In response to my column a few months ago on ebooks and the demise of ILL, I received a depressing email from an independent scholar noting the numerous obstacles he faces because of the increasing restrictions on access to ejournals and now ebooks. He wrote that he lives near a major public university in the southeast and has been using the university library for years. Despite being publicly funded (at least as much as any state university is publicly funded these days), the library has restricted access to all the databases only to university affiliates with IDs, which means most of the journals are inaccessible to guests. And with the increasing licensing of ebooks, more and more books are inaccessible as well.
I’ve written before about what I called the two cultures that sometimes clash, the commercial culture of a lot of scientific publishing and the gift culture of academia. In addition to clashes of culture, there are clashes of values. Thanks to the recent brouhaha surrounding the Taylor & Francis journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, another clash of values has emerged, that of academics editing a journal to encourage debate and that of commercial publishers trying to stifle debate about their methods.
This is sort of an open letter to some librarians I’ve encountered in the last year or so. The encounters left me puzzled as to what the librarians thought they were accomplishing. There are a lot of passionate, indeed even angry, librarians out there, and I would like to offer some advice on how to persuade other people rather than alienate them.
Today I want to talk about one of the greatest services academic libraries offer to scholars, one that is absolutely essential for any sort of advanced scholarship, and one that is facing the biggest obstacle of its 140-or-so-year-old existence. I’m talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) and the threat it faces from ebooks.
My last column critiqued a science/religion analogy regarding debates about the future of libraries and scholarly publishing. It seems to be the season for science and religion analogies when discussing scholarly publishing, because this post at Scholarly Kitchen also uses the analogy, sort of. The post argues, rightly in my opinion, that extremists make discussion and cooperation impossible.
In a column called Peer to Peer Review, it’s appropriate to review our peers once in a while, so I’d like to discuss last week’s column by Rick Anderson on “science and religion in the library.” He’s not talking about the Qs and the Bs. In the column, Anderson writes: “For my purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘science’ those aspects of library work that deal with figuring out and describing things as they are, and as ‘religion’ those that deal with figuring out how things should be and why they should be that way.” My question is, why would he want to make such a distinction?
In my last column, I discussed research on cognitive bias and the human mind, and speculated that what librarians call information literacy is a deeply unnatural state. The human mind hasn’t evolved to analyze carefully or think critically without a great deal of effort, and even then, the effort is often misplaced. That’s of course one reason we educate people, and higher education particularly values traits like intellectual curiosity and critical thought that often help us overcome our natural intellectual inclinations. But education is not necessarily a salvation.
Librarians tend to view information literacy in light of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. Information literacy is a set of competencies, a set of things we should be able to do. However, one of the many problems with becoming information literate in any robust sense is that it’s completely unnatural. The entire enterprise goes against the way the human mind tends to gather and use information. Human beings are animals perhaps capable of information literacy, but apparently designed to work in other ways.
Driven by the demands for assessment and presumably the need for statistics to prove our worth, there’s a tendency to link the importance and appreciation of the library to individual interactions with librarians. Students come to reference desks, chat us up, meet in our offices, each one counted, each one destined to be a tick mark in a spreadsheet somewhere proving how useful we are. That might be why librarians occasionally bemoan lower transaction statistics or the lack of students lined up at the reference desk. Fewer reference questions could mean the students need us less. For a lot of assessment, if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.
Librarians always seem to believe they’re living through revolutionary times, and perhaps they are. The world of libraries, like the world in general, is constantly in flux. But let us assume revolutionary change has been the norm in libraries for the last few decades. It’s actually pretty easy to point to historical moments of significant change, analyze their motives, and see how things turned out. We have at least two technological revolutions in libraries that are now distant enough for us to gain some historical perspective.