Skip to content

The Ithaka Report

Dorothea offers her own take on the Ithaka Report, which to borrow her excellent summary, is primarily about “the state of university presses and libraries vis-a-vis scholarly publishing.” Coincidentally, between power outages yesterday I read the Ithaka Report line-by-line and privately offered my own thoughts to several people, as a kind of throat-clearing for some other thinking and writing I am doing about the fate of small literary journals and our roles (note plural) as librarians in helping this art form (particularly note the word “form,” as in “not information pills but intentional artistic objects”) survive.

Dorothea briefly comments on the Ithaka Report’s assessment of institutional repositories as “dusty attics,” though I prefer to think of them as “Potemkin villages”; after all, my own attic is full of things I actually need to use now and then, or at least enjoy revisiting. Dorothea asks, “But siloing and Not Invented Here is the heart of the difficulty, isn’t it?”

Honestly, before I worked in an academic library, I didn’t know or care what an IR was. After I was led into the inner sanctum and shown the Great Truth, I thought, “You have got to be kidding.” My observation about IRs is that we have established these grey-lit databases (for that is all they are) roughly along the same lines we “invented” library catalogs. They are often barely visible, usually hard to use, marketed in advanced Biblish (“institutional repository” — there’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue), and most of all, built and managed along traditional library-feudal lines, that is, they are established institution-by-institution, so that Great Big ARL Number One can pull out its IR around the campfire and compare it to that of Great Big ARL Number Two. Of course, the metrics for comparison tend to be as illusory as those of most Giant Thingy Contests.

Not long ago I observed — as did another wise librarian colleague in a previous life — that for all the work some libraries were doing with IRs, the faculty seemed aware of, and preferred to use…. well, Blackboard. I participated in a Blackboard focus group a few months back and was astonished to hear faculty talk about the joys of using it for sharing preprints and other documents with their colleagues. It was easy to use. It was “in the flow” of their other activities. At least on that campus, they could share across and within disciplines.

My thought at the time was if Blackboard is so natural to faculty, why not encourage them to use it with abandon and then harvest the content into a space where we could do our amazing dog tricks with the data so that it could be stored, shared, and preserved?

My other thought at the time was barring the local example of Blackboard, if it were proved that overall subject repositories were more natural spaces for faculty to contribute data, would we be willing to accept this and work within this framework? Or as librarians are we only willing to board a train when we’ve built its tracks and set its maps and its timetable? (Part of that business of “we have no self-esteem unless we’re in charge on our own terms.”)

My passing comment about SRW the other day was due to my disbelief that we had again built another cargo-cult standard on whose behalf we will stand forever on the beach, gazing into the sky for those followers we are so sure will eventually arrive — a standard, no less, that requires the rest of the world to conform to us, much as our small tabby cat imagines the house and its occupants are entirely at her disposal and await her every beck and calling (though in her case, she may be right). Sometimes I wonder if we can ever do anything else.

Posted on this day, other years:

m4s0n501