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Lit mag costs: several more reality checks

Invariably, when I write about libraries dropping subscriptions to print literary magazines, at least one person says, “but there are other costs associated with serials management!” Yes, I do know that; I’ve lived it as a practitioner/pinch-hitting copy cataloger/administrator/geek-type/budget maven in a variety of libraries.

A few quick responses to the usual comments:

1. Let’s get some perspective on “cost.” I downloaded the spreadsheets for 2005-2006 research library statistics from and ran some quick averages.

  • Average total annual expenditures for the ARLs: $30 million
  • Average spent on serial subscriptions: $6.2 million
  • Average spent on staff: $14 million (surprised me it was so low; shows how much is spent on collections in ARLs — a lot of that driven by the absurdly rising cost of serials)

So when we’re talking about dropping subscriptions to a handful or two of literary magazines, the cost savings are pointless, like changing to single-ply toilet paper on a nuclear submarine.

2. If you’re comparing two journals toe-to-toe, and one costs $25,000 a year and the other costs $44 a year, the cost of binding, shelf space, and human management becomes close to immaterial.

3. Libraries have plenty of fiscal snake pits, such as retaining huge print government depository collections for material that’s online; reordering microforms used once in a blue moon; and for some libraries, cataloging — particularly all the hours spent “enhancing” existing records with little or no proof that this leads to better retrieval. (I explained to one Muggle that you don’t “catalog” every single new issue, and that in most cases libraries simply use a shared record, anyway… and then there’s check-in, a little hard to explain.) Oh, the list goes on! Many libraries are getting better about this, but the money spent on print reference materials no longer used: such a waste. Hand me a library budget and a red pen, and I’ll find the money to keep those journals.

4. There are many, many journals it’s a waste to retain in print. Literary magazines are not one of them.

5. I cautiously agree (with the caveat I haven’t checked this thoroughly) that it’s true that libraries are not the majority subscribers to most literary journals, but — the needs of humanities departments aside — from a preservation perspective, libraries are a crucial, absolutely necessary subscriber base. (This is true for both print and digital resources, as I have pointed out while advocating for LOCKSS and other digital preservation strategies.)

Libraries are about the cultural record. If WorldCat is to be believed, only 12 libraries subscribe to White Crane, but that’s an important 12. (Mathematically, six is the threshold for a LOCKSS network, so I’m assuming something similar for print holdings.) Holdings in personal households are not adequate for ensuring materials are available for future generations; it is we, as librarians, who have the special responsibility to preserve and protect the cultural record.

I have raised this point in several talks I’ve given (including one for ASERL that was a complete bomb, and a couple more that went over much better), where I say that collection building (print or digital) is memory work, or travail de memoire — and that this work is particularly crucial to who we are as a profession. It is what Andrew Abbott would call our “heartland.”

A lot of that work needs to change if we are going to be able to survive. We can’t manually catalog every single new book or serial or intellectual work that will ever be created; it’s a process that doesn’t scale, and isn’t necessary. We need to let machines help us do our work. We also have to be willing to change our systems so we aren’t maintaining all these individual data silos. It doesn’t make sense any more; it’s an expensive holdover, and it keeps our data off the network, where it can’t be discovered. We have to get away from old-fashioned record-centric formats for bibliographic data. Do we trust OCLC? I don’t know. But in the words of a wise person, we need to trust someone.

In any event, we should get righteous with ourselves and dump the tasks, materials, and habits that weigh us down — but stay true to our roots and build our collections, print and digital, that make us who we are.

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