I recently served as a reviewer of applicants for a conference scholarship. In that capacity, I reviewed 17 packages of application materials, notably including essays on an assigned topic dealing with the future of libraries.
Most, but not all, of the applicants were relatively young librarians in the early to middle stages of their careers. Because of their relative youth in the profession, I was intrigued to see two themes arising repeatedly enough (and strongly enough) in their essays to be noteworthy. Those themes were:
The just-in-case collection is dead
Over and over again these young librarians struck a common note: that the library collection, as traditionally understood, is dead.
It’s worth noting that these writers weren’t saying the print collection is dead, but rather that the very concept of a librarian-built, prediction-based collection, in whatever format, is moribund. Furthermore, none of them seemed to be particularly upset about this; on the contrary, they generally mentioned it more or less in passing and as if it were a self-evident reality and nothing to get worked up about. Interestingly (to me anyway), this is something I’ve been arguing for some time, in one way or another, with frequent and sometimes quite angry pushback from my contemporaries in the profession. I’ve become so used to that pushback that I was truly startled to see how universally this proposition was taken as self-evidently true among this particular group of early- to mid-career librarians.
These young librarians may not be representative of the rising generation generally in terms of their belief about the future of library collections. But if they are, the implications may be significant—both for libraries and for publishers. A librarian-built, just-in-case collection is at the core of the traditional library’s service model and of the value proposition it makes to its sponsoring institution. Historically, virtually all of the library’s practices and service offerings have centered on that kind of collecting and that kind of collection: reference services and bibliographic instruction focused largely (though not exclusively) on helping patrons use the collection; catalogers cataloged the collection; collection-development staff selected materials for the collection, and acquisitions and serials staff ordered and processed those materials. Interlibrary loan, special collections, even IT services were all focused either significantly or exclusively on management of the collection itself and access to it. If the young librarians who wrote these essays are correct, then library employees like me are basically feeding on a carcass.
The necessity of collaboration with vendors in order to bring about our desired future
Not a single applicant spoke of vendors and publishers in an adversarial way — not even those who were most actively and enthusiastically involved in open access and open educational resource initiatives. On the contrary, they talked repeatedly about the need for libraries and traditional publishers to work together in order to bring about the best-possible future for scholarly communication.
I found this a bit startling as well. Every generation seems to believe that the generation coming up behind it is more idealistic and less realistic than it is, but in this case I wonder whether the opposite is true — if my generation of librarians is more utopian in its vision of a scholarly-communication future freed of all restrictions and roadblocks, and the rising generation more realistic and hard-headed about what is and is not likely to be done. Surely it seems hard to imagine a constructive way forward that doesn’t involve some degree of cooperation between libraries and publishers (unless, of course, libraries want to take over the job of publishing entirely themselves, and exclude traditional publishers from the ecosystem — an eventuality that I find seriously unlikely, for a variety of reasons). Yet it seems to me that many librarians see publishers quite simply as the enemy, and regard collaboration with them as “collaboration” in the occupied-country sense rather than the cooperative-colleague sense.
A few thoughts on the implications of these two themes:
First: My subjective impression is that the mindset represented by these young and early-career librarians departs pretty significantly from the one prevalent among librarians who (like me) are 25 or more years into their careers. Among my age/career-length cohort, there is still considerable ambivalence about moving away from traditional collection practices, and even more ambivalence about the prospect of true and meaningful collaboration with publishers and vendors. To be clear, when I say “traditional collection practices” I don’t mean “shifting from print to online.” Most librarians my age and older have accepted that shift, with varying degrees of good grace, and especially where journal content is concerned. (The jury is still out, and fighting, over the right balance of print to online when it comes to books.) What we remain very ambivalent about is the right balance of librarian-driven and patron-driven collection building, whatever the format, and about the appropriateness of working cooperatively with publishers. I was, again, startled by the degree to which the essays from these young librarians suggested that their generation feels little if any ambivalence about either of those issues. To them, the collections question may be settled — and it’s settled one the side of just-in-time rather than just-in-case — and it seems to be completely self-evident that libraries should see publishers as collaborative partners in the future.
Second: regarding library collections in particular, it’s worth noting that these writers were not just saying that traditional collection practices are dead; they were saying that the concept of the just-in-case collection itself is dead. They may be right, and they may be wrong — but their near-unanimity in this view strikes me as significant. Assuming this group of scholarship applicants is at least broadly representative of the rest of its generational cohort, we have a rising generation of librarians who seem to believe that this core function of the library is dead. If they do (and it seems like a more rigorous study would be in order to determine whether that’s the case), it portends seismic changes to the library profession — regardless of whether these librarians are correct or incorrect in their assessment of the declining importance of traditional collecting. To the degree that publishers depend for their revenues on libraries building traditional collections, the implications for publishers are obvious and just as important.
Third: as for library-publisher collaboration, these young essayists embolden me to say that maybe it’s high time we librarians acknowledged and dealt with the fact that the faculty we serve are also the publishers we revile. (And yes, yes, I know we’re more than just “servants” of the faculty, especially those of us who have faculty status ourselves. But we ignore the service component of our work at our peril. That’s a subject for a whole other column.) Too often, we say “publisher” when what we mean are for-profit commercial publishers, ignoring the fact that the great majority of scholarly publishers are nonprofit scholarly and scientific societies whose members — our faculty — derive direct and concrete benefit from the access tolls imposed on their publications. This is not a simple issue, of course: some putatively nonprofit publishers are in fact highly profitable, and some putatively mission-driven societies use their content monopolies in ways that are questionable at best. (Of course, even libraries have a tendency to impose inexcusable access barriers.) But this complexity is precisely the point: a Manichean worldview is not helpful in an ecosystem as complicated as that of scholarly communication. What these young librarians expressed in their essays tends to reflect that complexity better than much of the rhetoric I currently hear from older, more experienced, and — let’s just say it — more entrenched librarians. Those, that is to say, who look a bit more like me.
It kind of gives me hope for the future.