English: The main reading romm of Graz Univers...
English: The main reading romm of Graz University Library (19th century) on 2 Sep 2003. Picture taken and uploaded by Dr. Marcus Gossler. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


9 Thoughts on "(Re)Defining the Library, Part 1: Why?"

Are and should libraries still function in their historical role as archival repositories of knowledge? In the hard copy era, libraries truly owned the physical artifact of a book or journal and could preserve it into perpetuity to the best of their ability. In the digital era, access rights are often the subject of an on-going negotiation. Physical archives are now typically held by publishers who are in a position to control access or even destroy the contents should they so choose. How important is it that subscription terms guarantee perpetual access? Are such terms enforceable? For example, what would happen if a publisher went bankrupt, suffered a catastrophic security breach (e.g. by a disgruntled employee) or the publisher was bought by a party with a strong economic interest in suppressing some areas of science (e.g. a tobacco company or the lead industry)?

Do libraries have a role in preserving research data? Many institutions are now struggling with exponentially growing collections of digital data supporting publications produced by the institution, and NIH places responsibility for preserving research records with the institution. Is this a role that libraries should take on? Note, as Hollywod has discovered, that the cost of digital preservation (racks of disks and computers and on-going software development to keep pace with changing technology and standards) may greatly exceed the cost of physical preservation (a well built refrigerated film room). In the case of Hollywod, the costs are justified by the enhanced utility of digital archives allowing scenes and characters to be readily accessed for future releases, etc. what are the long term economics of digital archives for libraries?

The idea that libraries (even research libraries) function as permanent archival repositories of knowledge is a romantic fiction, one largely harbored by people who are neither librarians nor archivists. In reality, the library collection is dynamic rather than archival; books are constantly added, and books are regularly withdrawn. Even in the aggregate, libraries create and keep only a radically incomplete intellectual record. (Special collections function differently from general collections in regard to permanence, but they’re also far narrower in scope.)

Online subscription terms do, in many cases, guarantee perpetual access–even beyond the lifespan of the publisher. Those terms are laid out contractually in license agreements that are negotiated up front. More ironclad guarantees are often associated with higher prices.

The question “do libraries have a role in preserving data?” is a complex one; the short answer is “yes.” The question “what are the long-term economics of digital archives for libraries?” is unanswerably vague.

And book publishers are increasingly participating in these programs also.

Some academic libraries have reconfigured their physical spaces to accommodate what is often called a “knowledge commons,” in an effort to forestall the move away from students ever seeing a need to visit a library as more materials are available online. Is this effort proving successful enough to justify the reconfiguration expense?

Sandy, the premise of your question is a bit off — the purpose of a knowledge commons isn’t to make it so that students still need to come to the library. It’s to provide services that students (and faculty) need. Most students can’t afford for themselves all of the services and equipment that are offered in the typical knowledge commons. That said, at my institution the KC is indeed extremely popular and is constantly and heavily used. So are our general study spaces, our group-study spaces, and our classrooms. Despite a steady decline in the use of our general print collections, our gate count (the number of people coming through our doors to use the building) has been going up steadily from year to year. My colleagues at other institutions generally report the same thing.

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