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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Annealing the Library

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.
John Dewey

What if a public library could fund a blogger of urban architecture to cover in detail all proceedings of the city planning department? What if it could fund a local historian to write an open-access history of the town? What if school libraries could fund teachers to develop open-access courseware? What if libraries could buy the digital rights of copyrighted works and set them free? What if the funds were available right now?

Unfortunately, by not making decisions, libraries everywhere merely continue to do what they have always done, but digitally. The switch from paper-based to digital lending is well under way. Most academic libraries already converted to digital lending for virtually all scholarly journals. Scores of digital-lending services are expanding digital lending to books, music, movies, and other materials. These services let libraries pretend that they are running a digital library, and they can do so without disrupting existing business processes. Publishers and content distributors keep their piece of the library pie. The libraries' customers obtain legal free access to quality content. The path of least resistance feels good and buries the cost of lost opportunity under blissful ignorance.

The value propositions of paper-based and digital lending are fundamentally different. A paper-based library builds permanent infrastructure: collections, buildings, and catalogs are assets that continue to pay dividends far into the future. In contrast, resources spent on digital lending are pure overhead. This includes staff time spent on negotiating licenses, development and maintenance of authentication systems, OpenURL, proxy, and web servers, and the software development to give a unified interface to disparate systems of content distributors. (Some expenses are hidden in higher fees for the Integrated Library System.) These expenses do not build permanent infrastructure and merely increase the cost of every transaction.

Do libraries add value to the process? If so, do libraries add value in excess of their overhead costs? In fact, library-mediated lending is more cumbersome and expensive than direct-to-consumer lending, because content distributors must incorporate library business processes in their lending systems. If the only real value of the library's meddling is to subsidize the transactions, why not give the money to users directly? These are the tough questions that deserve an answer.

Libraries cannot remain relevant institutions by being meaningless middlemen who serve no purpose. Libraries around the world are working on many exciting digital projects. These include digitization projects and the development of open archives for all kinds of content. Check out this example. Unfortunately, projects like these will be underfunded or cannot grow to scale as long as libraries remain preoccupied with digital lending.

Libraries need a different vision for their digital future, one that focuses on building digital infrastructure. We must preserve traditional library values, not traditional library institutions, processes, and services. The core of any vision must be long-term preservation of and universal open access to important information. Yet, we also recognize that some information is a commercial commodity, governed by economic markets. Libraries have never covered all information needs of everyone. Yet, independent libraries serving their respective communities and working together have established a great track record of filling global information needs. This decentralized model is worth preserving.

Some information, like most popular music and movies, is obviously commercial and should be governed by copyright, licenses, and prices established by the free market. Other information, like many government records, belongs either in the public domain or should be governed by an open license (Creative Commons, for example). Most information falls somewhere in between, with passionate advocates on both sides of the argument for every segment of the information market. Therefore, let us decentralize the issue and give every creator a real choice.

By gradually converting acquisition budgets into grant budgets, libraries could become open-access patrons. They could organize grant competitions for the production of open-access works. By sponsoring works and creators that further the goals of its community, each library contributes to a permanent open-access digital library for everyone. Publishers would have a role in the development of grant proposals that cover all stages of the production and marketing of the work. In addition to producing the open-access works, publishers could develop commercial added-value services. Finally, innovative markets like the one developed by Gluejar allow libraries (and others) to acquire the digital rights of commercial works and set them free.

The traditional commercial model will remain available, of course. Some authors may not find sponsors. Others may produce works of such potential commercial value that open access is not a realistic option. These authors are free to sell their work with any copyright restrictions deemed necessary. They are free to charge what the market will bear. However, they should not be able to double-dip. There is no need to subsidize closed-access works when open access is funded at the level proposed here. Libraries may refer customers to closed-access works, but they should not subsidize access. Over time, the cumulative effect of committing every library budget to open access would create a world-changing true public digital library.

Other writers have argued the case against library-mediated digital lending. No one is making the arguments in support of the case. The path of least resistance does not need arguments. It just goes with the flow. Into oblivion.