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Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material

Oh, dear.

The head of the institution that employs me just sent out a notice about the formation of a Libraries Master Plan Steering Committee. In the email, this person states that he “believe[s] that libraries such as ours will no longer serve as storage centers for printed or recorded material.”

[After Your Humble Blogger wrote the above, two days passed to deal with the exploding-head thing. So it’s not so much just sent anymore. On the other hand, Gentle Readers shouldn’t consider this a considered response—any attempt on my part to calmly consider the memo just leads to more flying fragments of skull.]

I’m not going to write about the idea of the bookless library at this point—I have no reason to believe that I will be the person to break the streak of consecutive stupid things said about bookless libraries, which currently stands at umpty-’leven zillion and six—but if I were the head of a middle-size academic institution, I hope I would remember to say the quiet part quietly. I mean, yes, I know, everyone knows that the members of this kind of committee are not chosen randomly, nor are they chosen for diversity of opinion. They are chosen, rather, for a balance of pretention to legitimacy and receptiveness to the Administration worldview. And that worldview is certainly communicated to the members of the committee well in advance of the memo announcing its formation. These things are fixed.

I’m not even against fixing these sorts of things in advance. The administration has a responsibility to run the place, and they can’t really do that if they let committees run wild. Not that there shouldn’t be participation by the faculty (and the students, I suppose, with some representation of some kind) (and even participation by the staff would be pleasant) but that usually has to work within the structure of the rigged committee and with the formation of the Adminstration’s worldview in the first place. If we really are getting to the point, in two thousand and eleven, that the University is just now going to started really thinking about the Master Plan for the library, we are screwed.

Not that getting rid of our books and journals is different from being screwed—not that the music library getting rid of their scores and CDs is different from being screwed. But sometimes the library gets screwed; part of running a big place is figuring out whose turn it is to get screwed.

But the thing that made my head explode was that the head of the University said the quiet part loudly. Why? Why put the bad news right in the announcement, under his name, not buried in a report by committee where blame can be spread around and diffused and dispersed, if anybody actually notices the thing until it’s accomplished? What’s going on there?

There are two possibilities that come to mind. A, this could just be a total cock-up, where nobody really noticed what was in the memo until the send button got clicked. Or, second, the University Administration may think that radically reducing the books, journals and recordings available to students and faculty is the good news.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

The textual editor in me wonders if the administrative authority in question meant to communicate was that the library would "no longer serve [just] as a repository for printed and recorded material." I mean, the print and sound recordings collection are worth a sizable amount of money, which is what administrative authorities are themselves paid to keep track of. In any case, I suspect that the matter of gravest concern here is not that the administrative authority in question actually means what she or he says but that the administrative authority in question can't actually write a decent memo and has no clue what he or she is actually talking about.


Chris, your statements fit together to suggest this possibility to me: the administrators may believe that part of the money they are keeping track of is in a form that is soon to drop precipitously in worth. As if they suddenly realized that they were holding an enormous number of 8-track tapes in the year [five years before 8-tracks dropped out of the standard-format club]. Perhaps they think their duty is to act now and deaccession while someone else will still be willing to give them decent money.


I think I should include the whole paragraph for context:

While we live in challenging times economically, I believe there has never been a better time for us to undertake this planning. Driven by the pace of change in information technology, the role of libraries is rapidly changing. While there will always be a cherished place for books, printed materials, recordings, and sheet music (especially for scholars, artists, and lovers of the arts), I strongly believe the future of information storage and retrieval will be digital. I also believe that libraries such as ours will no longer serve as storage centers for printed or recorded material. I am convinced that we are living through a revolution in how this material is stored and disseminated that is the equal of the revolution begun by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century.


I'm not convinced that the print and sound recordings represent money in any liquid manner to the Administration; to take Jim's analogy, they may feel as if they are holding an enormous number of 8-track tapes in 1987. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, VCR tapes in 2011. Of we were to attempt to sell off, say, two-thirds of our journals—everything that is in JSTOR, say—I doubt we could realize enough to buy access to the databases containing those journals for our community in perpetuity. That's an impression, though, not the result of research.

Also, I hate to say it, but Space may be even more valuable than Money, a situation that I have noticed at three or four college campuses I have been in contact with. The Space that the music library currently takes up has been promised to a center that is very good at fund raising, so there's Money there too. the likeliest outcome from this memo is that the music collection will be folded into the main library, and that space will be found for it all by jettisoning the aforementioned printed and recorded materials. The elimination of redundant positions such as YHB's will be a trifling contingent benefit.

Thanks,
-V.


So, from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis, the question for the college becomes: at what point does it become less expensive for the college to simply to buy access to suitable collections of electronic texts and journals instead of maintaining those such a collection themselves, when that cost includes devoting space, energy, and employee resources to maintaining the collection and making it accessible to students? Of course, the prior question is, when does it become possible to buy access to collections of electronic texts and journals that could adequately replace the existing (and traditionally developing) print collection? The answer to that question will vary with the nature of the institution, but caution before simply discarding a resource like a library collection just to save space seems indicated.

I know people, of course, who could give sophisticated answers to the above questions based on detailed knowledge of the availability of electronic books, but my guess is that a print collection might not fetch much at sale but would be very expensive to replicate and will remain that way for quite some time. Music is a somewhat different case from books in that the technology for playing the materials can change and improve, where the book, though not always easily accessible, will be readable until our languages or scripts change. Maybe before I retire I'll be able to access the entirety of the Harvard Library collection on my hand-held electronic reader through googlebooks, but I doubt it.


Well, I think the cost-benefit analysis is more complicated than that (surprise!), in part because it is easier to raise money for some things than others. I suspect that it's easier to get donations (and particularly bequests) for book-buying than for database access, but again, that's a suspicion, not research. On another front, the accessibility issue is not just about technology but about the restraints of the owners of the databases. It's very, very unlikely that JSTOR (f'r'ex) will simply cease to exist, but it's not altogether unlikely that at some point our range of technology options will be limited, possibly severely limited by the requirement that JSTOR (again, f'r'ex) be accessible on all our devices.

On the other hand, this.

Thanks,
-V.


Re the link: Well, people say all manner of foolish things in the Chronicle of Higher Ed in order to attract attention.

One of my knowledgeable informants mentions that a big (cost) issue with electronic access to books remains copyright.

Is it possible that as e-books become more prevalent, it will become more important for libraries to hold hard copies, as reliable archival resources?


For the books we are publishing online and in printed format, we are hoping there will be enough libraries who do want to hold hard copies as reliable archival resources. I believe that publishing scholarly material online only is too ephemeral to fully serve the long-term purposes of publication. Having printed copies archived in various locations is a prudent step for which libraries are well-suited. At the moment, libraries are also a key revenue source for supporting scholarly publishing, but if the revenue model changed appropriately, I'd be delighted to simply mail free copies of our books to the 50 designated key repositories.


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