A lot has changed since I first started working at the Little College on the Prairie. When I arrived, one of my first tasks was to explain to the community how to use the online catalog, which arrived a month or two before I did. Searching involved typing commands and search words into one of a handful of terminals that were surrounded by the card catalog that we weren’t quite ready to dispose of. A few years later, we were able to search for articles through those terminals with their beady yellow characters. The library filled with the chatter of dot matrix printers. We dabbled in CD-ROM-based databases until the Web became the standard means of delivery. It’s a long way from the days when the H. W. Wilson indexes and Psychological Abstracts filled the shelves near the reference desk.
Another way of marking time in the library is by dates when journals stopped arriving, leaving traces like rings in trees marking particularly hard winters. There was the Great Die-Off of 1998, followed by the 2002 Cull, followed by the Great Purge of 2009 . We weren’t canceling journals because we thought they were useless; we simply could no longer afford them. (The decrease in the number of books purchased is harder to see, but just as dramatic.) It’s hard to know what will get the ax next. Will we have to lose the SAGE or ACS packages that cost so much and rose so steeply in price this year? That would impose major hardships on several departments, though we never use huge amounts of what’s in those big deals. Paying per article is a solution many libraries are adopting successfully, but I feel uncomfortable when I pay $35 or $50 out of the library’s limited budget for an article that only one person can use, and it means you really have to know what you’re asking for; our main purpose is to support undergraduates, and they need to poke around a lot before they can be sure an article is likely to be useful. Paying per poke just won’t work. Will we stop buying books altogether? Or cancel major databases? There comes a time when “do more with less” no longer works , no matter how “service-oriented” or accommodating you are.
But I am cheered by a trend that I suspect will leave a ring behind in this hypothetical tree this year – a nice fat ring of growth and new opportunities. This year we seem to be seeing a significant shift in attitudes toward open access scholarly publishing. There was the Elsevier boycott , then the defeat of the Research Works Act . The World Bank decided  to make all of their work open access. The Wellcome Trust strengthened  their already strong policy. Europe has leapt ahead of us  with projects like OAPEN  and the Directory of Open Access Books  (modeled on the Directory of Open Access Journals ) and with public stands by the EU and the UK in support of open access  – not in a hypothetical someday, but very soon. An open access petition to the White House  also gained over 28,000 signatures, more than is needed for it to trigger official attention. Publishers are scrambling to announce new ways to ransom the freedom of your research; both SAGE and Taylor & Francis will let the public read research published in many of their journals, provided you pay $3,000 for the privilege. Though that is no more sustainable than the current cost of library subscriptions, it is an indication that publishers are feeling the ground shifting, too.
The big change is that open access is being embraced by scholars more broadly and deeply than even a year ago. We’re talking about new models for peer review, open data, and the right to query the literature through data-mining. We’re thinking differently, and it’s not because libraries are forced to make cuts. It’s because scholars are beginning to think it makes more sense than the traditional limits placed on published research. That will do more than anything else to make the tollgates fall.
There’s lots to do yet. Libraries need to redefine their work to support open access and resist unsustainable practices. Scholars will need to rethink where and how to submit their work, and tenure committees will have to recalibrate their yardsticks for evaluating the quality and impact of candidate’s scholarship. Our institutions will need to value the impact they make on the world more than the bragging rights for member-only access to scarce resources. Scholarly societies will have to adapt to a new insistence by their membership on sharing disciplinary knowledge widely rather than making it a member-only benefit and revenue source. How we’ll rework our patterns of work and of spending to do a better job of advancing knowledge remains to be seen.
But this year, at last, it seems possible. In fact, it’s beginning to feel inevitable.
photo courtesy of pcullen .