The Chronicle Review

Library Inc.

Illustration by Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

October 17, 2010

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.

In addition, the big deals take the decision about which journals to purchase out of the hands of subject-specialist librarians, a trend that is leading to the homogenization of library collections. Many institutions are acquiring near-identical lists of journals from the same vendors. Simultaneously, cash-strapped libraries are canceling subscriptions to titles from smaller publishers because their journals are either unbundled or in more flexible packages that are easier to modify when the budget needs balancing.

By outsourcing ownership to mega-vendors, libraries have introduced the commercial interests of the journal providers into what had been an internal academic transaction between a library and its patrons. Purveyors of e-journals provide access to their titles on sites that are designed to bolster brand recognition and encourage repeat visits. This practice is good for business but not for scholarship. It is common to hear library patrons say that they found information on "Informaworld" (the platform of publisher Taylor and Francis) or "ScienceDirect" (Elsevier's platform) and not to know the name of the journal in which the article was published. Students especially have become purveyor-dependent, when they should be familiarizing themselves with the best literature, in the best journals, regardless of who sells it.

E-journal publishers have legitimate commercial interests to advance. But why are university libraries adopting those interests and values as their own? Libraries now regard their users as customers whose needs should be met in order to secure their allegiance. While an emphasis on improving service is a good thing, it matters how you conceive of the service to be improved. Libraries today are mistaking a part of their mission for the whole, treating one of their most basic, mechanical, and least-distinctive tasks as their dominant, if not sole, patron service.

According to both the professional literature and information-vending companies' usability studies, a library's chief task is to meet the information needs of its patrons. "Information needs," in this context, is understood as identifying and locating known items. True, university libraries do a lot of this work and do it well, but so do public libraries and the GE Answer Center. For university libraries, retrieving what is known should be only the beginning. They are laboratories of the mind, unique places where questions that have never before been asked can be formulated and answered; they are centers of teaching where patrons can learn about the organization and the production of knowledge. And much more.

There are far-reaching implications to disregarding so much of what a library does in favor of an impoverished, customer-service-centric model. In technical services—the behind-the-scenes part of the library that brings in materials and prepares them for us—it is becoming commonplace to hear that "good enough" (read: incomplete) item records and metadata are sufficient. These records may be "good enough" for base-level handling and inquiries, but they are insufficient for the task of answering new and unusual questions—precisely the sort of inquiries at which university libraries should excel.

In public services—the part of the library dedicated to connecting patrons with resources—the dominance of the customer-service model has led to a devaluation of both expert knowledge and systematic inquiry. Libraries should be facilitating thorough and precise research inquiries; instead they are trending in the opposite direction, toward a reliance on dumbed-down discovery tools that will deposit "good-enough" results in a patron's lap. Libraries and their commercial partners envision a future when, to a patron, libraries look a lot like Google: a vast, undifferentiated mass of information queried by a simple search box.

Libraries have already drifted too far down the commercial path: Research and educational values must be restored to their primacy of place. "Good enough" and one-stop shopping are no substitutes for systematic research. Technology cannot replace human expertise. The business world has many valuable tools and resources to offer, but libraries must insist that scholarly requirements take precedence over commercial interests.

The need to realign library values is especially urgent in the realm of monographs. Electronic publishing of academic monographs is still at an early stage, but it is growing fast. As it is developing, e-monographic publishing is following the path of e-journals and will, therefore, reproduce many of the same problems—spiraling prices, homogeneous collections, greater numbers of low-quality monographs. Libraries will provide access to titles owned by the publishers, who will offer them up in preset packages accompanied by complex licensing agreements that constrain their use. (Existing e-book licenses, for example, generally prohibit interlibrary loans.)

Moreover, as has happened with journals, the idea of the book as a coherent object is undermined. Some of the existing e-monograph platforms assign authorship to each chapter, and each chapter is a separate file. On first (and second) glance, the chapters appear to be stand-alone essays rather than connected parts of an elaborate, extended analysis.

It is time, now, to articulate a plan for e-books that better serves the needs of the academic community. University libraries should opt out of the e-book market until it conforms itself to the values, needs, and wallets of academe.

For universities, the libraries' experience is a cautionary tale. Commercial practices, technologies, and innovations often seem to benefit and support the academic mission of universities. But commercial innovations are not value-free, and it has proven very difficult for libraries to embrace some components while rejecting others.

As a result, the identity of libraries as academic institutions has been compromised. Leaders of the profession fear that libraries will become obsolete if they do not abandon their traditional standards and goals and pursue the latest trends. But the reverse is true: The more libraries align their interests and values with their commercial partners, the less distinctive and indispensable they become.

Daniel Goldstein is an arts, humanities, and social-science librarian at the University of California at Davis.