Yesterday, I had rare good fortune. A blogger responded to my blog post. Now, I will admit that this blogger, Prof. Jack Weinstein, is a member my local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Academic Bloggers, Podcasters, and Self Promoters, but a response is a response.
His post is rather straightforward. He argues that a university needs a library because “without one, it is not a university at all”, and states that scholars need access to currently library materials to fulfill their responsibilities as researchers and to engooden humanity. (I’ll overlook his concern for local issues such as the Exceptional (in a good way!) UND platform and the like. These are largely red herrings.)
It’s clear that the point I was trying to make was misunderstood.
First, for some of us on campus the library is no longer our source of current research material. Through tricks and travel, we have developed creative strategies to gain access to the materials that we need for our research. Our strategies do expend social capital and involve compromises, but there is ample room for reciprocity because many of us find ourselves in the same boat.
Next, no amount of funding will likely change this. Libraries are built over decades of sustained funding. The Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been slowly strangled for most of the late 20th and early 21st century. Without resources, it has not been able to adapt to the research needs of new scholars on campus, new fields and sub-disciplines, and even new directions in teaching. An increase in funding for this year or the next is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Third, while I’m in favor of funding the library (actually, I would fund almost everything), I recognize that during dire economic times, some sacrifices have to be made. Moreover, funding the library has distinct disadvantages at this present moment. As Prof. Weinstein’s link showed, even such elite institutions as Harvard are feeling the growing burden of “mega greedy” academic publishers. One way to send a shot across the bow of these groups is to stop buying their journals and shift to open access solutions. Right now, a percentage of our library funding contributes to a exploitative and exclusionist system that does as much to limit access to scholarly work as it does to facilitate it. If Prof. Weinstein’s concern is over access the real evil lies not with cutting library funding, but with price gouging of academic publishers. At a moment where the flow of information is less expensive than ever before, the cost of academic journals continues to increase (as do these corporation’s profit margins).
This prompted me to make an argument comparing funding a library to the use of fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are available and funding exists, we will continue to use them. The alternatives seem difficult, unfamiliar, and restrictive. As Prof. Weinstein might argue, ambulances and school buses (and the North Dakota economy) run on fossil fuels and any effort to curtail access to them is tantamount of telling sick orphans to drag their own debilitated bodies to the hospital. (Ok, perhaps, I have overstated my point… but whatever…). But we know there are better alternatives even if they are painful.
The cuts to the library are disappointing and unfortunate, but I just can’t agree that a university needs a library in a traditional sense of being a “book house”. In fact, with the exception of the brilliant interlibrary loan department and a handful of journal subscriptions, I manage to keep my admittedly modest research agenda moving forward and I suspect many of my colleagues could say the same thing. (I expect that funding cuts to the library here will accompany a relaxing of teaching and research expectations. After all, tough times require compromises all the way around.) I can see the library continuing to function in the future as a gathering place, access point for information, and an archive.
I think that my experiences speak to the future of academic libraries. Funding will continue to decline and this coincides with a change in the landscape of academic publishing. Open access will continue to expand and scholarly access to pay resources will become more personalized and less institutionalized. (In other words, with diminishing institutional resources, academic publishers have already begun to recognize that scholarly materials tend to circulate rapidly and efficiently through social networks (e.g. academia.edu) that cross institutional barriers.)
Maybe to rephrase the question a bit in light of Prof. Weinstein’s critiques: Do universities need libraries? I still say no.
Instead, I’d argue that that students and researchers need access to scholarly materials. Looking ahead, libraries will play a role in this process but they do not represent the only avenue.