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Relationship Status: It's Complicated
May 5, 2011 - 9:30pm

I am feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.

I just sent off a list of talking points for a board meeting of our friends group, which works hard to support the library and would like to hear some cheering news about what that support means. Because I'm out of town, a colleague will be talking to our friends, and I just remembered--whoops--I had promised to give her some ideas.That's really not hard, because the friends group supports a lot of neat things.

Their support--financial and moral--means that we can build a collection that supports our students as they learn how to participate in the great ongoing conversation about life, the universe and everything. A lot of these students will be presenting their work on Friday evening at an annual Celebration of Creative Inquiry, which is always an event that makes me feel energized and excited along with the students who are demonstrating just how varied their interests are and how much they can accomplish. It means we can provide access to knowledge for scholars who come to teach at the Little College on the Prairie and who have every intention of continuing their lives as active scholars. And they do, and when I run into them in the hall and hear about it, I know it matters. It means that the library retains its importance as the common ground of the college and that we are able to work with faculty to help introduce students to the habits and discipline of inquiry.This is deeply satisfying stuff, and it gives me the sense that what we do is worth it.

But I'm having trouble matching that up with the complex web of issues and intractable problems surrounding the things we scholars do to produce and share knowledge. I'm attending a workshop on Library Publishing Services: Strategies for Success and while I've heard some fascinating talks and have taken pages and pages of notes, I'm left feeling more confused and less hopeful than ever.The relationship between libraries and publishing . . . it's complicated.

Libraries have a lot to bring to the table. We have technical skills, we know metadata, we can digitize and preserve and disseminate. And unlike university presses, we have money. But right now it seems to me that's the frikkin' problem.

We are the ATM people go to when they need information. Type in your PIN and grab the articles you need. Sure, we have to cancel journals now and then, but still we plug along, providing what people ask for. We are going to have trouble changing the system--the one where scholars create knowledge, give it to publishers, then expect us to buy it back--because there's so much money tied up in it. Scholars need to publish to keep their jobs, and the inflation rate for prestige is running awfully high. Scholarly societies can make a lot of money off publications, and even the tiny ones find it hard to imagine giving away the content of their publications for free, even if it it only brings in a trickle of revenue. Why share knowledge when selling it can pay a few bills?

Libraries are supposed to fund all this and be the ones who share knowledge, but we're up against some incredibly resourceful and powerful commercial publishers as well as some non-profit societies that make bundles of money off their publications. Libraries want to make knowledge accessible to all and right now we do it for a limited local audience by negotiating licenses with vendors and trying to trim expenses to cover the rising costs of what remains. We also share among libraries, but only within the terms of license agreements. I think it makes sense for libraries to reallocate our funding toward open access ventures--why not invest up front in setting knowledge free instead of each library spending fortunes annually renting it?--but we're up against entrenched faculty practices and publishers that are savvy and profitable.(No, I'm not talking about most university presses. They're savvy and scrabbling to break even.)

So now I'm at the place where I suppose a lot of our students are when they're stuck in a project, have looked at the research out there and suddenly think "dang, this is way more complicated than I thought." I mean--I knew it was complicated, but I'm going to have to clear my head before I can find that thread of hope to hang onto again. Maybe the next day of the workshop will cheer me up. Sustainability and collaboration are on the agenda. I could do with "miracles" but this will have to do.

That and a gem of a statement one presenter made that keeps coming back to me: "what's your attitude toward revolution?" At the moment, I'm in favor. But wake me up when it's over.

Meanwhile, I need to clear my head. A walk might do the trick. In fact, I think I'll go visit the university library just down the street. That should cheer me up.


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