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For Libraries the Future Is a Foreign Country

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

I have just been reading fellow Kitchen contributor Rick Anderson’s new piece at Ithaka S+R, which put me in mind of L. P. Hartley’s proverbial line from “The Go-between”:  The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Well, for people involved in scholarly communications, the future is a foreign country as well.  We will certainly do things differently.  What we will do differently and how we will do them are open questions, of course, but Rick’s view is that the library of the future will likely focus less and less on what he calls “commodity content” and more and more on special collections.  This has implications for how libraries are managed, and it also will ripple through the publishing world, as the assured budget from academic libraries could be diverted to other areas and away from such stalwarts as books and journals.

Content, in Rick’s view, becomes a commodity when it becomes available through the marketplace.  The marketplace, when it is not dominated by monopolies (and there are none in publishing), exercises certain controls on content such as competition for services and pricing.  Despite what open access advocates would assert, most content has not been difficult to access for any of the readers of this post because the marketplace for content has been reasonably efficient. We all grew up with public libraries in virtually every town, paperback books sold in drugstores, and bookstores dotting the shopping malls, at least in the U.S.

Now that is changing, but the change gives us the ubiquity of Amazon and pricing that no one could have imagined a century ago.  It is truly astonishing that you can download literary classics for free and purchase a monograph at a discounted price–and freight-free as well if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.  Libraries were built for the hard-to-access era, when the marketplace mechanisms had not yet been developed and an institution had to step in to ensure the availability of texts and to make them available to those who could otherwise not afford them.

Libraries have made the transition to digital content extremely well.  They now acquire and manage huge digital collections and they have added important tools to use their collections.  So this battle, the transition from managing print to managing digital collections, is mostly over.  But was it the wrong battle to fight; or perhaps it was an essential battle, but merely a stop on the way to a bigger transformation?

There are of course limitations to access being controlled by the marketplace outside an institutional setting.  An individual may be able to purchase a number of books at $9.99, but the number would necessarily be smaller for books priced at $75.  On the journals side, some publications effectively have no meaningful pricing tier for individuals.  So a migration away from commodity publications by libraries can never be comprehensive.  The question is whether a partial migration is desirable and what form it would take.

Rick’s piece is usefully juxtaposed with a recent article by Andrew Odlyzko.  Odlyzko argues that publishers have effectively grown by taking over more and more functions of the library.  In effect, publishers have been hollowing out library services, lowering libraries’ administrative costs even as they took the money back in the form of higher prices for large bundles of content.  A move to a focus on special collections over the collection of commodity content would appear to be the next step in the publishers’ advance.

From my perspective, what Rick’s argument comes down to is a call for libraries to do something hard, do something unique.  Acquiring a novel that a user could purchase for $9.99 as a Kindle or Nook ebook is not adding a great deal of value.  Obviously, there is much, much more to collections than inexpensive ebooks, but it does seem to me that there is a compelling case for a library to focus on unique documents.  Hence the call to divert resources to special collections.

What happens if anybody listens?  I have previously remarked that for all the talk of disruption in scholarly communications, you have to look hard to find it.  That is because libraries reliably spend a large sum of money on materials, and publishers have learned how to get access to that budget–and, yes, some publishers have learned that lesson better than others.  What would be disruptive is a significant change in the amount of money libraries spend on Rick’s “commodity” materials.

This raises the question of how disruptive some other developments have been. Green OA?  It’s a pain to manage and it has helped to give rise to institutional repositories, but what huge changes has it wrought?  Gold OA is mostly additive; libraries have diverted some money to support such services, but the numbers are small.  I find it difficult to look out 3 or 5 years and see large structural changes in the way publishers address academic libraries. This is not because publishers are unimaginative but because libraries are mostly stable. The market may not be growing, but it is not going away.

On the other hand, suppose a library decided to take half of its materials budget away from formally published works (Rick’s “commodity” content). That would reduce the publishing market by one-half, and even Elsevier and Nature would be highly inconvenienced. Libraries would take that money to acquire and curate unique documents. An aspect of that curation would be digitization.  Whether the materials would be available in OA form or marketed to other libraries is an open question.

