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.