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Library Inc. – from the Chronicle of Higher Ed

Posted by Editor on October 18, 2010

By Daniel Goldstein here

From industry-backed research to CEO-style executive salaries and perquisites, the influence of corporate America on universities has been the subject of much popular and scholarly scrutiny. University libraries have largely escaped that attention. Yet libraries, the intellectual heart of universities, have become perhaps the most commercialized academic area within universities, with troubling implications for the future of higher education.

Libraries have always dealt with the business world, buying books, journals, and other products. In the past, however, libraries separated the commercial process of acquiring materials from the academic objective of putting those materials to use. But that division has now faded as an unintended side effect of information technology.

Libraries are early and enthusiastic adopters of digital innovations. But these innovations bring the values of the marketplace with them. Through innocuous incremental stages, academic libraries have reached a point where they are now guided largely by the mores of commerce, not academe.

Commercialization has impinged on two core facets of university libraries—their collections and their user services. The ownership and provision of research materials, especially academic journals, has been increasingly outsourced to for-profit companies. Library patrons, moreover, are increasingly regarded simply as consumers, transforming user services into customer service. Both developments have distanced libraries from their academic missions.

The economics of journal publishing have long been problematic for libraries. According to the Association of Research Libraries, the average per-title cost of an academic journal grew by 227 percent between 1986 and 2002; in the past five years, prices have continued to rise 7 percent to 11 percent annually.

At least since the 1970s, libraries have understood that their budgets would never be able to keep pace, and they began to seek an alternative arrangement. They redefined themselves as providers of access to information instead of as owners of the material their patrons required. In the 1980s, the fax machine was heralded as the technological fix that would enable libraries to meet their patrons’ needs without blowing their budgets. Libraries could fax each other copies of articles for far less than it would cost to subscribe to a journal.

This early incarnation of the access-versus-ownership idea was narrowly conceived: It assumed that the materials being accessed would be held by other libraries. By the late 1990s, the concept of access had evolved into something quite different. In the online environment, electronic versions of journals are owned by the journal publisher or provider and libraries pay for access. Initially, e-journals were adjuncts to hard-copy subscriptions; libraries still owned the material but also leased electronic versions for the convenience of their patrons.

Over the last decade, however, as the number and cost of journals have soared, most libraries have decided to forgo purchasing hard copies. The shift from owning a journal to merely providing access to its digital incarnation has, of course, saved some money. But those savings come in tandem with detrimental changes both to the content of library collections and the ways those collections are used.

It used to be that subject bibliographers—librarians with expert knowledge of academic disciplines and the needs of their campuses—would subscribe to journals primarily based on the content and quality of the journal. The world of e-journals, however, is dominated by a relative handful of major vendors who create pricing incentives to pressure libraries to subscribe to preselected packages at a discounted per-title cost. These “big-deal” bundles, as they are widely known, tie up a huge portion of a library’s budget (sometimes in the neighborhood of a million dollars), making it difficult to trim or reallocate when necessary… entire post here.


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