We all know the story of Procrustes: he was basically the Basil Fawlty of Greek mythology, a terrible hotel owner with a single iron bed. He would invite passersby to spend the night as his guests and would then either stretch them or cut them to fit the bed.
In academic libraries, the temptation to take a similar (if more gentle) approach to our patrons and their research needs is great. And, in fact, that strategy is to some degree defensible, because of our educational mission; it’s true that students don’t go to school for the purpose of maximizing their comfort. Being a good academic host doesn’t mean making life easy for our students—it means, in fact, stretching them. A danger for us as librarians, however, lies in failing to see the important difference between stretching their minds and merely stretching their patience.
In an earlier column I talked about this issue from the perspective of service, suggesting that perhaps we should make it as easy as possible for out patrons to gain access to the documents they need in order to do their work. What I suggested then was that students’ minds should be stretched by the documents they encounter and by the thinking their work requires, rather than by the interfaces that stand between them and those documents.
Here I’d like to suggest something similar about the library collection itself. Too often, it seems to me, we try to manipulate our patrons’ research behaviors to fit the Procrustean bed of the collections we have built for them. We tend to justify this attitude on the basis of an “eat your peas” argument: “We know the literature better than you do, so you need to trust us to know which resources will serve your needs best.” Sometimes we’re right about that. But not always and especially when the patrons are faculty members rather than students.
Sometimes this attitude is expressed more gently and in terms of marketing: we purchase an expensive database and subsequently find that usage of it is lower than expected. What would Procrustes do in that situation? He would force the patron to use the database more. We don’t have that kind of leverage over patron behavior, so instead of forcing, we cajole. Cajoling is certainly a much more socially acceptable strategy than forcing—but the two strategies lie on the same continuum. In both cases, they are examples of the library building a bed and then trying to change its patrons so they will fit the needs of the bed rather than adjusting to the patrons’ needs.
Here’s the problem for libraries, though: How can you build anything except a Procrustean collection? The collection has to exist before the patron can use it and that means choices have to be made ahead of time on the patron’s behalf.
Or do they? Given the new information ecology in which we now work—one no longer populated primarily by physical documents—to what degree does it remain necessary to build library collections on a just-in-case basis?
In my last column I talked about the potentially disruptive impact of print-on-demand for both publishers and libraries. Here I’m talking about the even more disruptive capacity of access-on-demand (or what we more commonly call patron-driven or demand-driven acquisition) for library collections. When you think about it, there’s not really any good reason to buy an ebook until it gets used. Patrons can be shown an ebook that has not yet been purchased, and the purchase can be triggered by actual use and can happen in a behind-the-scenes way that is completely invisible to the patron. We know this can be done with books, because PDA is a quickly growing phenomenon in academic libraries.
But here’s the interesting question: If PDA is possible for books, why not for journal and database articles? Subscribing to a journal is really a terribly wasteful way to give patrons access to journal articles: it means preemptively buying a large bundle of as-yet-unpublished articles, knowing full well that many of them will never be used. Subscribing to a journal entails buying 50 things in order to ensure that you’ll have access to the ten things you actually want.
What this reality suggests is that we need an article-based (rather than journal-title-based) system of access, one that eliminates or at least minimizes the wasteful practice of buying unwanted content. The problem is that a system like this would be hugely disruptive to the scholarly communication ecology. Academic publishers are kept in business by the sales volume that results when libraries have no choice but to buy unwanted content. That’s not a criticism of publishers; it’s not their fault. It’s just the way the scholarly communication system has to work when it’s built on the distribution of clunky, heavy, physical documents. In a system like that, you must have the documents ready and waiting for your patrons when they walk into the library; otherwise, they’ll be frustrated. In short, you need a collection. But scholarly communication is no longer built on the distribution of physical objects—and walking into the library may still be an important part of what students do, but it’s no longer how they generally get access to scholarship.
So what’s stopping us? At this point, one thing: pricing. It’s already possible to show patrons articles that haven’t been bought, and it’s possible to buy articles on demand rather than subscribe to journals at the title level. What’s not possible is paying for them, given that individual articles typically cost anywhere from $25 to $75. Furthermore, publishers have no incentive to lower their prices; doing so will only encourage libraries to drop subscriptions.
This quandary represents only one facet of a widespread issue in scholarly publishing and in higher education generally: the problem of surplus value. I’ll address that in my next column.