April 19, 2018

The Shock of the Old | Peer to Peer Review

When librarians talk about the future of libraries, they tend not to think very far into the future. In fact, they often aren’t talking about the future at all; they’re talking about whatever faddish new technology is getting a lot of attention, urging their fellow libraries to hurry up and get on the bandwagon. (Remember how we all were supposed to build libraries in Second Life? That was the future, until we finally voted ourselves off our deserted islands.)

The Education Advisory Board recently made public a document titled Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Library Services [PDF]. It was actually published a while ago, but was only available to members of their Academic Leadership Council. Last month, the authors set it free, and it’s been whirring all over the Internet ever since. (Full disclosure: I was one of the many librarians the authors talked to as they conducted their research. They were very patient as they listened to me blather.) It’s a handy and substantial rundown of the things libraries are working on in response to challenges and opportunities. Quite a few of the things on the list are not done yet, but they’re in the works.

Present tense, not future
What is described in Redefining the Academic Library may not sound too startling. We knew years ago that we couldn’t possibly build libraries big enough to house all the stuff our users want access to right now. A decade or more ago we were chanting “access, not ownership” to reassure ourselves as we shifted our spending from print purchases to digital subscriptions. In the last two years, the digital shift seems to have kicked into high gear, not because libraries are changing, but because publishers—particularly book publishers who are excited about new sales channels and their ability to nuke first sale rights—have finally come on board.

The authors lay out six trends:

  • “My collection is bigger than yours” no longer works when you’re trying to brag.
  • Counting things doesn’t tell the library’s story. ACRL college library standards were rewritten to help us tell it differently. That was more than a decade ago.
  • Journal costs are insane and unsustainable. I first heard that in 1980 when I was working my way through library school and the university had to cancel heaps of subscriptions.
  • The library isn’t fastest anymore. We’re a heck of a lot faster than we used to be, but in the last few years it has become much, much easier to buy academic texts than it ever was before, and that makes libraries look slow in comparison.
  • People don’t use the reference desk as much, and the catalog isn’t where people start their research. Yeah, Google happened. So did JSTOR. If this is news to anyone, their name must be Van Winkle.
  • All of this means we have to rethink both budgets and how we organize our work. True. And we’ve all attended so many workshops on how urgently our organizations need change in the past twenty years that the word “change” itself is beginning to sound quaint.

Though we’ve heard all this before, the great value of this report is that it’s laid out in one document with a lot of examples and it’s addressed to provosts who have not heard all this before—or rather they have, but we were the ones talking, so they weren’t really paying attention. It sounds much more compelling coming from a non-library think tank. This report is well worth sharing with your chief academic officer so they can get up to speed. It might also be good to share with faculty, who will likely take umbrage at many of the trends, which might offer a teachable moment about the economics of scholarly publishing and why we need open access.

Taking the long view
But we should make sure they know that this report does not predict the future. It describes what we’re working through now. I hope what is emerging, driven by commercial enterprises—big publishing and big platforms like Amazon and Google—will not determine the future of libraries, because what libraries can offer is so much better than the toll-gated systems we have today.

And it’s not impossible. I am encouraged by the launch of new platforms like PressForward and PressBooks and Annotum that seem to be popping up everywhere, creative and simple engines for publishing in new ways. I’m excited by Open Folklore and Invisible Australians and other projects that see openness as a feature, not a bug. Just as traditional publishers are gearing up for a digital future that limits access artificially to protect profits, innovative scholars are dreaming up new ways to share academic work.

In the end, unless we really screw this up, the future will more like the past than the present. Libraries were built on the principle that the advancement of knowledge depends on a disinterested search for meaning, not profits, and that sharing is essential for that search. Libraries have always been a demonstration of the wealth of networks. Now that the networked world has caught up, libraries could serve as a model for sharing knowledge in a way that advances us all.

The only reason the current state of affairs works at all is that libraries have shielded scholars from the economic dysfunction of the current system. We can either get moving on an alternative now—or simply wait until the sharing grinds to a halt, as it will. Nobody predicts a future in which library budgets grow as fast as subscriptions costs.

The real tension
The authors of the report say libraries are caught between print and digital. In fact, we worked through that debate long ago; digital won, and we knew it before anyone else. It’s true that we haven’t worked through the organizational implications of the digital shift, we are slow to pool our energies since we are locally focused and locally funded, and at times we have to shelve our plans for a period of time while our users get over their palpitations.

But the real conflict today is between sharing, something libraries have always done, and not sharing. When it comes to advancing knowledge, only one of those will work.  That’s our future.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. well timed article, what with the ALA closing their Second Life island last week

  2. Lisa Cohn says:

    Well, I still think Second Life has a lot of potential. When you look at how many movies are coming out in 3D and how popular Social Media is, you’ll see that combining the two is just a matter of time. I think those of us who are interested in Virtual Worlds just need to wait a little longer. I think the excitement of this new technology was looking a little too far into the future and we need to wait for the rest to catch up with us. Any new technology needs to grow, as will Virtual Worlds, then it’ll be the new 3D web and everyone will be doing it. Someday, we’ll be saying “told ya so.”