A couple of advertisements in the most recent issue of Library Journal jumped out at me. One was an ad for library furniture with the tagline: “Want to look more like a bookstore?” Uh, do you mean like that big empty hole where Borders used to be? Like that Barnes & Noble where you have to fight past the gadgets and desperate salesfolk to make your way to a diminished selection of books? Or are you talking about the secondhand bookstore that has paperbacks jammed everywhere and smells like old ashtrays? Or the excellent independent that has to spread their stock out because they can’t afford the inventory they once carried and don’t want their shelves to look empty? No, not especially.
The ad goes on to say “add some retail excitement!” I realize public libraries have adopted some of the principles of retail marketing in recent years, and bully for them, though I’m pretty sure “have interesting displays” and “make your library look welcoming” occurred to many librarians independent of booksellers. Maybe it’s because I put shopping right below “go to the dentist” on my list of favorite things to do, but it never occurs to me when I visit a pleasant and enticing library, “wow, it’s almost as good as going to the mall.” I never cared much for the argument that we should run public institutions like cutthroat retail chains, but during a recession it seems particularly past its sell-by date.
Retail excitement we could live without
The other ad that grabbed my attention was a hefty insert from Random House, telling me about all their great new books coming out this summer, “hand selected for librarians,” along with staff picks. No doubt the timing was accidental, but it was a little weird to see the ad on virtually the same day that the company tripled its ebook prices.
I keep wanting to say to my colleagues in public libraries: don’t make the mistakes we made with scholarly journals. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling you have to satisfy the loudest and most demanding members of your community—or listen to the librarians who tell you that if you don’t rush to buy the shiny new things, you are doomed to irrelevance.
Above all, talk to your community about what it will cost and what you will all lose before you make decisions on their behalf. We academic librarians didn’t do that very well. We got tricked into big deals and bad licenses. Think about what Bobbi Newman has to say, or consider some of the alternatives Andy Woodworth offers. Take this chance to get it right before it’s too late.
Our academic spring
We’ve been through tough times, but there are changes afoot. A little less than a year ago, I went to a workshop on library publishing services and ended up discouraged. I was looking forward to seeing how larger institutions with more resources were making change. What I saw were librarians doing heroic work trying to support publishing alternatives, but mostly on the fringes, mostly creating small niche projects that were no real threat to the giant corporations that gobble our budgets and meter access to research that could do so much good if it were more widely available. I wondered if we would ever see change.
At the time, I concluded our future was in building “small and nimble coalitions among libraries with scholars who do get it, who care as much about their research being read as they care about being published, who welcome new media and the ways the Internet can be a platform for open communication.”
What’s heartening is that I see this happening all around me. It’s not just the indignation aroused by the now-defunct Research Works Act. It’s not just signing boycotts – though these things are important and a measure of widespread discontent. What’s cheering me are the many very real solutions that people have devised in the face of skepticism, including a handful I just harvested from my RSS feeds:
- Stuart Shieber describes exactly how an excellent open access journal can be published at a fraction of the cost a toll access publisher incurs.
- Jason Baird Jackson describes how a partnership between a library and a scholarly society has led to a far less expensive way to provide a publishing platform for scholars – and access to the scholarly record by anyone in the world.
- The Directory of Open Access Books has just been launched by the good people at OAPEN.
Every week I learn about some new publishing platform that’s free and easy to use. Every week, I run into young scholars who are eager to change the system. Even The Economist warns publishers that things are changing, that they aren’t too big to fail, that the Elsevier boycott is one sign of an “Academic spring” that could change everything.
Another world is possible
The Big Six publishers might continue to insist that ebooks loaned to one patron at a time are somehow much more threatening to their market than the print books we’ve loaned under exactly the same conditions for generations; that libraries are damaging their business while ignoring clear evidence that their contribution to the development of the book market is substantial and irreplaceable. The giant journal publisher may repeat the claims they have made before, that nobody who needs research has trouble getting access to it, that the current situation works just swell, and that open access mandates give research findings to foreigners who are out to harm US businesses. (This last one really angers me in its total lack of logic and its brazen appeal to xenophobia.)
Why should we entrust knowledge and culture to corporations that treat logic and evidence with such contempt? Why should we support a system in which knowledge, as Jason Baird Jackson has recently pointed out, is available to only 1 percent – when there are alternatives readily available?
Another world is possible, and it’s closer every day.