So the more unique library collections become, the greater the value that libraries build into their own collections (measured by uniqueness and the content of the artifacts), the greater the challenges for publishers.  We should expect that before such a plan rolled out, some publishers will see fit to respond, perhaps by getting access to unique documents themselves. (This is already going on.)  This is a new competitive landscape, a foreign country to be sure.

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

19 thoughts on “For Libraries the Future Is a Foreign Country

  1. “Acquiring a novel that a user could purchase for $9.99 as a Kindle or Nook ebook is not adding a great deal of value”

    Are you saying that because the marketplace is making books available “cheap”, there’s no need for libraries to make them available for free?

    That’s a hell of a position. Bearing in mind the importance of libraries in providing cultural and intellectual capital to segments of society with very little access otherwise, I don’t think it stands up at all.

    Making a novel available to a middleclass professional who already owns a Kindle and could pick it up for cheap, little added value. Making the same novel available to a child living in poverty, with no personal access to the internet – never mind ownership of an E-reader! – immeasurably important.

    Posted by Paul | Aug 7, 2013, 5:46 am
    • Paul, notice the jump between what Joe said (“Acquiring a novel that a user could purchase for $9.99… is not adding a great deal of value”) and your proposed paraphrase of what he said (“Because the marketplace is making books available ‘cheap,’ there is no need for libraries to make them available for free”).

      Your response illustrates a couple of dangerous tendencies among too many of us in libraries and our supporters.

      First, the tendency to exaggerate hysterically the expression of those challenges, so as to make them easier to dismiss without careful consideration. Joe’s suggestion is that libraries don’t add a tremendous amount of value by purchasing relatively cheap and easy-to-get books. By no means does that suggestion amount to a proposition that there’s no need for libraries to purchase such books.

      Second, the tendency to present what libraries do as some kind of “free” service. It is not, and it never has been. The charges we impose on library users may be hidden (by such mechanisms as property taxes, tuition, and student fees) but they are real, and pretending they don’t exist is both misleading and politically dangerous. The halo effect afforded by the word “free” is not worth the cost of using such language when it’s not accurate.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Aug 7, 2013, 12:45 pm
      • Not to mention that there is a big difference between a public library purchasing a cheap novel to lend and an academic library’s doing so. A “child living in poverty” is not even going to have access to the collections of a university library, in most cases.

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Aug 7, 2013, 3:51 pm
        • The piece specifically references $9.99 novels and E-readers, so it’s pretty clear it wasn’t written exclusively around the framework of an academic library.

          Posted by Paul | Aug 8, 2013, 5:31 am
      • Free at the point of use, then. Which IS important, possibly far more than the curation of large and unique collections – which are of limited utility to the vast majority of potential users.

        The challenge with encouraging libraries down this path of esoterica is to maintain their interest and engagement with the wider community which, as you point out, is paying for them.

        Posted by Paul | Aug 8, 2013, 5:35 am
  2. Building special collections of unique (or rare) items is a very expensive prospect for libraries for two reasons. First, the pricing of these items is relatively inelastic. The owner of a unique document can charge whatever a potential purchaser is willing to pay and if you look at the antiquities market, that price can be extraordinarily high. A library would need to spend a ton of money just to acquire a few prized possessions.

    Secondly, most unique documents are rare because few wanted them in the first place. Their value is not in their utility but in their uniqueness. While these documents may be valuable to the historian or museum visitor, they have little value for most scholars.

    In sum, a move to special collections would be a transformative and self-destructive move where librarians gut themselves of most utility and transform themselves into museums of the book. And how many museums of the book do we need?

    Posted by Phil Davis | Aug 7, 2013, 8:32 am
    • Phil, it’s worth pointing out (as I do in my paper) that in most special collections areas, the great majority of the materials held are not purchased by the library, but are donated. The problem that many of us face is not the need to buy lots and lots of new unique material so as to make special collections more comprehensive, but to process our enormous backlogs of already-acquired materials.

