One scenario for the death of the academic library

My last post has attracted some interesting discussion. Eric Hellman, in the comment thread, recommended this very interesting recent article, Open Access, library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce, by Andrew Odlyzko, 2013. 

I recommend the entire article heartily, but provide some extensive pertinent excerpts here, with some commentary.

The ARL has statistics showing library budgets as fractions of total university budgets for a sizable collection of their members [10]. The chart for the 40 members that have reported since 1982 shows an inexorable decline in this ratio, from about 3.7% to a bit under 2.0%…

…The share of library budgets that goes out in purchases of books, journals, and databases has grown substantially, from 33% in 1990 to 42.5% in 2010…  Further, all of this growth is accounted for by serials. Books and other materials have just about held their own (with books shrinking at the expense of the rest).

In my last post, I asked, at what percentage of faculty or other univeristy community members thinking the library is not worth what’s being spent on it — would result in decreasing library budgets as a percentage of host institution budget.

It turns out, library budgets have already been declining as a portion of  total university budgetsand within the library’s budget collections have been rising as a portion of library budget. Meaning the decrease in spending on library staff, professional and otherwise, has decreased even further as a proportion of university spending than library budgets in total.

Perhaps, in fact, that point I asked about has already been reached.

There are many interesting statistics at [9] demonstrating decline of the traditional functions of libraries. Thus between 1995 and 2010, the number of students at ARL institutions grew by 33% (with the ranks of teaching faculty and graduate students climbing 15% and 43%, respectively). The only category of library services involving physical material that showed growth was interlibrary loans, which climbed 92%. This reflects libraries concentrating their budges on serials, and giving up on trying to keep up with the growth in the number of new books being published. In other categories, initial circulation (i.e., excluding renewals) of physical volumes dropped by 42%. Thus it is a gross exaggeration that “nobody uses the library anymore,” as one sometimes heard from faculty or students. But the decline in borrowings per student by more than half is telling. What is perhaps most surprising is that the number of requests for reference assistance dropped by 66% in absolute terms, as is shown in Fig. 6, and thus by about 75% on a per-student basis. This is certainly a core competency of librarians, and they are great at navigating the torrents of electronic information, as well as providing guidance to the use of traditional printed sources. However, it appears that Google, Wikipedia, publisher databases, and the like are “good enough” for most scholars, and that the convenience of around the clock access from anyplace outweighs the higher quality that librarians provide…

…The basic and very promising approach open to publishers is to continue marginalizing libraries by extending the reach and scope of “Big Deals.” The consortium model, in which groups of libraries cooperate to get access to a “Big Deal” is already common, and can be pushed further. The ultimate situation might be national “Big Deals,” where some toplevel bodies pay for access for everyone from a nation. Enlarging the “Big Deal,” especially through further mergers, but also by including additional information sources, can serve to create packages that simply could not be dispensed with. The most obvious move in that direction (which is already taking place to a small extent) is to make books, both current and old ones, a part of the “Big Deal.” (Recall that the process of digitizing old printed materials is extremely inexpensive.)…

I think an extremely likely scenario for the death of the academic library will be our hosting institutions simply paying vendors — whether publishers, aggregators, or other newer ‘disruptive’ businesses — directly for services (both the content itself, the platforms that host and organize it, and the ‘discovery’ services to search it), needing only a local skeleton staff to handle licensing.  If the bulk of a libraries budget goes simply to passing money on to vendors for large ‘big deal’ bulk packages, minimal professional staff, and not much of a library organization at all is required simply to do the bookkeeping and ordering.

Perhaps in the future, it will be clear that by 2013 this was already more or less a foregone conclusion to the story of the academic library — Odlyzko’s article shows some of the indicators and directions pointing in that direction.

