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Books Are For Use
January 23, 2014 - 8:33pm

Scratch a librarian and you're likely to find some Ranganathan. The "five laws of library science" were first formulated by Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan in 1931, but even today many fledgling librarians can recite them by heart. They're short, and they're pretty sweet. They begin with the proposition that "books are for use." Ranganathan was emphasizing the use of books over their protection at a time when open stacks were a bit radical. Today, it's still a meaningful phrase. Books shouldn't be a ticket required for a steady job or a badge of scholarly distinction. They should be read. They should be used. 

I once argued that we had rather disastrously exchanged these principles for the rules of the marketplace and ended up with a very different set of laws. 

  • Not “books are for use,” but “information is for sale.” 
  • Not “every reader, his or her book” but “every customer, consumer choice.” 
  • Not “every book, its reader,” but “every product, market exposure.” 
  • Not “save the time of the reader,” but “improve the customer experience.” 
  • Not “the library is a growing organism,” but “the library must grow its market or die.”

Okay, maybe I was having a bad day, but market-based assumptions have so permeated our discipline they seem to be everywhere. I was grateful when Chris Bourg recently encouraged us to think resistance is not futile

Like Chris, I have argued that as we increased access to information (for a high price), we've become more parochial (these collections are for authorized users only!) and more global (with our collections owned by distant corporations, not by institutions of higher learning). We have privileged one format for information, the journal article, over another, the book, and that has put some fields at a disadvantage, particularly in the humanities.The flood of ebook collections entering the marketplace won't solve that problem. We'll simply dig our hole deeper as more of our funds go to short-term rental that satisfies immediate consumer needs but not future scholars. Those rents often come with vexing restrictions. It may not be possible to share an ebook with a student or scholar at another institution - or with the majority of our graduates who are likely to have public library cards but no academic affiliation.

This drives me nuts. Why do we put so much effort into helping students become critical readers of complex arguments and promote the value of scholarship, then assume it's okay if our graduates never have a chance to read another scholarly book unless they can afford to buy it? Do we really think our research is as useless as that? That scholarly arguments are crucial for students, but not citizens? Take a look at Books for Understanding. These are books for use. I just spot-checked a few of the recent general-interest titles on the "economic inequality" list in Worldcat. Some of these valuable books are owned by fewer than 200 libraries in the world. 

I've confessed my faith in books, and described the project that a group of liberal arts college libraries is undertaking. We want to see if it makes sense for us to found an open access press, putting some of our money where our open-access mouth is.We're not talking about an Andy Rooney "hey, let's put on a play!" amateur effort, but genuine attempt to promote good editorial work and open access with our financial support.  

We've surveyed faculty at many of our institutions to see what they think as both authors and readers of scholarship. Now we're widening our circle, hoping to hear from faculty at institutions of all kinds, particularly those in disciplines in which books matter.     

So, I have a favor to ask. If you're in one of those disciplines, could you spare fifteen minutes to take the survey? Could you pass the link on to colleagues? For your copy-pasting pleasure, the link is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XGKZG9R . The survey is open until January 31st.

Whether you're an open access supporter or a skeptic, we'd love to hear from you. I'll let you know how this turns out.  

 

 

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