      In my paper I also address the very important point you raise about the difference between “uniqueness” and “value.” As I stressed, I’m not calling on libraries to make themselves more unique, but rather encouraging us to shift more of our efforts towards tasks that will provide more value–and, very importantly, to do so with full transparency and in full consultation with our host institutions so as to ensure that we maintain our focus on the needs of local students and researchers. I believe this is a balance we can achieve, in part because most of us are currently focusing far more time, money and labor on the maintenance of “commodity” collections than we need to in order to provide that support.

      Whether the resulting library can be characterized as a “museum” or not is, to my view, beside the point. What matters is whether it is using its resources wisely to provide as much value as possible to (first) its local constituents and (second) the world of scholarship generally.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Aug 7, 2013, 12:55 pm
  3. I don’t think this has to be an either/or proposition. I agree with the first comment; the fact that many people can afford the $10 book for their e-reader does not mean that libraries should stop supplying books to the rest of the community. Our students can hardly afford their text books, much less the supporting materials the library supplies.

    It may be true that building special collections of unique items is relatively expensive, but that assumes that libraries are competing with other libraries and collectors for the same precious materials. If libraries focus on items of particular relevance to their own communities, the work may focus on items we already own, or items that local holders may be convinced to donate or loan so that digital surrogates may be supplied to the world.

    Posted by Alison | Aug 7, 2013, 9:30 am
  4. In my 2007 article “A Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century.” (College & Research Libraries 68(5):418-434 September 2007. Available at: http://crl.acrl.org/content/68/5/418.full.pdf+html and http://idea.iupui.edu/dspace/handle/1805/1592) I wrote:

    “It will be critical for libraries to articulate a change in the role of their collections if they are to remain vital. To do so I think it is important to recall that most academic libraries have always done two things:

    1. They have purchased collections to support their local communities or organizations.

    2. They have curated special collections of unique or valuable items for the world.

    In the past the first role was dominant. In the future, it will be the second that will become most important. In the past the collections that were curated were primarily manuscripts and rare books. In the future the bulk of what is curated will be digital. A part will be digital versions of traditional special collections, but increasingly it will be born digital documents and digital outputs of the research enterprise.”

    So I agree with Rick. In fact, I predicted that 60% of library’s resources would go to curating content by 2025.

    What I think publishers generally fail to appreciate is that libraries no long need to use inventories (collections) as their mechanism for providing users with documents. Rather, libraries can purchase content for their users in real time digitally and only when there is an actual need. This will lead to fewer purchases and less waste. For publishers it will mean fewer sales.

    The future will certainly be a different country.

    Posted by David Lewis | Aug 7, 2013, 10:04 am
  5. Years ago, Michael Buckland pointed out that repeated collection failures result in discouraging readers from using a library again. Rather than proposals of wonderful ‘special’ collections that please bibliographers, I would be impressed by strategies that promise readers would find what they seek. Amazon and Google Books seem to approach this ideal. User interviews (“did you find what you wanted?” would be more revealing of effectiveness than abstract approaches.

    Posted by Albert Henderson | Aug 7, 2013, 10:52 am
  6. Libraries focusing more on special collections is only part of the story. Increasingly, libraries are beginning to think about publishing those special collections as well as providing publishing services to their local constituencies. The Library Publishing Coalition now has some 50 academic libraries as members. This part of libraries’ future directly challenges publishers on their own turf. Since libraries are committed to OA in a way that most academic publishers are not, their entry into publishing may provide greater momentum for the OA movement. It’s no accident that the first full-scale OA monograph publishing operation in the humanities in the U.S. (not counting the failed experiment at Rice) is happening at Amherst College and arising out of the library there. This whole phenomenon will be the focus of a “Lively Lunch” on November 7 at the Charleston Conference that I will be chairing under the title “Who Will Do Non-Profit Scholarly Publishing in the Future, and How?”