What about libraries? They are handicapped in the competition with publishers by several factors, see [62]. One of them, that they have the bulk of the resources, and are thus a fat target, is a strength as well. At least in principle it makes possible revolutionary changes. In particular, as was shown earlier, just the external journal purchases of the ARL libraries alone could provide Open Access publishing for the world’s entire scholarly literature. Had libraries thrown their resources enthusiastically behind new, low-cost Open Access journals, perhaps the current scene and the unfolding future sketched here would have been different. But that would have required many research partners willing to put their energy into the enterprise (certainly a very doubtful proposition, given the inertia in the academic system), and the willingness of librarians to cannibalize their bread-and-butter operations. Certainly librarians present a classic case of Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma,” pressed to maintain traditional services, and therefore slow to embrace new ones. As an example, digital libraries have been discussed in the library literature for decades. Further, the amount that ARL libraries spend in a single year on acquisition of serials would have sufficed, with plenty left over, to digitize all their standard books and journals that are out of copyright. Yet it was outside efforts, in particular the Gutenberg Project (the early pioneer, almost forgotten), Google Books, and the Internet Archive, that led the way…

…We also see libraries moving into other services, such as providing long-term storage for publications, data sets, and so on. However, there they are competing not just with publishers, who also see the opportunities, but also other organizations, such as campus information technology units, high performance computer centers, and a variety of new commercial startups. The opportunities are many, but so are the competitors….

Of course, people have been talking for over a decade about how the internet and other changes in the information environment will/may spell the death of libraries.  Some may be sense this as tiresome alarmism.

But I think now we’re actually seeing it happening. Many of our responses previously to this library apocalyptic thought was “Sure, traditional library services exactly as delivered may no longer be as important, but there is obviously an even greater need than ever for impartial information services and expertise for academic and civic communities, libraries can and will provide these services.”  But at this point, I think by and large we’ve seen libraries fail to rise to this challenge, which is why we’re seeing the  indicators of the beginning of actual, not just hypothetical future, sidelining of libraries in the university environment. 

If the library effectively ceases to exist as an organization providing information expertise to the university community, one thing our host institutions lose is an organization which can facilitate research/information needs from a perspective of interests aligned to those of the host university community.

The library is one of the few information organizations involved in research life that does not have business interests based on selling our users something (or selling our users’ privacy to someone else), or on convincing users to buy a particular product — but only on facilitating our users own self-directed goals and needs. Libraries can thus, uniquely in the information environment, provide services with transparency, impartiality, assertive protection of user privacy, and a professional ethical responsibility to act always in the interests of our patrons, never sacrificing them to our own business interests.

The existence of libraries as such disinterested advisors is thus extremely valuable in making possible the impartial non-market-based free inquiry at the idealistic heart of academic research and learning itself.  I firmly believe it will be a loss to the academy and to society to see libraries fade to irrelevance.

But that’s not going to be enough to save the library, in the current environment,  if we can’t also provide cost-effective services that not only satisfy (and we are barely doing that) but go on to delight and excite our host communities by what we can do to make their work easier, more productive, and more pleasurable.  A library’s impartiality in failing to deliver services of value is naturally of  limited perceived value to the host organization.

It will require some disruptive changes to our business as usual to get there — some close attention to our patrons’ changing needs, habits, environments, and preferences–and some creativity and risk-taking in attempting to position ourselves to engage our patrons. There’s no guarantee of success and we will inevitably make mis-steps along the way, but how many library organizations are even seriously engaging in the attempt, with all the disruptive risk and challenge it entails?


8 thoughts on “One scenario for the death of the academic library”

  1. Thanks for the pointer to your post, nicholas. For me, your contrast between a culture of compromise and a culture of problem-solving sheds a lot of light on some of the culture clash that programmers find in library organizations.

    I’m biased being an engineer, but I also tend to agree that libraries can acquire a future only by adopting a culture of problem-solving.

  2. Looking at your final comments it suggests to me the sorts of things Brian Mathews has been sharing with his series of white papers on start-up culture and R&D. Also take a look at Designing Better Libraries where I’ve been exploring how librarians can rethink what they do by focusing more on the experience of research and using libraries – and less on the delivery of content (in particular see the post on being a “solutions provider” not just a “contents supplier”.

  3. Jonathan, re: reference service – the model of “passive reference” where a few librarians sit at a desk in some barely reachable corner of a library is part of the problem. I did a blog post where I said that I want the library to look like the Apple store, with identifiable employees roaming among the folks who are visiting, and offering to help. Rather than sit behind a desk, reference librarians should be roaming the stacks and study areas with hand-helds, to be stopped in passing by anyone in the library, able to give help from anywhere in the library. “They don’t come to us!” is a stupid excuse for falling reference use.

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