by Barbara Quint
to happen so often lately, the other day I found myself
musing on the future of libraries, librarianship, and
librarians. As my musings continued, words from the
Bible came to my mind never really a good sign lines
from Matthew (25:32-33): "And before him shall be gathered
all nations: and he shall separate them one from another,
as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And
he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats
on the left." That word "but" tips the reader off that
the "lefthand" side may not turn out to be the best
seat in the house. A little later in the chapter, we
find exactly how un-usherably miserable the left-handed
spot can become (Mat 25: 41): "Then shall he say also
unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed,
into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his
Meanwhile, those right-handed sheep are living large!
A combination of forces is putting pressure on the
information profession. Oddly enough, one of the pressure
points is ourselves. The "Open Access" movement for
freeing scholarship from commercial control has now
spread across continents. It has moved from the offices
of angry librarians to the laboratories of indignant
scientists. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL)
[http://www.arl.org] urges its members to support Open
Access and gives extensive details on just how to do
that. The Public Library of Science [http://www.plos.org] presses scientists around the world to publish in its "OA" journals,
the first of which it has loaded onto Biomed Central
[http://www.biomedcentral.com]. Legislators have joined
the fray. In the U.S. Congress Rep. Martin Sabo has
proposed legislation, the H.R. 2613 Public Access to
Science bill, which would remove copyright protection
for any work based substantially on federal scientific
research funding. Parliament seems poised to join Congress.
In the U.K., Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons
Science and Technology Committee, has scheduled an
inquiry into a whole range of concerns from costs of
scholarly publications to electronic access. From sea
to shining sea, librarians raging against publisher
prices and contractual rigidities constitute a major
lobbying force in these developments.
But let's look down the road a bit, shall we? It's
not only publishers who rely on a universe based on
the write-once-print/publish-many model. So do librarians.
The economic justification underlying the existence
and continuance of most libraries lies in the expense
of information. Libraries serve as buying and sharing
consortia for communities of users, generating efficiencies
by eliminating the necessity for multiple readers to
become multiple purchasers. Of course, we know that,
without libraries, a lot less reading would be done,
and a lot fewer people would be readers. Nonetheless,
we buy expensive material and increase the efficiency
of its usage by creating a sharing/access platform.
That's what we do. That's what people pay us to do.
But what if the cost of distributing the material
drops precipitously? What if it becomes, to all extents
and purposes, free? What if, at the same time, the
access to the material rises exponentially, becoming
available 24/7/365 worldwide? And, just to top off
the three items on every quality checklist (Better,
Faster, Cheaper), the material also arrives with most
of the same quality checks as the earlier, printed
formats plus new quality aspects never available before,
including more and multimedia content, attached threads
of discussion by readers of the material, opportunities
for authors to do ongoing corrections, etc.?
So in this Best, Fastest, Cheapest of all possible
worlds, who needs a purchasing consortium? Who needs
access sharing consortia? And who needs the information
professionals trained to run them?
Of course, the archiving issues and some access issues
remain. Quality material would need extra protection,
e.g., multi-site archiving, authoritative "notarized" copies,
etc. One would need special access tools to identify
quality material and maintain the links between items
born in the Brave New Digital World and all material
generated in the formats of previous millennia. But
such activities would only require the action of a
few large operations set up to handle it.
Who would run those outfits? Well, publishers hope
that it will be them. Considering the poor reputation
publishers now have among the current purchasers (librarians)
and the sharp decline their reputations have undergone
with authors/readers, it seems borderline that today's
scholarly publishers can make the transition. Factor
in profit expectations and the likelihood seems almost
impossible. Database aggregators like ProQuest or Gale
might have stepped up to the task, but seem to find
themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.
To move to support the new publishing routes, e.g.,
by direct negotiation with authors, these aggregators
would have to offend the publishers supplying them
with the mass of their current content. That the aggregators
cannot or will not do. And, once again,
the aggregators have high revenue expectations to meet
as well as feeling very comfortable with the limited
costs involved in selling to libraries, rather than
dealing with large end-user populations.
What about the Net Newbies? Well, there's certainly
movement on that front. Strong rumors circulate that
Google is undertaking major archiving as well as access
work with scholarly collections. Biomed Central already
handles the PLoS journals. But dot-coms might not seem
to have stability or history enough to satisfy the
comfort factor needed.
Who's left? Libraries. But not all libraries. BIG
libraries. BIG libraries led by BIG librarians. Librarians
with vision and imagination and resources and connections.
In other words, the nation's large research libraries,
the same kind of libraries that join the Association
of Research Libraries. These large libraries most often
serve prestigious universities that have plans underway
to use the prestige of their names to expand into distance-learning
programs. Most distance-learning programs have to rely
on strong digital library service. A strong enough
digital library service could probably pay its own
way by serving a network of distance-learning operations,
even those outside its own institution.
So what does this all mean? Fewer, Better Libraries
run by Fewer, Better Librarians. And what about the
rest of the profession? Where do they go for employment?
Do they retreat to battle lines against the oncoming
forces? Do they cling to children's reading rooms?
Do they end up penning anti-digital diatribes for publication
in print issues of the Flat World Monthly?
Well, in this moment of crisis, let us turn once
again to the New Testament for guidance. What exactly
did those Goats do to end up on the list of Eternal
Losers? "For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat.
I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink. I was a stranger,
and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not;
sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not," accused
the Lord. When the Goats protested that they never
saw the Lord in any such difficulties, he answers, "Verily
I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of
the least of these, ye did it not to me." On the other
hand, the only time someone hungry, thirsty, and partially
clothed couldn't hit up the Sheep for a hand-out was
when the Sheep were out visiting the sick or imprisoned.
The Sheep were good guys whenever they got the chance.
The criterion for the Great Divide remains what it
has always been the service ethic. Whatever
serves the best interest of the client constitutes
the duty of the information professional. The trick
for the future of the profession lies in finding new
tasks that need doing, new ways to do them, and ways
to convince clients everywhere that they need us.
Don't worry. We'll find them.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is email@example.com.