The long slow boiling of the frog

Against this modestly halcyon picture of small-press publishing comes the contrast of how librarianship has given away its collections — its memory work — to commercial third parties.

Andrew Abbott wrote, “Every profession has a heartland of work over which it has complete, legally established control.” Our management of collections is one area over which for a long time librarianship had almost unchallenged jurisdiction, particularly in the area of large public and scholarly collections. Yet we have yielded so much in this area it is hard to say where we actually exert any control any longer.

A timeline of key events: Early 1990s, serials prices begin sharp increases; mid-1990s, the Internet filtering battles begin (and in part to reduce the ick factor of dealing with content unfamiliar to libraries, librarians were often very willing to hand collection decisions to filtering companies); late 1990s saw the consolidation of big online databases, with leasing an increasingly popular option and accompanied by continued steep rises in serials.

We also saw the Hawaii outsourcing fiasco of 1997, the emergence of Apple’s proprietary AAC format in 2001, the Disney copyright ruling of 2003, the launch of the Google Library Project in 2004, and in 2007, the Time-Warnerized ruling on postal rates, favoring huge publishers over the rank and file.

Major trends here are ephemeral, vendor-controlled collections; leasing versus buying; buckets of stuff versus title selection; access versus ownership; users versus publishers; provisional versus perpetual access; the narrowing definition of the public user; private contracts for public services; the new and disturbing concept of post-cancellation loss of access; and — most significantly — the diminution of our abstract skill base. If we hand over our collections and our selection to third-party entities, what are we? How do we conduct memory work without the feathers and twigs we need to line its nest? What is our purpose?

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