With the current economic climate, most financial news coming out of the academy is terrible. In the small segment where I personally have some involvement — scholarly communications — all the talk is of cuts, cuts, cuts.
Libraries and their representative consortia and professional associations have circulated strongly worded memoranda about the nature of what is being called a crisis, putting their vendors, principally publishers, on notice that some subscriptions will be canceled, no price increases will be tolerated, and new products are to be avoided.
I find this last point the most troubling. No new products? But that’s what’s being said.
It’s difficult for anyone to find anything heartening in all this.
While no one can make all the problems go away, we can mitigate some of them with careful analysis and a shrewd sense of how we spend our money. In the increasingly digital world of communications, new services arise all the time, and not only in the academic community. Some of these services may provide a means to reduce costs in the academy without compromising services.
I have in mind the (mostly) consumer service Scribd, with which readers of the Scholarly Kitchen are already familiar. Scribd is a cloud-computing alternative to institutional repositories (IRs). By using Scribd, libraries can shut down their own institutional repositories, saving money and losing no services.
Scribd is best thought of as “a hard drive in the cloud.” It’s a form of storage with a Web interface, and it resides in the Internet cloud rather than on anyone’s personal computer. Scribd is often called “the YouTube of documents,” a good description, as it allows anyone to upload documents at no cost and makes them available (subject to the author/uploader’s stipulations) for free. That is, Scribd is a free Open Access service, a repository waiting to shoulder some of the growing costs of a library’s own information management.
It is not known to me how much IRs cost libraries, but the number cannot be small, as the management of an IR typically requires some involvement from IT staff and related activity such as the attendance of conferences and trade shows. Most of the cost is in personnel, as hardware and bandwidth are relatively inexpensive and much IR software is open source (e.g., ePrints and DSpace).
But whatever the cost, it is now an unnecessary cost.
If a service can be provided for less money or no money outside an institution, then working with that outside service is in the institution’s interest. Doing so will free up resources to pursue other aspects of an institution’s mission.
It will be argued that IRs provide services that Scribd does not. I’m sure that is true, but the question is how long will that remain true and whether Scribd can be improved for academic users. For example, some IRs stipulate that every document must be accompanied by extensive metadata. To get that same level of metadata into Scribd simply requires the creation of an online template or checklist to guide authors on what to include with their documents. To create such a template is a one-time cost, while the management cost of an IR is perpetual.
Let’s imagine an alternative way to pursue the much-publicized announcement that Harvard is going to create an IR for the scholarly articles created by the Harvard faculty. Now, the point of that announcement was not to create an IR but to make the scholarly output freely available to anyone. With Scribd this can be done, and Harvard can still effect its policy but at a much lower cost. Instead of instructing the faculty on how to deposit articles into Harvard’s own IR, the faculty would be instructed on how to deposit (and tag) articles for Scribd. These articles would still be open access, and they would still be discoverable through their metadata and the full-text search of Google and other search engines. In working with Scribd, Harvard would save money and lose nothing in terms of services.
IRs are part of a backward-looking vision of information technology, a variant of the enterprise-computing model, where it’s believed to be necessary to “put everything in one place.” On the Internet, however, an institution — whether Harvard, Princeton, or Cabrillo Community College — is represented by nothing more than a tag. It’s not relevant where the data resides; insisting that Harvard or any other institution host its own services is akin to setting up a retirement account in which you plan to stuff all your money under a mattress.
In order to fulfill their mission, libraries should begin to close their IRs. The money saved can then be put toward other things.
Perhaps libraries will even use the money to buy new books.