Nature has built in two important responses for human beings and other animals facing danger, which psychologists call the fight and the flight reflexes. How will you react when threatened? Will you fight back or run away? Depending on the nature of the threat, either choice might be sensible in a specific context.
This all came to mind during a conversation a couple of weeks ago with Chris Bourg, the associate university librarian for public services at Stanford. Chris was visiting Duke, which is her alma mater, to speak to the Seminar on the Research Library that we have been holding all year for the libraries’ staff. The substance of her talk, about the threat to libraries from neoliberal thinking in higher education, can be found on her blog, The Feral Librarian.
Chris’s talk was very interesting and challenging. Even more beneficial was the dialog that it sparked. I am not sure I entirely agree with her; I tend to think the threat from neoliberalism that she outlined, while real, is neither as pervasive in academia nor as monolithic as she described. But the part of the conversation I want to focus on is how librarians respond to a sense of crisis in our profession.
Crisis is an interesting word. We have been talking about a serials pricing crisis now for at least 30 years; how long can a crisis last? We also keep hearing, often from publishers, about the unsustainability of library business models, which is deeply ironic. But there is no doubt that funding is flat or on the decline for libraries, while publishers, with their own unsustainable business models, keep raising prices at a rate two or three times higher than the rate of growth for even those libraries whose collection budgets are growing. Cancellations happen every year, and monograph purchases (print and electronic) continue to decline. We also have to defend each staffing request against the question of why we need more librarians, or even as many as we used to have, now that “everything is on the Internet.”
So it is certainly true that many librarians feel a sense of crisis. Chris argued to the librarians at Duke that we are too often passive in the face of some of these threats, accepting the need to do more with less, or even less with less, while not questioning the assumptions that go into creating those threats in the first place. That is a form of the flight reflex.
But I want to suggest three ways in which librarians can, and already do, employ the other basic reflex, fighting back against the threats, or the crisis if you will, that trouble our profession. I want to suggest what may be obvious—that the best way to respond to threats that are rooted in disruptive changes is not to (just) cling to old practices but to look for newer, more democratic, and technologically enabled ways to continue to advance the fundamental mission we have always embraced.
First, we have the option of cancellations, which is a blunt instrument against the problems we face but can be effective. So far, cancellations have not seemed to get through to publishers—I was told by one publishing executive that his goal was to have his package be the last one we cancel, which is a very shortsighted approach—but cancellations are a teaching opportunity with our faculty and students. In recent months we have seen SUNY Potsdam cancel its subscriptions with the American Chemical Society and the University of Montreal cancel a “Big Deal” with Wiley. In both cases, the message that is most likely to get through is directed at faculty and administrators, who need to understand that the “crisis” in scholarly communications is not just a library issue; it is a struggle over the future of scholarship itself.
At the same time, the need to look each year at what can be cut should also prompt us to look at what should be supported. Projects as different as SCOAP3 and Knowledge Unlatched offer examples of better ways we can spend what money we have. And by better, I mean ways that provide improved access, which is a core value of librarianship.
Second, we need to advocate for better, more sustainable ways to disseminate scholarship. This is why we treat cancellations as teaching opportunities—so that our authors will understand the self-inflicted harm that occurs every time they sign a copyright transfer agreement without reading, questioning, and negotiating it. Rights in the hands of commercial publishers represent opportunities lost, and as opportunities to make scholarship more widely known and more impactful increase, these agreements look more and more like handcuffs.
Of course, funding agencies, especially governmental funding agencies, are also pushing researchers toward greater access. The language adopted in January as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which extends an open access policy to all research funded by agencies under the Health, Human Services, and Education umbrellas, is a huge step—the latest in a long line—toward free public access to the products of taxpayer-funded research. It is likely to look like one more compliance mandate to our researchers and authors, but it is also an opportunity for librarians to be the solution to a perceived “problem” on campus. That, too, is a way to fight back.
Finally, we need to articulate the value proposition for libraries more frequently and in greater detail. Here I return to the conversations we had with Chris Bourg. She complained about the tendency to evaluate library services only in terms of “efficiency,” but many of us balked at the apparent suggestion that we should advocate for inefficiency in our libraries. The solution is to define better the word efficiency. An activity is efficient, I suggest, if it produces the maximum amount of value for the least investment. So the real question is, what do we value? As I said above, broader access is a value; dollars spent on supporting open access materials are better spent—they get a higher return on investment from the point of view of the educational mission of academic libraries and their parent institutions—than the same money spent on toll-access subscriptions.
The key is to tie our services to the core values and strategic mission of our institutions. Often libraries are gadflies that prod our administrators back to that broad, mission-based vision of higher education that lured them into administration in the first place. Libraries are not inefficient cost centers that need to be reined in; they are the places where educational values get put into concrete practice. Of course we must be efficient, but that mandate includes the need to remind our institutions of all of the values that are caught up in that seemingly simple requirement.
These three strategies—using our collection dollars in new ways that improve access and return on investment, properly defined; advocating for better treatment of authors as rights holders and as scholars than they receive in the current system; and leading a conversation about what we really mean by efficiency in higher education—offer ways that librarians can fight back against a sense of crisis. We do not need to flee or lapse into quiescent acceptance; we have the means to overcome those crises and come out stronger than ever.