Gavia Libraria

On BATNAs, selfishness, and placation

The other current buzz in libraries’ scholarly-communication landscape (besides the Dutch and Elsevier) is MUN rather publicly coming to the destined end of can-kicking.

There will be more of these. There must be. The end of can-kicking is indeed destined. Currency exchange decrees that in 2016, Canadian academic libraries will be especially likely to meet the end of the can-kicking road, but that is an incidental consideration. The end of that road comes for all.

Once again, the Loon finds herself pondering library communication strategy in the face of this reality combined with the other inescapable reality libraries are up against: their faculty, who are by and large selfish, ignorant, blame-spewing prima donnas. The immediate spur for this pondering was Ryerson University’s library’s response to the MUN situation, which has in it both good and… let us say, less-good.

Good, that the library is exercising its voice at all. Too many are not, and in the hero-or-bumbler game surrounding the end of can-kicking, a silent library can never, ever win.

Less good is the “we will defend core journals!” promise. It is a common promise, not least because it is a common strategy employed toward the end of the can-kicking régime. The Loon mentions this because she sees nothing in particular wrong with the strategy itself; it only makes sense. The problem arises from actually communicating that strategy.

In any negotiation, the indispensable Ury tells us, each party comes to the table with a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)—that is, a sense of what will happen and how perilous that happening will be should that party walk away from the table. Any library’s BATNA for a Big Deal is dreadful; no one, faculty least of all, likes losing accustomed access. Any Big Deal vendor’s BATNA is… equivocal, even in the squatter’s market; losing a deal altogether is not great, but can likely be compensated for by squeezing some other library or consortium harder.

The problem with the “core journals!” promise is that it worsens a library’s already-poor BATNA. Should the negotiation fail, the library has not only lost access, but broken a promise, a promise that selfish blame-spewing ignorant prima donna faculty will call them to account for. What starts out as attempted placation becomes a bullet aimed at the library’s own foot.

Much in Ryerson’s communiqué betrays similar less-than-ideal communication strategy. Asking for budget increases is an implicit promise that increases will solve the access problem. They will not, other than highly temporarily at best, ultimately resulting in more BATNA damage and another broken promise. (Besides, how many libraries have found this appeal successful? If the number of successes is greater than zero—the number of attempts certainly is!—that is news to the Loon.) Bringing up that libraries have different budget buckets for collections and staff is practically an invitation for faculty to demand library staff reductions, which they will (ask McMaster!) because faculty are selfish blame-spewing ignorant prima donnas.

So. What to say instead?

The Loon believes that these commonly-employed messages arise from librarians’ entirely reasonable and justified fear of selfish blame-spewing ignorant prima donna faculty. Here’s the thing, though: their anger is inevitable. It cannot be prevented. It cannot be placated. Trying to prevent or placate it is pointless.

That anger might, however, be directed elsewhere. That should be the central aim of library communication strategy as the can-kicking event horizon nears: direct the anger at the vendors. With relatively small and rational groups of faculty, a clear numerical accounting may succeed at this; SUNY-Potsdam’s Jenica Rogers managed it. With the selfish blame-spewing ignorant prima donna masses, however, the story needs to be a clear, unrationalized, unapologetic “no, we can’t; ask the vendors why they charge so much. No, core journals are not safe; the vendors charge the most for those. No, more money will not help; the vendors will just vacuum it up as they do everywhere else. No, joining additional consortia will not help; the vendors simply charge consortia more and then our share goes up too. No, all the deals we are presented are bad; ask the vendors directly about that, because they won’t let us tell you. No, you won’t get a better deal if you fire us, and the savings from doing so won’t pay for anything; ask the vendors. No (Canadian libraries should say), vendor prices do not compensate for currency slide; ask the vendors why not.” Ask the vendors, ask the vendors, ask the vendors; repeat it until it turns to ashes in one’s beak. Ask the vendors.

There is magic in this, the magic of an improved BATNA. Faculty who are angry at vendors will not be angry at a library for walking away from a bad deal, which gives the library negotiating leverage. Ask SUNY-Potsdam. Ask California about Nature Publishing Group or Elsevier. Canadians, ask Simon Fraser, which publishes its entire materials budget and is refreshingly (and strategically, in the Loon’s view) unapologetic about what is and isn’t possible with it.

Now, then. Faculty, the Loon has been harsh with you in this post; sadly, it is the only way a mere librarian-loon can get your attention. No matter what you think of librarians in general and the librarians at your institution specifically, understand this: when you blame journal cancellations on librarians, you only make your access problems worse. If publishers and aggregators know they’ll escape scot-free from a failed negotiation while you abuse your institution’s librarians, they know they have the library over a barrel, and they’ll use that knowledge to charge more. “It’s only business,” as publishers and aggregators say.

No matter what you think of the situation, support your librarians. The key support librarians need, because it gives them a viable BATNA, is your willingness to continue supporting them if they walk away from the table. Give them that BATNA and they’ll get you better deals.

The end of can-kicking is still coming, mind you; there is no escaping it, as the Loon has said all along. So spewing blame like selfish ignorant prima donnas won’t help. Perhaps try something else?