Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Who's Driving This Bus?
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop buying your books.”
But why? Did you even look at them? They’re so pretty. And the authors are so smart. They’re really well edited and we vetted them and everything. Why?
Now, before I go any further, I should give that librarian’s statement a little context. Where was it said? It was said at the American Association of University Presses conference that just ended on Sunday. Who said it? Well actually two people said it, though perhaps not both in those exact words. The people who said it were Michael Levine-Clark, Collections Librarian at University of Denver, and Stephen Bosch, Materials Budget, Procurement, and Licensing Librarian of the University of Arizona Library. They said it at the Patron Driven Access panel arranged by Becky Clark, Marketing Director at Johns Hopkins University Press. They said it when showing us that according to their usage statistics, about one third to one half of what they’ve bought from university presses has been unused in the five years since it was purchased. Denver’s study noted that the total cost of all unused books was almost $19,000,000 in the last ten years when one adds cataloging and shelving costs. They said it while noting the loss of the jobs of many of their colleagues at Harvard and Stanford, in California, Illinois, Kansas, and North Carolina. They said it reluctantly. They told us they could no longer afford to be keepers of the scholarly record. They told us they would instead turn to their patrons for buying decisions. They told us that from now on, use would dictate purchases. They told us they’d be embracing Patron Driven Acquisitions. And they’re not alone.
It occurs to me that I’m assuming you know what Patron Driven Access means. In case you don’t let me take a shot at describing it.
Patron Driven Access (sometimes referred to as Demand Driven Access) is a model where a library opens an account, let’s say for $100,000, with an ebook platform. That ebook vendor then loads its collection, or perhaps the parts that would be most appropriate for that library, into that library’s catalog. So let’s say you’re a patron of that library. You’d search through the catalog and maybe eventually you come across a book you’d like to look at. It’s available as an ebook so you fire-up Adobe Reader or a variant, and have a look at that ebook. Now depending on your vendor, if you look at more than five pages, or for more than five minutes, then your library buys a copy of that ebook. But if you read less than that? Bye sugar, no hard feelings, it just didn’t work out. There are a bunch of built-in brakes, like the opportunity for a human selector to choose to pay a rental fee, rather than buying. And to the publisher’s benefit, if two concurrent users are viewing more than five pages, or for five minutes, then either two rental fees are charged, or two copies are bought.
Okay, cool. What does that mean? Money saved? Probably. Needs of the students and faculty met? Well, it depends. Perhaps, as long as they don’t study anything heavily dependent on third-party content, like art, or contemporary poetry, or film, or television. If that’s what you study, you’ll need to get used to only using books, at least until some fair use issues are resolved. But until then, you’re kind of out of luck. If you’re an art history student at a university like Colorado or Arizona that is converting to a Patron Driven Access program, and like many students, you’ve waited until the day before the paper’s due—you’re out of luck as far as books go. Physical books are a part of many of the Patron Driven Access models, and a choice for both the patron and the selector. But it’s not like transporter rooms are real. If a book is chosen, it must be shipped. And one business day may be possible, but it probably won’t be a default. Sure, POD and Espresso machines may be able to address this issue. But the book has to be available that way. And okay, I’ll be the one to say it, an Espresso edition isn’t fit for the stacks. If they use Espresso editions, librarians would be better off letting the patron keep it, at least until On Demand fixes the coatings they use on their covers.
What these librarians, and the vendors who serve them, have stumbled on to is a model that ends purchasing on speculation. In the past, university libraries bought books based on algorithms created by a process that could very accurately identify which books were the most appropriate for the specific collections they were developing. If your art history department had a lot of scholars studying 15th century illuminated manuscripts, approval programs accurately identified which books would most benefit such a collection. Not just the books specifically about 15th century illuminated manuscripts, but books about the 15th century, books about illumination, books about manuscript production practices of the 14th century—Any book that would generally inform that specific field of study. And while these splendid libraries built themselves around a very precise understanding of the possible needs of their faculty and students, it overcompensated, frequently erring on the side of serendipity. There are also plenty of human selectors involved—librarians who are constantly reading about and engaging in the subjects in their collections, and filling in the gaps that the algorithms inevitably create. These two methods created stacks of books that allowed for the comprehensive yet focused browsing of the subjects that the students and faculty most often investigated. This process created a collection of the ideas and resources students and faculty would benefit from potential access to.
