Former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren raised the collective hackles of the library profession last week, when she took universities to task on Twitter for indulging in the construction of “huge libraries,” which she characterized as “vanity projects” that increase costs for students. In a subsequent video commentary she clarified a bit, explaining that she believes we need libraries, but wondered why we’re constructing big new library buildings “when so many of these books… are on the Internet.” She went on: “You’ve got it on your smartphone, you’ve got it on your iPad, your laptop, so why are we building all these buildings?”
Not just a box of books
Unsurprisingly, librarianship was not amused. Several prominent members of the profession responded by noting the importance of the library building not just as a storage unit for physical documents, but as a place where students gather in order to do scholarly work. Others pointed out that libraries provide direct service to students and scholars — in terms of both locally-created online programming and individual research consultation, both of which require significant infrastructure. Other arguments could have been multiplied as well: academic libraries collect not just commodity documents (commercially-available books, articles, and recordings that are often accessible online) but also rare and unique documents that most definitely are not “on your smartphone,” at least not unless they’re stored, curated, and digitized — processes that require substantial physical facilities. And then there’s the library’s brokerage function — or, as the president of the American Library Association rather trenchantly put it, “I’m not sure what Ms. Van Susteren thinks delivers this content to her phone.”
In short, Ms. Van Susteren’s comments suggest that she doesn’t fully understand what academic libraries are and what they do. On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that in a very real way her comments suggest that she is tuned in (perhaps more tuned in than she knows) to the implications of some significant librarian-driven trends in the profession — notably, of course, the open access (OA) movement.
Open access and the library building
After all, open access is, by definition, online access. The idea of “open access” to physical documents makes no sense. You can’t provide free and unfettered public access to a physical object; the physical nature of the object creates a radical restriction on both access to and reuse of its content. The institutional repositories that we’ve built in most of our research libraries require server space and some amount of staffing, but certainly not large physical facilities. Nor — as T. Scott Plutchak has convincingly argued — is it even necessarily the case that open scholarship is best served by the creation and maintenance of thousands of individual and widely-distributed institutional repositories as opposed to a small number of large and comprehensive central ones. What all of this suggests is that as more and more scholarship becomes available on an OA basis, it does become less and less obvious that we need “huge library buildings.”
In fact, the more scholarship becomes available on an OA basis, the less obvious it becomes that many of the library’s historical functions remain necessary. Historically, these functions have included brokerage (pooling community funds to purchase documents or access on behalf of the community), storage, curation (decidedly not the same thing as storage), processing and physical handling, organization, and research guidance.
Which of these functions would remain essential in a predominantly OA environment? Certainly the need for local physical storage and curation declines as more scholarship becomes available online, though it doesn’t entirely disappear as long as there remains a need for the storage and curation of non-commodity documents. Physical processing and the logistical problems associated with organizing physical documents certainly go away to the degree that OA becomes the norm in scholarly communication. Organization remains important, but in an online environment it becomes purely a matter of metadata — which is no small task, but not obviously one that needs to be undertaken redundantly by thousands of librarians within the walls of hundreds or thousands of large library buildings. (The need for research guidance, of course, doesn’t go away with the online shift, and arguably it increases — even if demand for it doesn’t.)
The library as broker
What about the brokerage function, though? How might that library role persist in a wholly or predominantly OA environment? The most obvious way it continues is if the library takes on the role of underwriting OA publishing rather than underwriting access. This is the idea behind some of the various “flip” proposals that have emerged in recent years, including the OA Network, the Pay It Forward model, and Knowledge Unlatched. All of them draw on library funds not to buy access on behalf of library patrons, but to subsidize the publication of scholarship up front and then make it freely available to all. (The OA Network’s model actually proposes that these funds come from colleges and universities rather than from libraries, but as of this writing it looks like almost all of the OA Network’s supporting members are individuals and organizations other than colleges and universities — quite a few of them academic libraries.) But again, it’s worth pointing out that for libraries to undertake this role would by no means require the construction of large buildings.
So is Van Susteren right after all? Has the online revolution of the past two decades turned large new library buildings into nothing more than campus trophies designed to invoke awe and respect in the minds of parents and donors while quietly fleecing students with new campus fees? And do the goals of the OA movement in particular, should they be realized, promise to obviate the library building to a substantial degree?
I think Van Susteren’s fundamental mistake — the one that most clearly exposes her lack of understanding about what’s currently happening in higher education — lies in her apparent assumption that these “huge buildings” are being built with the expectation that they’ll house large collections of commodity books. In fact, academic libraries are giving decreasing amounts of space to collections, and increasing amounts of it over to work and social spaces. If you look at the most recent new constructions and renovations of existing libraries on research campuses, one of the striking trends is the decline in percentage of space given over to bookshelves. Instead, the current trend is in the direction of larger and more flexible spaces for collaborative scholarly work, for partnership with other campus entities like academic advising, teaching-and-learning centers, university presses, digital scholarship programs, and “maker spaces” in which the library not only provides capital equipment for the creation of digital and physical objects, but also collaborates directly and programmatically with other academic departments and centers. The ongoing and dramatic decrease in usage of printed books — particularly on the large research campuses most likely to construct “huge libraries” — has given these developments additional momentum.
Not everyone in academia generally or in librarianship specifically is equally happy about all of these developments; some regard them excitedly as the opening of innovative new frontiers in academic support; others regard them grumpily as mission drift at best, and intellectual degeneracy at worst. But the overall trend is very clear: research libraries are decreasingly built for the purpose of housing and taking care of commodity books and journals, the documents that tend strongly to be available, in Van Susteren’s words, “on your smartphone… on your iPad, (on) your laptop,” etc.
So maybe the question isn’t whether we need huge new library buildings. The more serious question might be how much longer it will make sense for us to continue calling these buildings “libraries.”