Gavia Libraria

“No, we can’t”

The Loon isn’t entirely sure of this, but she thinks that Harvard University’s announcement that serials prices are more than it can pay is the first of its kind.

California’s refusal to lie down for Nature Publishing Group’s price increase is similar, granted, but as best the Loon can recall, California never actually said “we can’t afford this.” Purdue let a negotiation go to the wire last year, but they, too, avoided the claim that a price tag was simply too much.

Why has it taken libraries so long to say this? As long as we’ve been whinging about a serials crisis, why have we never actually said “journals cost too much; we can’t buy what we need”? The answer to that would require a dissertation rather than a blog post, but the Loon will reminisce a bit on the subject, and with any luck tease out some patterns from her reminiscences.

The very first job interview in librarianship that the Loon ever landed was for a digitization-librarian position, more or less—it was one of those “do all the digital things!” catchall positions (yes, yes, but the Loon was but a young and witless Loonchick then), and it has doubtless shifted emphasis a good deal over time. Nonetheless, the university librarian made one thing crystal clear to the Loonchick during one-on-one time: open-access activism was not desired of the lucky hiree, not least because the Big Deal had been quite kind to the library in question, so why rock the boat?

Shortsighted? Assuredly. Common train of thought in academic librarianship, especially at smaller institutions? Assuredly. The Big Deal was kind to many of these libraries, especially combined with consortial purchasing, since they hadn’t ever been able to buy all that much in print. A Big Deal brought riches of access previously unimaginable.

Did open-access advocates ignore this population of libraries and librarians when putting together its rhetorical stances and public-relations campaigns? Assuredly. The Loon believes that doing so contributed markedly to the difficulties many institutional-repository managers and scholarly-communications librarians faced inside their libraries, because the bedrock discourse in broader librarianship was anchored by the vastly more numerous and influential let’s-not-rock-the-boat folks.

In open access’s defense, changing these people’s opinions would have been a considerable challenge. Inertia is difficult enough to overcome all by itself. Fighting a tangible reality—greatly increased access—with a few maybes (maybe your money will run out; maybe your access will diminish down the road; maybe open access will be better for your patrons in the long run) correlated with the immense challenge of changing entrenched library procedures and faculty opinions just wasn’t ever likely to be a winner.

Another highly salient and entirely sensible reason libraries have avoided the fatal “no, we can’t” is simple self-preservation. Ithaka has shown fairly clearly that faculty view academic libraries mostly as wallets, exchanging money for materials. Given that, a library that openly says “we can’t pay for the materials you need” invites charges of incompetence at best, embezzlement or misallocation of funds at worst. Make no mistake, folks get fired when such allegations fly—not least because so few people seem to understand that staff budgets and acquisitions budgets live in different allocations buckets!

(Just look at Harvard. Library staff say “our jobs are being threatened,” and the best response faculty can muster is “hey, as long as we still get our stuff, we don’t care”? Note to Harvard faculty: that’s an extraordinarily insensitive, not to mention clueless, response.)

One last reason not to say “no, we can’t” that seems overwhelmingly obvious to the Loon is that it forecloses on the possibility of asking for more money. If the Loon had a fish for every time she’s seen someone (faculty or librarian) say “giving the library more money will solve the serials problem!” she’d never go hungry again.

So Harvard’s “no, we can’t” carries a significant subtext: no amount of money, even from one of the richest universities in the world, can satisfy the rapacity of the current system. To the Loon, this has been obvious for years: whatever amount of money a library has, the big-pigs invariably find a way to vacuum it up, so increasing money flow to the library merely increases the big-pigs’ profits without buying much if any additional benefit to libraries or library patrons.

To many, though, it’s understandably counterintuitive: more money should buy more stuff! It’s this supposedly commonsensical assumption that the Loon would like to see more open, well-argued attacks on. Break this assumption, among librarians as much as among faculty, and many let’s-not-rock-the-boat arguments die a-borning.

Will more libraries follow Harvard’s lead? Perhaps. (It wouldn’t be the first time; Harvard certainly goosed the institutional-open-access-mandate movement.) Much depends on whether libraries have truly despaired of finding more money, and whether they perceive less professional danger in at last admitting defeat than in trying to kick the can further down the road. The latter depends considerably on a supportive, clueful faculty environment… which seems a good bit more achievable in 2012 than it did when the Loon was but a Loonchick.

8 thoughts on ““No, we can’t”

  1. Barbara Fister

    I’m at a small library (liberal arts, undergrad) and we say “no, we can’t afford it” all the time. “Yes” is rarely heard when it comes to journals.

    We haven’t said no – yet – to a couple of bundles that may soon be truly unaffordable – ACS journals and SAGE – because they are well used and the publishers set prices for individual electronic subscriptions so high that they essentially prohibit un-bundling. Being small means we have practice saying “no,” but our “no” can’t be used tactically. These publishers can kiss us goodbye without feeling any pain and they don’t have to worry about losing a dozen potential authors, so we are not able to negotiate a better price as perhaps U of C or even Harvard could by threatening not just to cut subscriptions but to promote a boycott by a significant number of authors.

    But on the whole, “no” is pretty easy to say around here most of the time.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Do you say “no, we can’t” aloud in public, or in private only?

      You’re entirely right that “no” is often heard in institution-internal contexts, and the Loon should have made that clearer. Saying it aloud and in public is what’s new about Harvard’s announcement.

      1. Barbara

        It’s very public. I’ve been known to blog about it :) We also share prices and use data.

        Harvard is much more significant, though, because it matters. I think everyone, publishers included, assume (correctly) that small schools can only get a fraction of what their faculty would like and that their students will frequently be hitting “nope, don’t have it” when they search for any particular article. So our public no’s are non-significant.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      True enough. The Loon will have to reread to gauge what RLUK’s suggested responses were, however.

  2. Chris

    I find this significant, because as a young librarian at a Big and Important (but of course not nearly as Big and Important) library, Harvard was used as both the carrot and the stick. “You should get this, Harvard has it!” “Buy this and you can be as good as Harvard! What?!?! You are not going to buy this? You’ll NEVER be as good as Harvard!”

    Good for them for getting off the treadmill. Now we really should try to be like Harvard.