A huge number of factors complicate the scholarly communication landscape today, and with it the world of libraries — particularly research libraries. Questions that once had obvious and widely agreed-upon answers are now much more difficult. These include:
- What is a book? Just as the ebook format greatly increases the flexibility and the capabilities of the traditional book, so does it greatly blur the boundaries separating the book from other forms of publication. (Joe Esposito nicely explored one of those fuzzifications here the other day.) The difference between an e-book and a website or database may, in some cases, be merely one of nomenclature. Furthermore, a book that exists online may be subject to ongoing revision; it might be published in one form in print format, and in an expanded (and possibly ever-expanding) version online — in such a case, which is the “real” book, the version of record? And which one should a research library own?
- What does “publication” mean? Certainly a scholarly monograph or a peer-reviewed journal article constitutes a publication. But what about a blog posting? What about a white paper distributed freely to the public under the aegis of a think tank or similar organization? If a journal article is published online in a forum that allows public comments, are the subsequent comments and the author’s responses part of the publication? (And if not, why not?)
- Speaking of “ownership,” what does it mean to “own” a document? In the print era, the illusion of content ownership was fostered by content’s imprisonment in physical objects: the only way to establish reasonably permanent access to a book was to own a physical object in which the book was encoded. The content of the book wasn’t truly “owned” by the library (to the degree that it could be owned, it was owned by the copyright holder), but the library did truly own a physical object and could use such objects to build a physical and functionally permanent collection. In the ebook era, the book-buyer’s lack of ownership is more exposed: “owning” an e-book often really means purchasing a more-or-less permanent right of access to content hosted elsewhere. Whereas in the old days the transaction between bookseller and library ended when the book was physically delivered and the invoice paid, today the purchase of a book often marks the beginning of an ongoing relationship whose terms are defined by contract. Obviously this new reality complicates the commercial environment; less obviously, it undermines our fundamental understanding of the very nature of the library collection and compels us to put the word “collection” in scare quotes.
- What is a publisher? The role of the publisher in the print environment was generally quite clear: it was the publisher’s job to pick the best offerings from authors, assume financial risk by fronting the costs of preparation, printing, and distribution, and then share with the author the revenues that accrued from sales of physical copies. Without publishers to play this role, very few authors would have had any hope of seeing their work distributed broadly to the public. Such is obviously no longer the case. This leaves the role of the publisher somewhat undermined, but more importantly (again), it renders ambiguous the very definition of “publishing.” If I write a novel and put it on my website for anyone to read, has it been “published”? What if I charge for access to it? What if I write a scholarly paper and post it in an academic repository, but without subjecting it to any editorial oversight or peer review?
- Who should bear the costs of scholarly research and of subsequent publishing activity? This isn’t a new question, but it’s one that has been given new urgency by an environment in which library mediation is less clearly necessary and the costs of distribution are greatly reduced, while at the same time there is growing advocacy for free (which is to say “subsidized by someone else”) access to the scholarly products of publicly-funded research.
- What is the appropriate unit of sale for scholarly products? In the print environment it made sense to sell journal content (i.e. articles) in bundles (i.e. issues) by subscription. It’s hard to see how this approach makes sense in a networked digital environment, except in that it gives publishers reasonably predictable revenue streams. The subscription model also inflates those revenue streams artificially, since it bundles undesired content with desired content. The same might be said of some kinds of books — most obviously of essay collections, less obviously (but still arguably) of scholarly monographs whose authors expect them to be treated as unified works. What authors think about how their books should be used ultimately matters far less than how readers actually use them. In a digital environment, readers are much more free to use books in the manner they see fit, and will increasingly resist constraints imposed by authors or publishers (or librarians) who believe that they know best how a book “should” be used.
In Part 2, I’ll propose a simple taxonomy of libraries that I’ve formulated in light of this newly complex reality, and will briefly explain why I think such a taxonomy might be helpful.