Thursday, February 10, 2011

staying afloat

The other night, I heard that Powell's in Portland is laying off 7% of their non-managerial staff. Powell's remains a Portland landmark, one of our city's most popular destination's for visitors. Whenever I visit it, it seems to me like a busy and vibrant place and an inspiration to book culture and the business around it. According to this article, however, it's their online business keeping them afloat. On top of that, it sounds like Borders is close to bankruptcy.

As we all know much of what we might loosely conceive of as the information industry has been shaken up over the last decade or so. The business model of local newspapers-based on packaging a bundle of local and national news for a regional audience along with relevant advertising-has been decimated by Craigslist and online news sources. Bookstores are struggling because of competition from online bookstores and now e books.

Academic libraries haven't had an easy time of it either, especially since the great recession of '08. Budget cuts are common, and much of higher education remains in a fiscal mess, tied in part to the desperate finances of many state governments. But one does not commonly hear of academic libraries closing or, for that matter, of their very existence being questioned.

Why has the academic library organization remained fairly stable amidst such radical turmoil in the information industry? Like bookstores, record stores, and newspapers, we were created to supply information to a local community through physical media. Many of academic libraries have taken cuts, but I would venture to say that by in large we have faired better than much of the information industry. Why is this? I offer up some reasons below, some more comforting than others.

First, the information environment remains a hybrid and complex marketplace. To supply a college or university with the information resources it needs still requires managing a large number of formats, including analog ones. At least one study has shown that no matter how hard an academic library might try to move towards all digital books, there is a large swath of materials that simply aren't available in that format. Even as more and more material goes digital in various ways provisioning access to both digital and print formats is labor intensive and the heterogeneity of formats that we're dealing with tends to eat up the 'digital dividend' we might expect to get by switching to easy-to-manage digital aggregations of materials. There is no iTunes-like service for academic information that can supply most of what we need with one seamless purchasing mechanism. Likewise an open access utopia for scholarly communication has not emerged.

Second, we do more than supply information through collections and access. Increasingly we're acting as educators and service providers. We assist students in navigating a complex information landscape, serve as partners in information literacy initiatives, provide assistance with copyright, collaborate on digital scholarship, and provide collaborative learning spaces. The service turn is underway. The concern here is that these new service roles may not be seen as essential as the library's more traditional collection management role, that they might be viewed as peripheral to an institution's main mission and potentially expendable.

Third, I would argue that the rate of change itself in the information industry is actually helping keep us in business and this is very much tied to the first two points. The very fact that new tools and resources are continually emerging requires us to continually explore them, evaluate them, select them, and explain them to our local communities. Whether its new personal information management software like Zotero or Mendeley, digital collections, search engines, information visualization tools-things that we purchase or things that just show up on the consumer web-it's our job to introduce them to our communities. If we do somehow reach a plateau where things stabilize that's when we really start to need to worry about our jobs.

Fourth, in the humanities, many of the disciplines that we support are heavily oriented towards print culture and they value the printed medium. There's a bias here towards printed books and a genuine need to have the book as an artifact. If print books become more scarce, we'll be all that more important as their keepers, and this is where we might see an increased role for special collections and preservation. In some respects I am more certain about our return on investment expensive, rare items for our special collections than for monographs in our general collection. I know that a $1000 rare book will still be worth something in 5-10-20 years, but I'm not so certain about a recently acquired scholarly monograph.

Fifth, I think libraries serve as important advocates of certain values on a campus : information literacy, preservation of the cultural and academic record, intellectual freedom, interdisciplinarity, inquiry and learning independent of the curriculum. We're recognized for these perspectives because we bring them to various endeavors at our own institutions.

Along with these fairly sound reasons for our existence, there are other less optimistic reasons that we've continued to stay afloat over the last few years.

For one, there is inertia in the academic library and publishing industries. One can conceive of many different ways that scholarly communication and information research could take place in a digital environment, for instance open access publishing or direct purchasing of content by students and faculty. But libraries have the money and publishers have the content and we pretty much work from that premise, despite regular protests about increasing journal prices. JSTOR could have been marketed directly to scholars but it was built from the ground up to draw directly on academic library budgets. In the e book arena Eric Hellman recently described an aspect of this inertia as PIP "pretend its print": many publishers are trying to model e book sales on that of print because they are comfortable with it. Open access repositories, Google Scholar, and consumer access to e books have rocked the boat but they haven't upended it yet. We are still acting as the intermediary between content providers and content consumers in the academic marketplace, but that might not always be the case.

Second, we are not forced to sell our services to our clientele directly for our revenue. We 'sell' them as a bundle to our parent institution who in turn sells them as a bundle to students. This is very different than selling books or newspaper subscriptions to people directly and perhaps it insulates us somewhat from changes in user behaviors and preferences. It does not insulate us forever, however.

Third, the non-profit higher education industry is oriented towards institutional autonomy. If private colleges were for-profit business, there is a good chance that many would be bought up by larger entities and then merged together at some level to take advantage of digital technologies and realize economies of scale. Independence and uniqueness are important qualities of private colleges and integral to their success, but it is possible to conceive of several independent colleges sharing certain business functions (see Claremont Colleges) and this could include at least some aspects of library operations. Consortia clearly have a role to play here, too.

Fourth, colleges and universities take a long time to make decisions. Even if academic libraries are due for some radical changes, the governance structures in place may be slow to make those changes.

Fifth, I think libraries have a very powerful symbolic value. The concept of the academic library as an essential component of a college or university is highly ingrained. Our physical presence contributes to this. To many people, I think, their superficial conception of a library is 70% the physical building, 20% library resources and 10% people and services when the actual resources are allocated much differently. The symbolic value is a good thing as long as it's backed up by underlying value, but if the symbolic value is artificially insulating us from harder scrutiny, it is a dangerous thing.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I wouldn't necessarily describe the publishing industry's primary problem as an intentional inertia, although that is a factor. Two other big ones:

    1. Reinvesting infrastructure from P to E is expensive and many of the houses don't have the capital to get it wrong, or to invest in anything that changes drastically within the next 12-18 months. They are waiting to see what happens with proprietary formats and standards and how the marketplace reacts to the iPad, Kindle, and Nook before hedging their bets on anything. Given the notorious instability of the e-book industry and the speed at which things are moving, I can't say that their hesitancy is unwarranted.

    2. The catastrophe of the music and film industry and their inability to stop piracy, particularly offshore. The decline of the dollar and the abysmal overall reputation of our economy has taken away whatever small amount of clout the U.S. entertainment industry had with the Asian markets, where many of the popular pirating sites, like MegaUpload, are based. Torrents are even worse. The U.S. made some headway with Pirate Bay in Sweden but this appears to be back and growing larger (see for some choice examples). I'm already seeing tons of e-book torrents and files floating around, stripped of their DRM and posted on blog after blog. And not just recent mainstream things either. I actually spotted Patrice Petro's JOYLESS STREETS the other day, one of my German Expressionist texts in college. And if that's floating around--an academic monograph from the late 80s--I can only imagine. I suspect that this is one factor in the release delay of e-versions.