In late June, a minor brouhaha erupted when the library at the University of Arkansas suspended reporters from the Washington Free Beacon, an online newspaper, from using its special collections. The reason given by library administrators was that on multiple occasions the newspaper’s reporters had published content from those collections without asking permission, as library policy requires. Much has been made in the right-wing press about the politics supposedly surrounding this conflict. I want to focus on a different issue: the practice of making patrons request library permission before republishing content drawn from documents in our special collections.
Last year, Walt Crawford self-published a book entitled The Big Deal and the Damage Done (which I wrote about here). In it, he analyzed statistics for academic library budgets and showed that Big Deals for serials were gradually taking over many library budgets as serial expenditures rose significantly more than inflation and the inflexibility of the subscription packages led libraries to cut expenditures for books and other materials. This year, Crawford published a revised and expanded report on the topic as the May/June volume of the ALA Library Technology Reports: “Big-Deal Serial Purchasing: Tracking the Damage,” in which he analyzes the “Academic Library Data Files” from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
Looking back, the irony is so heavy-handed that it seems contrived. As my colleagues and I were preparing for our MOOC on Copyright for Educators and Librarians, which launched for the first time last week, the only resource that we wanted to use but could not successfully negotiate the permission for was Susan Bielstein’s book about negotiating permissions. It would have been great for us and, I am convinced, for the Press if we could have offered a single chapter of it for our over 8,000 MOOC participants to read. In the event, however, we rediscovered the fear and lack of sound business sense that grips the publishing industry, but also discovered the richness of the free resources that were available to us.
Last month I enjoyed the distinct privilege of keynoting the Conference for Law School Computing (also known as “CALIcon”), a gathering of legal educators, law librarians, and IT professionals in law put together by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). I can’t say enough in praise of the ever-present spirit of sly spirited fun at this conference.
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.
Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s takedown of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in The New Yorker has been getting a lot of attention. Twitter subsequently presented me with a fascinating analysis of how this theory has influenced higher education. Essentially, individual entrepreneurs are considered valuable because they find cheaper ways to reach new markets. We don’t want smart and knowledgeable workers, because they will frustratingly improve things incrementally rather throw everything out in the race to cut costs and get ahead of entrepreneurial smash-a-thons.
The business of university press monograph publishing has always been madness, and changing conditions have made it even less sensible than it was. Yet any suggestion that there should be fewer university presses or that they should refocus their missions is greeted with shouts of dismay that are usually reserved for heretics and anarchists. Maybe we should remember that oft-quoted definition of madness—doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
Summer lets me teach my favorite course, the run-down of what’s going on with several publishing industries and how libraries are riding the rapids. (It’s actually a course in environmental awareness and handling change, but such skills are much easier to teach given a concrete context in which to exercise them.) As I tore through syllabus and lecture revisions earlier this month to clear time for other necessary work, I found a few spare milliseconds to wonder whether the serials crisis, which hasn’t felt like an immediate all-hands-on-deck crisis in some time, might finally be heating up into one. Into many, really; the localized nature of serials pricing means that crises hit consortia and individual libraries at varying times, not all of academic librarianship at once.