by Barbara Quint
I was talking with a colleague recently about what fixes we information professionals should be pressing the information industry to provide these days. He kept talking about finding the pressure points, and I kept mentioning leverage. Talk about a moving target!
Back in the good old/bad old days, info pros had a clear read on what leverage we had with which vendors and what leverage they had with us. Vendors then knew that the library/info pro market defined their annual revenues and we knew how essential — or not — their products were to our operations.
But those days are long gone. End users are the only real market, and tens of thousands of vendors service that market, including “vendors” who are end users themselves. Traditional library vendors find themselves competing with their own suppliers, namely publishers, in online arenas. The publishers are just as threatened — in the case of ebooks, sometimes by outlets such as online bookstores and, increasingly, by authors. It’s a “cats in a sack” world out there, and all the yowling from all those cats can drown out the voices of librarians.
So what can we do to be heard and heard by all the players we use these days? First and foremost, consolidate. Library consortia are the oldest form of consolidation, but not the only one. When it comes to negotiating for scholarly content, where the open access movement constitutes the best hope for humankind, we should consolidate and coordinate our efforts with faculty on campuses and even alumni off-campus. Faculty write the content scholarly publishers want to control. They also instruct students as to what content to use in their studies. We info pros can and should provide the archiving and access tools that the content needs. Our budgets could do no nobler nor more necessary work than support the infrastructure of permanent open access for scholarly content.
Most importantly, we must realize and act on the principle that service to all is service to each. One thing the internet and its web have taught info pros is to spread solutions as broadly as possible until they find every problem they can solve. Sometimes the solutions may even find people who didn’t even know they had a problem.
Vendors, particularly publishers, have long built revenue models on make-one, sell-many. Copies of one book by one author sold and delivered to many purchasers, issues of one journal by many authors sold and delivered to many subscribers. Now the cloud has changed the delivery mode so that all the readers come to one source outlet. But the vendors still want to be paid for each visitor, or even each visit. This is where libraries and vendors come to blows. In a sense, libraries have always had the mission of expanding the use of material, more of a one-sale, many-users model. Bottom line: Librarians dream of a world where every reader gets to read everything they need and/or want. Publishers dream of a world where every purchaser gets sold everything the publisher has to sell them. Clearly, there’s a conflict here. In fact, some ebook publishers have refused to sell to libraries at all. Others have restricted usage in ways that would have libraries buying the same content over and over and over or not buying the content at all.
How can librarians move these vendors to do right by their clients? Well, let’s start looking for the carrots and the sticks. The open access movement and the web itself supply the sticks by offering content that isn’t sold, just delivered. The greatest potential for success in this area lies in scholarly content, in which author rewards — such as raises, promotions, tenure, research grants, etc. — for producing content come from third parties. But even popular literature has seen the rise of self-publishing, including even the writings of best-selling authors. New competitors to traditional publishers, such as Amazon, have offered their venues for popular literature. In this area, I advise keeping an eye on the music field for models of how it could work. Lots of artists have begun bursting the bonds of the traditional music industry with cloud-based hacksaws. Text or tunes, publishing is publishing, and publishers are publishers.
But what about the carrots? Libraries have always served vendors by creating an audience for their products, an audience that time and tide could convert into a market. After all, it was librarians who kept online itself alive and growing through the decades before the internet and its web took off. And the same data sources that librarians used were often the most authoritative ones on the web, the ones that kept the internet from seeming unreliable as an information tool.
Today, librarians teach information literacy at basic and advanced levels. They teach their clients to reach for the best tools to get the best answers, whether those tools are free or fee. If commercial vendors want to reach new markets, they need to assist librarians in reaching them first. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I still cannot understand how vendors who sell to academic markets have failed to provide graduates with full kits of special offers for postgraduate access to their offerings. Of all the dimwitted, short-sighted, @#$@#$... Now here’s an example of a carrot-and-stick combination. Academic librarians should tell vendors that unless they provide products that students can access after they graduate into a future work world, the librarians see no reason to acquire those products on campus. Why waste time training students to use tools they will never see again once they graduate? And, as proof that the vendors do intend to service the larger outside market, the librarians could insist that the vendors provide graduates with those kits. The kits could include discount coupons, free use until the graduate has a new job, promotional material, instruction manuals, local training offerings, etc. In fact, the librarians might do the training for one or more vendors right on campus for recent graduates. Heck! Maybe the graduates with new jobs could bring colleagues from their institutions to the classes.
Carrots and/or sticks! Build the market, build the service. And build whatever we do for the broadest possible audience, not just our immediate clients or even just the institutions that pay our salaries. The more people we can reach, the more minds we can influence, the more chance we have to convince vendors that they should listen to us and do things right — the way we info pros want them done.