Friday, April 27, 2012

Annealing the Library: Follow up

Here are responses to some of the off-line reactions to the previous blog.


“Annealing the Library” did not contain any statements about abandoning paper books (or journals). Each library needs to assess the value of paper for its community. This value assessment is different from one library to the next and from one collection to the next.

The main point of the post is that the end of paper acquisitions should NOT be the beginning of digital licenses. E-lending is not an adequate substitute for paper-based lending. E-lending is not a long-term investment. Libraries will not remain relevant institutions by being middlemen in digital-lending operations.

I neglected to concede the point that licensing digital content could be a temporary bandaid during the transition from paper to digital.


In the case of academic libraries, the bandaid of site licensing scholarly journals is long past its due expiration date. It is time to phase out of the system.

If the University of California and California State University jointly announced a cancellation of all site licenses over the next three to five years, the impact would be felt immediately. The combination of the UC and Cal State systems is so big that publishers would need to take immediate and drastic actions. Some closed-access publishers would convert to open access. Others would start pricing their products appropriate for the individual-subscription market. Some publishers might not survive. Start-up companies would find a market primed to accept innovative models.

Unfortunately, most universities are too small to have this kind of immediate impact. This means that some coordinated action is necessary. This is not a boycott. There are no demands to be met. It is the creation of a new market for open-access information. It is entirely up to the publishers themselves how to decide how to respond. There is no need for negotiations. All it takes is the gradual cancellation of all site licenses at a critical mass of institutions.


Annealing the Library does not contradict an earlier blog post, in which I expressed three Open Access Doubts. (1) I expressed disappointment in the quality of existing Open Access repositories. The Annealing proposal pumps a lot of capital into Open Access, which should improve quality. (2) I doubted the long-term effectiveness of institutional repositories in bringing down the total cost of access to scholarly information. Over time, the Annealing proposal eliminates duplication between institutional repositories and the scholarly literature, and it invests heavily into Open Access. (3) I wondered whether open-access journals are sufficiently incentivized to maintain quality over the long term. This doubt remains. Predatory open-access journals without discernible quality standards are popping up right and left. This is an alarming trend to serious open-access innovators. We urgently need a mechanism to identify and eliminate underperforming open-access journals.


If libraries cut off subsidies to pay-walled information, some information will be out of reach. By phasing in the proposed changes gradually, temporary disruption of access to some resources will be minimal. After the new policies take full effect, they will create many new beneficiaries, open up many existing information resources, and create new open resources.