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What Are Libraries, Anyway?
September 5, 2013 - 9:43pm

I’ve often thought one of the intriguing differences between university presses and university libraries is that one is generally accepted as an outward-facing organization and the other inward-facing. There have been arguments that presses once did and perhaps once again should focus on publishing work of the university’s faculty, but that’s considered a bit outlandish in most academics’ minds. Likewise, the idea of libraries engaging in projects that are intended for a broader audience are often considered an expendable frill that cannot come at the expense of providing information from outside to the local community.

This local focus has been on my mind since reading Rick Anderson's argument that libraries should no longer put their full weight behind access to and organization of “commodity” information – materials published elsewhere. These are available more readily to individuals than in the past. Libraries, he argues, should put resources toward making public materials that aren’t on the market – archival or rare materials that are unique to the institution.

I find some things about his argument persuasive. Libraries have consistently short-changed digital, archival, and publishing support projects. We are much quicker to pull things in from outside than we are to push out to the world the things we have that very few people know about.  Too many libraries have done lip service to these functions, checking them off on a list of Trendy Things We Do while starving them of support and setting them up for failure. (Dorothea Salo has recently described this process in a brilliantly scorching “modest proposal” essay.) I think Anderson is right that we got distracted by the shift of formats from print to digital and missed the shift from libraries as the ultimate curators and organizers to bigger and bettter discovery  platforms outside the library.

Think about it: Not too long ago, finding an out of print book or getting access to articles had been published in an obscure journal was beyond most people’s capability. The time and cost involved was prohibitive. Library catalogs and indexes were the pinnacle of organization. Libraries have since become inefficient local operations that can’t begin to offer platforms as sophisticated and responsive as Amazon and Google. The fact that we don’t mine your data or sell ads or raise funds with an IPO puts a crimp in our capabilities.

We’re built and funded locally, but we’re beginning to look a lot alike. Too many libraries have passively accepted the role of purchasing agent for faculty who see the library’s role as simply fetching and paying for whatever they need, a depressing trend the Ithaka faculty surveys have documented. We’ve all scoured our budgets for things not too many people will notice are gone in order to pay the rent on journal packages that every library tries to have. Anything from a small publisher, representing a minority interest, or not in demand from the loudest voices is at risk if it hasn’t already disappeared.  

But I also think it would be foolish for libraries to wash their hands of their community’s desire to gain access to knowledge from outside by saying “That stuff that rolls off the production line? The market provides it so much better than we can. It’s silly for us to even try to even pretend we can compete. And forget about changing publishing. Libraries have no control over scholarly communication – unless we’re providing access to something that we own exclusively and which nobody else wants to bring to the market.” Anderson argues this shift in focus from commodity goods will allow us to avoid getting involved in the open access movement, which is complicating publishing, or with OA mandates that tie the hands of faculty who should be allowed to publish wherever they want. (For me, that's where his argument went right off the rails.)

At the Free Government Information blog, James R. Jacobs offers a pointed rebutta.  In brief, he disagrees that market efficiency will take care of researchers’ needs. Not everyone can purchase access to what they need to consult, and contacting authors for copies won’t work in the long run or on a massive scale. Technological determinism, Jacobs argues, encourages library leaders to abandon important work libraries do on behalf of the public. Providing access to obscure and precious things that people may not want because we can’t be as good as Google or Amazon at providing information strikes him as something that will disappoint those who do rely on libraries. Like me, he has no sympathy at all for the argument that libraries should stay out of the open access debate and let publishers and scholars work it out on their own.  

While I think Jacobs overstates Anderson’s argument and perhaps underestimates libraries’ vulnerability in an era when we are shut out of owning the vast majority of the scholarly "intellectual property" we make available, I am largely persuaded by his objections. I see the value of making locally held unique material more shareable. I see the need to be for our communities a bridge to the wider world of information. I think our participation in the open access movement is necessary and valuable. It’s not easy to do all of these things well, and balancing these commitments to the past and the future, to our local community and to the wider world of scholarship is mind-achingly hard.

But it’s what we have to do. Libraries are not marketplaces of ideas or masters of the Long Tail. They are public gathering places where conversations happen, where competing claims are negotiated, where new ideas can be created and shared. We no longer have an edge on size or efficiency or the best discovery tools, but our very existence as a common resource and an enduring social institution is unique and valuable. We somehow have to hang onto the core of what we've always been as we find new ways to carry out  the work that will have enduring value. 

 

 

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