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Aug 7, 2013, 4:00 pm
  7. I don’t think that I’ve seen any comment in the discussion above to what would happen if resources were diverted from STEM serials and databases to special collections though as a Humanities scholar I might find this to be a wonderful event. The Humanities and many of the Social Sciences get so little support these days in many research libraries that diverting money to special collections would have to come from commodity serials and commodity databases, not just commodity books that I agree can mostly be purchased upon demand.

    If the article is talking about taking book funds and diverting them to special collections, this will be a rather trivial amount of money in many universities. If the article is talking about diverting money from serials and databases, especially those in support of the STEM areas, I’d like to hear more about how this will happen since I think this change would be extremely difficult to implement in any institution that depends heavily on research funding. Unless I’m very wrong, PDA for journal articles remains a very expensive process so that subscriptions and full-text databases remain the most viable option even if this is spending the library’s money on commodity items shared by many libraries.

    Posted by Bob Holley | Aug 7, 2013, 4:14 pm
    • Bob, I encourage you to read the paper — there’s a link to it in Joe’s post.

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Aug 7, 2013, 5:06 pm
      • I’ve read your full paper but remain concerned about the political aspects of any such refocusing of library priorities. My assumptions are that serials and databases will continue to have inflation rates that outstrip the increase in library resources, that research funding is important to the university, and that not much more money can be saved in the book budget. I might also assume that many universities are now selling themselves on the economic benefits that they provide and that the liberal arts don’t have much political capital these days.

        My situation would then be the need to cut resources in STEM areas since not much is left to cut in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. I would hate to defend the library if a well-funded researcher with multiple grants complained to the state legislature that an important resource in his/her area was cut to protect funding for transcribing Overland Trail narratives. Furthermore, this researcher quotes the Dean of Libraries who said that he/she should write to colleagues to get copies of the needed articles rather than finding them in a few seconds in the resource that was just cut. The Dean of Libraries also said that funding scholarship was more important than meeting local needs for commodity publications. (This is misquote, but I would make it if I were the researcher.)

        I would hope at this point to have strong support of my University President or worry about finding a new job.

        I don’t like what I just said above, but I believe that it accurately describes the situation in some if not many public research institutions.

        Posted by Bob Holley | Aug 7, 2013, 7:26 pm
        • I’ve read your full paper but remain concerned about the political aspects of any such refocusing of library priorities.

          The politics of such a move are what I address in the section titled “Uniqueness and Mission,” in which I stress that no library should undertake the redirection of priorities in such a way as to undermine its support for the academic mission of the institution. The problems you outlined in your comment are largely avoidable if you make your changes gradually, transparently, and in consultation with university leaders and stakeholders. If the reality is that you can’t effect any redirection of resources in the directions I’ve suggested while continuing to support the academic goals of your institution, then you shouldn’t do it. But in my experience, such a move is possible (to varying degrees) in a great many academic libraries.

          Posted by Rick Anderson | Aug 8, 2013, 9:56 am
        • But why not try it? Why not have a library go to the provost and propose a deal: the library proposes to find $250,000 in its current budget and we request that you match that sum. We would then proceed to increase our activity in special collections and see what we learn from it. In 3 years we may decide there is not much for us to do, but we also may decide that we should double or triple the sum. Why is it that new ideas are debated before the experiment takes place? Budget some fooling-around money and fool around.

          Posted by Joseph Esposito | Aug 8, 2013, 10:03 am
  8. I am often amazed that when I go to my university library to get a book, even one that is now being discussed in the journals, I am the first user. And if I go back to get the same book a year or two later my stray note card is still there – no on else has touched it. While I love having my own personal research library, it cannot be the most efficient use of ever-scarcer resources. It would have to be less expensive to rent these on digital demand. Or to buy hard copies – sent over night – only of what is requested.

    Posted by ljwaks | Aug 10, 2013, 3:08 pm

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