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Hachette Job, and Other Pre-LIANZA Musings

LamingtonI set aside my pre-LIANZA preparation to note that the theme for the past several weeks in LibraryLand is: be bold. (Warning, the following blog post is a babblish mish-mosh; I’m so busy I had to abandon plans to brew the White House beer for a local competition, let alone structure or revise this writing.)

Last week, Hachette Book Group announced it would “hike the price of backlist ebooks to the library market by 220% starting October 1” — this, after ‘agreeing’ last May to re-enter the ebook market.

ALA President Maureen Sullivan organized a prompt and bold response, stating that librarians are “weary of faltering half-steps” and commenting, “‘Now we must ask, “With friends like these …’.” (To which Jamie LaRue added, “Maybe what we need is a smarter group of friends.”)

Sullivan has tasked ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to develop “more aggressive” strategies — a great call to action, in keeping with her presidential focus on advocacy. This isn’t to suggest that anyone, including Sullivan, believes an ALA working group is the only response to an issue, or that the rest of us don’t have work to do, but it’s important that our association take swift, formal, and bold action.

Given that, it’s sad that one of the last editorials from Francine Fialkoff before her departure from Library Journal after a highly distinguished career was a meandering swat at ALA committees. Most of us understand that committees are part of the larger landscape of advocacy and action–not solutions in themselves, but nonetheless contributing to solutions.

I remember being told, ages ago, that 85% of information transfer among scientists is informal, and I’d be willing to agree that applied to library leadership, as well. Many a library leader germinated leadership skills, ideas, and powerful connections within the world of professional organizations. Look at the truly significant thought leaders, and most cut their teeth through organizational participation. To simply write off the role of committees is to encourage learned helplessness toward organizational action — to give up in advance.

Does ALA drive us crazy sometimes? Are there committees — even entire divisions — mired in dysfunction? Does a bear poop in the woods? All human endeavors are destined to be flawed and somewhat crazy-making; “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Work through and around the flaws (and if need be, shift your efforts away from the fully dysfunctional), and experience the usefulness.

Speaking of work to do and the faith and skills to make it happen, Jenica Rogers and peers in the SUNY network have spoken truth to the powerful journal publishers and their — no other phrase for it — price-gouging behavior: “SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013.”

To underscore just how radical this is, Jenica spells out that the American Chemical Society “is in the unique position of both approving programs and selling the content necessary for approval” — an egregious conflict of interest.  (I’m wondering how unique this is, actually.) For this, the ACS extorts free labor from faculty who have no choice but to publish (or perish) — free labor to the ACS, but certainly not free to the supporting institutions — then turn around to charge increasingly high prices for their product. Jenica notes that “the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.”

N.b.: this also points to the importance of including librarians — or at least librarian-informed judgment –  in the university program approval and review process; some universities understand this, while others do not. It is to Jenica’s credit that she has built the organizational relationships to make possible the necessary conversations to do what elsewhere would be unthinkable.

These collection conversations are being held in an interesting space of tension and change. Last Friday we held library design sessions all day, led by a professional library space planner.  At one point, in a conversation about reducing print collections to provide more study space, the planner commented that accreditors need to understand that the assessment of the value the campus library has to reorient itself from being heavily collection-focused to the services libraries provide.

In some ways I believe (or perhaps hope) this is happening. One clue to that is the workshops our regional accrediting agency is holding: I don’t see one on collection strength in libraries, but I do see one on information literacy. But to see how far we across LibraryLand have to go, look at the standards for elite research libraries. Of course the collections in these libraries are important. But in isolation, these statistics are not much more than collection-focused bean-counting. Would you really want to brag that your library was number one in microfilm holdings?  The statistics may provide some insight into the readiness of any university to support skilled research, but there are no meaningful indicators, beyond what can be inferred from personnel capacity, about the library’s ability to produce researchers.

And yet! As Barbara Fister keeps arguing (and as I wrote earlier this year in An ebook and a hard place), shifting the focus from beans to soup (as it were) isn’t an excuse for abandoning our responsibilities to the memory work that has been core to who we are for thousands of years. We are in tension with all of this: the shift from print to digital; the battles of ownership and access; the transformation from box-of-books to vital commons.

Imagine  if the university accreditors showed up and asked how many journal holdings were open access — or secured by LOCKSS — or published by libraries or universities. Imagine too if the ALA LIS program accreditation committee held schools’ feet to the fire for producing graduates who understood (as much as any of us do) the complex publishing landscape and our roles in it as advocates and defenders — measurable with a four-hour closed-book final exam. If I’m going to imagine, I might as well be bold about it.

Meanwhile, my brain is a jumble of PowerPoint, workshop handouts, Convocation, pants-hemming, two weeks of meetings to be squeezed into one, and packing lists, while visions of Lamingtons dance through my dreams.