Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The subscription rate stops here

I've been listening a lot lately to librarians talk about what libraries pay for content. Not books so much, those can be pricy, sure, but for everything else.

And I have to wonder: why? Journal and database vendors are one of the growth sectors of this economy. Say what you like about the oil companies and their record profits in these times when gas is going up over $4.00/gallon (I paid over $4 per gallon just two days ago) and the airlines and their record profits at the same time as they're charging us $25-$50 a checked bag plus the inflated ticket prices, they have nothing on the journal and database vendors. Seriously.

These vendors raise prices at a whim. Anybody else notice how some venture capital firms have bought some of them and not traded them off for a quick profit? They're a cash cow.

To be fair, the libraries don't have a lot of choices. These are resources to which people need quick access. It's not like there's an alternative, either. It's not the tortilla chip market where if the store is charging too much for brand A, you can grab a bag of brand B on sale. The content is good. The content is valuable. The content is needed by your consumers, whether they be members of the public, students, faculty, etc.

Or are there alternatives? A few libraries and library systems have struck back, boycotting various vendors and their products, but those really are the big guys. And worse, it doesn't seem like it's made a difference. I work with a Collection Development Librarian who is pretty good at getting deals and getting vendors to lower their prices, but you know others aren't getting the same deal just because she does. (Come to think of it, there's a strong resemblance to the airline ticket market there...)

In a perfect world, it might take a two-pronged approach: Libraries have to boycott, authors have to refuse to submit. Okay, so I know well enough that's not going to happen, especially in the academic market where not publishing can cost you your tenure track job or your grant funding that pays your wages, but I sometimes dream, late at night, that we could all do this for a year. And then see if maybe those prices might go down.

Okay, so that's probably hit ridiculous (entrancing, but unlikely). But here's the conspiracy theorist part of my brain and the tangential connect to things archival.  I've heard a lot of people over the past few years reassessing library missions. And here's what I'm hearing: that the future isn't in the published stuff. As more and more goes online, do libraries really need to hold/subscribe to local copies? Their own copies? Of stuff that's accessible elsewhere? And the corollary: Can't libraries pretty much outsource a lot of the work involved with accessing these things? Automate it? Does it all need to be within a brick and mortar library building?  Can't libraries just partner in consortia to provide a lot of this material in tandem? (Yes I know this is too simplistic on sooooo many levels, but bear with me here. The overarching direction still holds.)

As an archivist, this is music to my ears. Because what then makes the library special, unique, worth keeping around, a content-provider in the truest form, are the local collections. The unique collections. The Alaskana, the Washingtonia, the "local history" sections. The Institutional Repositories. The Rare Books section. THE ARCHIVES. We're the pieces of the  libraries and governments that are going to matter. Because we're the future of the libraries. We are what will bring in scholars and researchers to a physical place. That will make this library, in this location, matter.  The source for information that cannot be found elsewhere. The archivists, curators, local specialists have always known it, even if we haven't been particularly adept at arguing it. But it is nice to hear our allied professionals argue it on our behalf now.

Whether that's right or not, it is something of a compelling argument to me. And (here's a neat writing trick: returning to my original topic) I wonder if maybe the vendors haven't kind of figured it out as well. I notice that a lot of them are turning some of their efforts to the software market: building, or trying to, anyhow, tools that make discovery of library holdings simpler. Are they making profits off the journals and databases while they can, knowing this can't hold out forever? Maybe they do see the light at the end of the tunnel and are starting to realize that what's coming at them is not expanding and infinite profits, but the UV-coated reading room lights of thousands of archives and special collections who don't need to pay for a multi-year subscription to an academic journal on mitochondrial DNA. Each. Are they making as much as they can before the well runs dry? (come to think of it, there's your comparison to the oil companies. And yes, I know I'm in a shaky moral spot complaining about oil company profits given how the state government of Alaska is largely funded...)

But I'll get off that conspiracy theory kick, because it does make me sound like a conspiracy theorist and mostly I make a very bad one. What else it makes me wonder, is if all those people cutting budgets realize that they're destroying their own futures when they see the special collections as an easy target. (University of Nevada Reno are you listening?) We bring in a lot of free content, donated by members of the community or created by the institution. We bring in grants. We bring in monetary donations. We provide safety, security, access for those institutional records you'll need if you ever get audited or sued. We have personnel costs, sure, but that should be assuaged by how much we're NOT paying for the acquisition of content that can be obtained in other places. And even personnel-wise, we're often the smallest departments in the library or state or local government so cutting us really doesn't take that much off the top of your personnel budget lines.

Want to have a real and long term effect on your financial bottom dollar? Go after those vendors and content providers who keep raising their prices every year and aren't giving you anything more or anything special to show for it. Make them roll back that 45% increase in subscription costs over the next 5 years (one particularly appalling incident I heard about this year for one of the primary medical journals) if they're not going to give you some ice cream with that. The librarians and the archivists aren't the ones getting 45% raises over the next five years (or ever, mostly). Does anybody really believe that the cost for editing, cataloging, servers and tech support for those database vendors go up by 9% a year? Why aren't our institutions pushing back? Especially the ones funded by municipal, state, federal funds? Why aren't all of our institutions pushing back, as a group? A united front? We're all facing the same budget challenges, though the degree may be different. Why do we insist on thinking that this is something we have to deal with as individual institutions? And then pay for, when we don't win the argument with the sales rep?

Dare you. Double dog dare you.

And after that, you can help me take on the software provider for our digital archives. Speaking of not getting ice cream with that upgrade...

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