Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Supposed To's: An Open Letter to Library Directors

A library director balances the library budget with the needs of the community, and for it is hailed as a hero.

There is something wrong with this picture.

You're supposed to be doing that!

Here's what Jenica Rogers did, working with faculty, administration, and other library staff to reduce dependence on American Chemical Society resources.
Given that there was no apparent ACS-based solution to our budget crunch in the face of what we feel is unsustainable pricing, we went to our Chemistry faculty and discussed all of this with them. This was not our first meeting; we’ve been discussing this since fall 2011 when we clearly understood that ACS pricing would continue to increase, and was pushing at the ceiling of what we could sustain.  Along with two librarians – the Collection Development Coordinator, and our subject liaison to Chemistry – I laid all the facts out. We described our subscription history in support of their scholarship, teaching, and learning needs, pulled out the costs for ACS content when we first subscribed in the early 2000s and referred back to the discussions we had then (when I was CD Coordinator, not Director), laid out the current cost of ACS publications and the price increases over the past five years, and estimated what our 3-year prices would be. Based on our discussion, I think that some of our faculty were surprised, some seemed resigned, some were horrified, and they were all frustrated by what seemed to be a plate full of bad options. However, after two meetings and much discussion of how to reconfigure our ACS subscriptions to meet our budgetary constraints, I believe that we all agreed that this goes beyond having a tight campus or library budget: this is simply not appropriate pricing for an institution like ours. The result of our first meeting was that the chemistry faculty agreed to take their concerns to the ACS based on their individual professional involvements with the organization, talking with sales and the Chemical Information Division about their concerns, and we agreed that we’d look into other library solutions to their chemical information needs.
Some analysis, via another library director:

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.

"Unthinkable?" Really? Isn't this what library directors should be doing? Are our peers really this deaf to the milieu in which libraries find themselves in the twenty-first century? To trends in scholarly communication? To the value of building organizational relationships?

What Jenica did only works if others do it. She can't be the lone voice in the wilderness. Don't praise her for doing her job. Look in the mirror and do your job. You're supposed to be doing that!

Indeed, in 2011 we ended our relationship with the Nature Publishing Group, whose namesake print publication was responsible for more than fifteen percent of our print serials budget. Fifteen percent! I'll let that sink in, and feel free to do the math if you'd like. Library staff worked with the provost and affected faculty when eliminating Nature. It helps that we're a small university without graduate programs in the sciences, and with faculty focused more on teaching than research, but SUNY-Potsdam's experience is proof that larger institutions can and should be investigating and then acting on alternatives. Because, you know, that's part of our job. That's what we're supposed to be doing.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. This process? It wasn't *fun*. I didn't *enjoy* going to a group of committed, hardworking, and engaged faculty and telling them I couldn't pay for what they need. I did it because it's my job to be a steward of the campus's resources and to build relationships that facilitate that stewardship. Just simply my job.

    Why is this such a surprising approach? What's wrong with library leadership that librarians admire the approach that is the only reasonable way to do this job?!

    (I am also aware that there are a ton of kick-ass directors and deans out there who simply don't write on the internet, but I simultaneously hear from a bunch of librarians who say that there are way too many crappy deans and directors, too.)