Gavia Libraria

What you can and can’t ask librarians

“Let’s ask our librarians to drop Elsevier subscriptions!” some of the new-breed boycotters have eagerly suggested.

Well, by all means try, but the Loon knows what the answer will be. Namely, “no.” Possibly with added eyeroll and an “are you a complete loon?” expression. Here’s why.

Elsevier doesn’t sell individual journal subscriptions to libraries these days, except when forced to—and forcing them to is so Sisyphean that only a bare few libraries have tried, as yet. (The Loon can explain this phenomenon, but it’s complicated. Ask in the comments if you want to know.) Elsevier sells multi-journal packages, and like coffee drinks at Starbuck’s, they come in large, immense, and ginormous sizes, all overpriced. Nor are they mix-and-match; libraries can’t substitute journals they want for journals they don’t. It’s pure take-it-or-leave-it.

(Economists consider this a sneaky way of force-selling crappy journals that would never make it in a sole-subscription world. The Loon believes the economists quite right.)

So when you tell a librarian “stop subscribing to Elsevier journals!” you are thinking a dozen or so journals in your field, while the librarian has no choice but to think about several hundred journals running the entire gamut of disciplines. There’s a word for what would happen to that librarian if he acceded to your request, without the full knowledge and consent of the rest of the institution. That word is “fired.” If the librarian is only a little unlucky, that word is instead “lynched.”

That issue aside, librarians have been trained not to consider the ethics of information production in their journal purchases. Library schools discuss instead gauges of usage, disciplinary accreditation, search-site usability, accessibility (sometimes; not often enough, in the Loon’s opinion), and the same hollow bibliometric measures that faculty wrongly rely upon. Who else trained librarians to act this way? Faculty, of course, considering librarians little more than walking wallets. See “fired” and “lynched” above.

So. What can eager-beaver boycotters reasonably ask their libraries? The Loon has a few suggestions:

  • “What’s the deal we have with Elsevier just now? What’s it cost? When’s it coming up for renewal?” The more you know…
  • “Do we have an open-access author-fee fund?” Self-explanatory.
  • “Are we members of open-access publishing houses such as PLoS and Hindawi?” These memberships (which provide blanket discounts on author fees to institutional authors) are easy targets in library cost-cutting times. The best way to keep them alive is to ask about them and use them.
  • “Are we members of arXiv?” for those in the appropriate disciplines.
  • “Are we working on a Harvard-style open-access mandate?” Whatever the answer is, ask how to help move one forward.
  • “What are we doing for Open Access Week this year?”
  • “Would you come talk to my classes about the ethics of information?”

The bare fact is that most academic libraries are doing as little as possible to hasten the coming of open access, just barely enough to save face among their library peers. They do this in large part because they know full well faculty don’t care, while faculty do care loudly and profanely about toll journals. The Loon is forced to confess shamefacedly, also, that some part of library apathy is owed to bloodyminded conservatism, another part to utter ignorance. (That last portion is especially shameful, but the Loon has found herself helpless faced by librarians who will not learn and will not think.)

(This is not necessarily true of individual librarians, mind. Some libraries have one abused, stifled soul whose job this nominally is. Others have a soul somewhere who cares about this despite it not being her job. Find that soul, if she exists, and do what you can to help her. Her library, the Loon guarantees, hasn’t been.)

If you want to change library behavior, eager beavers, the Loon is with you. Just know how best to ask, all right?

5 thoughts on “What you can and can’t ask librarians

  1. rossmounce

    Look – funders, researchers and librarians all essentially want the same thing as far as I can see – an end to the excessive profiteering from certain big for-profit journals.

    Neither party can realistically achieve change alone. But together, if we make a concerted, informed effort to bring change, surely we can levy some greater pressure?

    Now that 5000+ academics (and growing) have come out against Elsevier’s (and others) practices, we surely have a premise to make bolder moves?
    Ask not, what you should tell your librarian – but what you librarian should tell researchers!

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon declines to answer at this time, because any answer she would present just now would involve fearsome amounts of bugling and wing-flapping and suchlike.

      Perhaps tomorrow she’ll have regained her temper.

      She will limit herself to this observation, for now: the institution her Boring Alter Ego works for could put five thousand people in its pocket and barely notice them. Think harder about your numbers.

      1. rossmounce

        Seriously though – I’ve never once witnessed *any* librarian at my institution, come to our department and tell us that our institutional access costs *a lot* of money. And that every time we re-download a paper from subscription journal websites it costs us more [I forgot where I read that, but I pray it’s not true!].

        Perhaps it’s different where you are, but I get the feeling there isn’t enough bi-directional communication between librarians and researchers. Or if there is, it’s only at ‘higher-levels’ so grad students like me would remain clueless to any issues such as the serials crisis, unless they happened to read things on the internet like this.

        Researchers need education about these issues (which partly explains why there’s only 5000+ on TheCostOfKnowledge, many just aren’t aware there’s a problem that could be fixed IMO, and then there’s some for which even that boycott “isn’t strong enough” e.g. this Stanford scholar

        Perhaps librarians could be the ones to do the educating…?
        “what your librarian should tell researchers”

  2. Björn Brembs

    Actually, at our university (, we only have ScienceDirect access on and off. Even their topmost journals like Cell, Lancet or Neuron are only accessbile after 12 months. And guess what: all librarians are still alive. In fact, when I spoke to a conference of librarians a few months ago (, there were some who were evry much i favor of dropping subscriptions.
    Of course, there are prerequisites:
    1) Proper information of the faculty that the saved funds are being used to provide a superior, sustainable alternative to corporate publishing, citing about ten other libraries world-wide at prestigious institutions who are also participating.
    2) At least some support of the faculty to use the funds in this concerted action.
    Given the level of frustration with the staus quo, I have yet to meet anybody of my colleagues who would be opposed.

    Furthermore, one could direct faculty in search of access to a little script that directs any queries automatically to the corresponding author of that paper, or sends a Tweet with #icanhazpdf or some such (all of which are ideas, someof them implemented, from librarians at abovementioned conference).

    Thus, I think when faculty realize they’re contributing to something that benefits science in the long run, they have no problems accepting a little inconvenience for a transitional period and there is plenty of evidence from faculty with poor libraries that people can get around access problems, more or less legally.