run the gamut from minute and intimate sculptures carved from the pages of books to massive and menacing art installations.
In the later category, Spanish artist Alicia Martin excels. Some of her huge installations involve thousands of books wired to mesh infrastructures inhabiting various urban spaces, some giving the sense of the books spewing (being vomited almost or worse) from buildings.
Others have a smaller but no less menacing aspect, like so many books reproducing uncontrollably behind walls to the point of over-population, putting one in mind of Star Trek tribbles.
On a smaller but more mysterious scale, in the past year in Edinburgh, Scotland, an anonymous artist began to secretly leave tiny, book-scarved sculptures in various libraries of the city. Each was accompanied by a card with words of praise for libraries and readers: “A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…” The identity of the artist was never revealed.
Other notable artists of both the carved book and installation form include:
Even libraries are getting in on the act, creating Christmas trees out of volumes of the National Union Catalog, and reference desks from stacked books. At my own university, an art student constructed an installation right outside our art library of books he got from the public library – skewered on metal cables.
The artworks themselves are beautiful and intriguing, but I am more fascinated by the sociology of the phenomenon. What does it all mean? Why is it happening now? Two things I think it suggests. One is a perceived and an actual surplus of books. None of these works could be created without access to large numbers of otherwise unwanted books. The one case I know of, the books came from a library surplus that was headed for the recycling bin. I’m sure many of the other artists got their materials from libraries or book dealers. Public libraries weed their collections regularly to maintain a current and circulating stock. Many large academic libraries, which have heretofore maintained collections seemingly in perpetuity, have begun to draw down their print collections to rely on shared print repositories or digital surrogates.
A second explanation, I think, is that people feel guilty about that surplus. Why are we throwing away books? Aren’t books a sacred commodity? Faced with that sense of guilt, those with an artistic inclination want to make something else useful out of these objects, if they aren’t going to function as books any longer. Sometimes, it’s as though the art is commenting on that duel relationship of surplus and guilt. Books carved into coffins! Books pinned onto cables. Books ejected through a window! These are interesting times we live in. The time of the Internet. The time of the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. Is there still a place for the physical book? We don’t know. And some of us are a little disturbed by the uncertainty.
Information is a dreadful word – stuck somewhere between the cold mathematics of Shannon and Weaver and the commercial commodification of even worse words like “content” and “product.” But how else do we describe the “content” of a library? “Knowledge” and “data” have special sorts of meaning that don’t always apply to what a library provides. Information is what libraries do. Without information, there isn’t a library.
That is going to strike many in the library profession as an old fashioned, even reactionary view. In recent years, we’ve come to think of libraries and librarianship as a suite of services and activities that cannot be reduced to a dictionary definition about a collection of materials or the location in which the collection is housed. We put up quite a hullabaloo when OCLC published Perceptions of Libraries in 2010, which suggested that when people thought about libraries they thought, “books.” ARRRRRRRGH would generally describe the librarian response in the blogosphere. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the sum of all information in a collection. We’re more than that!
I think there are several explanations for the development of this reaction against “the library as collection.” First, of course, is that the library is largely virtual. It doesn’t exist in a place the way it once did. The fact that the information of a library exists less and less in a physical container suggests that the actions required to access and use information are more important now than the physical embodiment of the information. Then, since information is disembodied, as it were, it is everywhere. People don’t have to come to libraries to get information. It is floating in the air. They can find it on their phone. Our declining circulation numbers attest to this and at the same time give us a sense of doom about continuing to pin our star to “the library as information.”
Of course, libraries have always been a combination of things and actions. We acquire books. We organize and describe materials. We help people find information. We teach people to navigate a sea of data. Sometimes a single person provides all those services. Sometimes there is a division of labor. Sometimes there is conflict and disagreement between one division and another. Each group thinks of itself as the “heart” of the library enterprise.
There seems to be a growing belief that the actions of libraries are more important than the things. A library isn’t information–it is the ability to find information. It is a place that will teach you how to find information. It is a service that enables the provision of information. Maybe it is even a place where people gather to create information. Yes, all of those are true. I embrace all of those visions of a library. But here’s the thing: information is the object of all those actions. They are sentences that are incomplete without “information.” Even in a world where we don’t own or physically hold the information, where all of our actions are directed away from a local collection, information is still the reason we exist. If a library isn’t information or the means to access information, then all of our actions could as easily be ascribed to or performed by schools, businesses, consultants, or other entities. We don’t need libraries in that case.
Because libraries are a constellation of actions that point towards information, we need to continue thinking of information as central to our mission. Otherwise, we are doing something other than librarianship.
Here is an interesting workshop for those in K-12 being offered by ALA Techsource:
“Choosing an E-Book Platform that Works for Your K12 Library”
being lead by Buffy J. Hamilton