But that’s changing. Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if the idea of the library isn’t what’s really changing. Because what this model ultimately does is change what the library does. It stops being a place of discovery, it assumes that will happen elsewhere, like Google. And it makes a library more specifically a place that serves needs. A place that arranges access. There’s nothing really wrong with that. There’s a ruthless efficiency to the pattern of acquisitions that the patron driven access model provides. Ebooks can usually provide instant access, so nothing is seemingly lost. But will that actually be the case?
Let’s get back to that issue of the needs of the faculty and students, and let’s set our gaze on that faculty. What this Patron Driven Access model means to university presses is that our future is likely to include two things—higher prices and fewer titles. Think about it. Any model that marches toward cutting book purchases in half can’t help but increase the price of each title that does make it to publication (primarily because fewer copies will sell) while simultaneously reducing the total number of titles that are actually published. As any real publisher will tell you, the costs aren’t really in the paper and ink. The costs are invested in the content. Patron Driven Access will make things more efficient, but it doesn’t truly address issues like hyperabundance, or the death of serendipity, or maybe even more importantly how a faculty member gets tenure or promotion. Because if university presses publish fewer titles, the book as the bar for tenure, at least in the humanities, is no longer sustainable. Unless we actually want less tenure.
While I was at that AAUP meeting this weekend that I mentioned above, it occurred to me that there was one party missing in this discussion. University presses were there, of course, and so too were quite a few librarians, but there weren’t any faculty members. And while the concept of Patron Driven Access is new to university presses, and we’re only beginning to understand the implications, neither the model nor its implications on their future careers is known by faculty. It occurred to me that these librarians needed to be talking to not only our AAUP but also the other one, the American Association of University Professors. Or maybe it would be more effective to educate the disciplinary societies, like the MLA, or the CAA, about what this is likely to mean to their members. They need to know that this new landscape will mean their content will stop being published if it contains third-party content. And they need to know that the opportunities to publish are about to be significantly reduced.
One of the plenary sessions reviewed a report that tackled the sticky subject of economic models for scholarly publishing. And while I thought they did a good job in reviewing current experiments in access, like our own Romance Studies series, they really only focused on issues of access we in the university press community were working on. But it occurred to me that perhaps that report was ignoring the other side of the coin, the access models that are imposed on us. If Patron Driven Access becomes widely adopted, what does that mean to sustainability? What does it mean to all of the different parts of the institution: the library, the press, the students, the faculty? The open access experiments we’ve all been participating in almost invariably need to be subsidized, not just with the sales aspect of the content in the experiments, but also with the sales of the rest of the list, and also with just plain old subsidy funds. But if all sales decrease, how does that affect these experiments?
One final observation I’d like to make about that meeting involves a very smart guy who was ridiculed for saying something that while uncomfortable to hear, was probably more on target than those who ridiculed him currently understand. The very smart guy is Joe Esposito, who in his discussion of the evolution of scholarly publishing noted two things that were almost universally poo-pooed. He said that librarians would become less important to what we do, and that subscriptions would gain in popularity as a model for content access. Those who criticized him noted that librarians hated the subscription model and that all previous attempts to offer it had not really succeeded. Before writing this off, however, let’s consider the role that Patron Driven Access may play in Joe’s assessment. First, if patron use is driving purchases or rentals, then by definition the librarian becomes less important in the sale of a book. And if the rental aspect of that equation becomes the norm, isn’t that only slightly different than a subscription to content? The key factor missing in both is ownership. Like I noted above, I think one of the casualties that these budget-tightening times will create is the part of the mission where libraries serve as an archive of the scholarly record. I suspect many libraries are about to surrender that if Patron Driven Access becomes the norm. They will play a critical role in the access to that record, but they may stop building that archive for their individual institutions. That, I suspect, will get outsourced to the cloud. And I can’t really blame them. I don’t see the value a library offers as an archive as something digital natives understand. They don’t seem to have the same need or desire to build personal libraries as the previous generation did, and I’m beginning to think that taking seriously the need for a collection, either personal or institutional, is diminishing. Perhaps this is a by-product of the hyperabundance of content. But I suspect it’s actually more of a result of the existence of Google and its many spin-offs.