The University of North Dakota is cutting almost $600,000 from its library’s materials acquisition budget. A colleague of mine argued that this is a blessing in disguise and I disagreed. This is the next installment of our back and forth. You can find his original remarks here and my response here. He then offered his latest rebuttal here.
My last blog post was an argument in favor of fully funding universities libraries. I understand that for some PQED readers, this may seem like an obscure debate about a particular university, but it isn’t. It’s tremendously important because it speaks to the future of all libraries and because it highlights three very common philosophical errors. I shall call them:
1. ‘I Got Mine, Jack’ Syndrome.
2. Crisis is the new normal.
3. The Cheaper in the Short Run Equals Cheaper in the Long Run fallacy.
In the post that first caught my attention, Bill Caraher argued against funding libraries. He now clarifies that what he supports is resources and that universities don’t need libraries to house them (ours in particular). His research patterns show, he argues, that a great deal of faculty research is enabled by informal networks, favors, and cobbling together of material. We don’t really need a traditional “book house,” he says, just an interlibrary loan portal, digital journal databases, an archive, and a site for social interaction. Bill then added that by rejecting traditional academic journals, the university adjusts market demand and the materials will become cheaper. Library budget cuts, he seems to be saying, are a win-win situation, albeit one that will be painful at the outset.
Bill is wrong about all of these things. To begin with, I’d like to tell a story.
1. The ‘I got mine, Jack’ syndrome.
A few years ago, UND developed its first formal maternity leave policy. At one of the early meetings, a Dean, a woman, is reported to have said “I returned to teaching right after my child was born. I didn’t need a maternity leave policy; I don’t know why anyone else does.” (This is a paraphrased and it came to me as hearsay. Please keep that in mind.)
It should be obvious why this is morally repugnant. It assumes that this woman’s actions should be the standard for all new mothers. It also suggests that pain should be paid forward: she suffered under a bad rule, so she is only be satisfied when everyone else suffers too.
Bill, I think, is making an analogous argument. He assumes that because he can cobble together access to research, everyone can, and everyone should. Well, everyone can’t. Students can’t; they don’t have a suitable network. New faculty can’t; many of their friends don’t have jobs. Faculty who are beginning a new areas of study can’t, nor can people who aren’t particularly well liked. Taken together, this is a very large chunk of a university population.
But perhaps more important, even if someone could piece together access to research materials, they shouldn’t have to. A university has an obligation to provide support for the tasks it evaluates its population on. Students are graded on research they study from. Faculty members are given raises, tenure, and promotion based on this material as well. To make grades and jobs dependent on a resource that does not exist is to set everyone up to fail. The informal network system forces people to exploit other universities’ resources, violate subscription agreements, and share material illegally to get a grade, raise, or tenure. It forces members of the university community to become immoral actors. This is unacceptable.
Bill might respond that many do this now anyway because our own university library has been poorly funded for years, and of course about this he would be right. But these were crisis budgets and should not become the standard for which we should strive. Americans survived on rations during World War 2, does this mean we should make all people eat at the same level now that we are all better off? Of course not. The crisis is not the norm and the two should not be confused. Our goal should be to get out of the crisis as quickly as possible, not to make it permanent.
Bill is probably screaming at the screen right now, shouting that I’m missing the point. We will have resources, he might assert, just digital resources stored somewhere else. It will be cheaper, he might cry, and we would have access to more materials in a more efficient manner.
Again, he would be wrong.
2. The Cheaper in the Short-Run Equals Cheaper in the Long-Run fallacy.
To begin with, the digitize-and-borrow approach misunderstands the budget. It costs UND $300,000 per year to operate the library building, half the amount that the university wants to cut. In contrast, it costs millions of dollars to acquire materials; maintaining the physical space is actually the least expensive thing a library does. Furthermore, print materials are actually cheaper than digital materials, including academic journals. A print version of journal is also cheaper to buy than an electronic version and physical books are less expensive for libraries that eBooks.) So, if the goal were simply to save money, it would actually be best to return to the “book house” model of library and forgo digital databases.
But let’s pretend digital were cheaper. Let’s suggest that for one million dollars, the University of Minnesota would let UND piggyback onto their excellent library system, giving us access to all of their digital resources and providing free interlibrary loan. Hell, let’s pretend cost is even an unrealistic $500,000. Even at these prices this model is more expensive because in this situation, we rent resources, we don’t own them. We pay in perpetuity rather than just once, and if we stop, the material gets taken away. We would have nothing to show for the investment.
When I die, my daughter will get my books. She may keep them, donate them, or sell them. They will be hers to do with what she wishes. My eBooks, however, will not be hers to keep. The Kindle account is in my name and the files will dissipate into the ether. She’s not allowed to transfer them to her account or sell them to an interested buyer. I don’t own the eBooks, I license them, and neither does she. Furthermore, every time a new technology comes out, she’ll have to replace the files. To reference a joke in Men in Black, how many times have people my age bought The White Album? I’ve only paid for my favorite books once.
All of this will be true of the virtual resources at the library as well. One bad budget year could mean decades of effort negated. One major technological shift could result in all the equipment being obsolete. Could the library get these materials back? Sure, but not that year, and not for those students who are enrolled during the crisis. Physical books are always there. My own shelves are full of volumes, some of which are two hundred years old. When they are well taken care of, books last almost forever.
I don’t mean to denigrate digital books, by the way. I love my Kindle and I adore having digital access to journals. But it need not be one or the other, and if the issue is budgetary, for libraries, print is exponentially cheaper.
3. Will refusing to buy expensive journals lower their prices?
Bill has faith in the market. He thinks that when universities refuse to pay exorbitant journal prices, their cost will go down. As an Adam Smith scholar, I sympathize with this point of view. But again, he misses the point. If the UND faculty uses other libraries resources, then their costs will go up and they will pass along the price or refuse to help us. In academia, the demand for scholarship is constant because we need it to survive, and because we create it ourselves.
The true cost of journals is not the subscriptions we pay. It is instead the time, effort, and resources we all put in to create the content they publish. Faculty researchers donate their work to journals for free. We receive no payment and no royalties, and in almost all instances, we give up our copyright. We do these things because we want to disseminate our work, be known in our fields, and because publication is the key to promotion, tenure, raises, and scholarly interaction. The only way to make journals cheaper is to change the entire system, to rethink what it means to publish in the first place. I’m all for this, but the library budget is not the place to start. Bill is looking for the wrong solution in the wrong location.
This is a very long blog post; I appreciate those who have stuck with me. I hope that it is interesting for PQED readers to see a true academic back-and-forth. My conclusion is simple: the argument that a university needs resources not a library is specious and built on misunderstandings. Libraries have existed for thousands of years because they are more than just the latest technology; they are a vehicle for inquiry, community, and a record of human achievement. People need to be in them. Books need to be in them. The university needs to be in them.
A university needs a library because in some important senses, the university is a library. It is where all the university missions intersect and where an archive is kept of the successes, failures, projects, hopes, and disappointments of its faculty, students, staff, and surrounding community. Abandoning it is abandoning, not just the institution, but also the people who thrive within its borders. Abandoning the library will never be cheaper, it will never be smarter, and it will never be more efficient. It will only be a form of shooting us all in the foot, one citation at a time.