American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 14

Scholars and Research Libraries
in the 21st Century

Billy E. Frye
D. Kaye Gapen
A. Richard Turner
Richard A. Lanham


Statement from the Research Library Committee

The Future of the Library: A View from the Provost’s Office
Billy E. Frye

The Needs of Scholars: Libraries in Transformation
D. Kaye Gapen

Patricia Battin

Lights Are On, Will Anybody Be Home?
A. Richard Turner

Electronic Texts and University Structures
Richard A. Lanham

Access to Scholarly Materials

Patricia Battin
Commission on Preservation and Access

Last October I was asked by the M.I.T. Communications Seminar to join a group of futurists to discourse on my vision of the “electronic library.” For the last 10 years, I have lived a disconcerting schizophrenic existence — in the company of humanists and my library colleagues, I am cast as a flaming radical, because I dare to talk about change, but in the midst of engineers and computer scientists, I suddenly become a veritable pin-striped conservative. While my colleagues on the panel spoke enthusiastically about “knowbots” and other digital aliens of the future, I was full of caution about the transformation process, the real world, and our continuing capacity to provide access to recorded knowledge.

The year 2010 will represent the end (or at least a milestone) of an organized 20-year effort to preserve our crumbling knowledge base recorded on acid paper. Also in 2010, we are told, scholarship, libraries, and publishing will be completely transformed. Students, scholars, and librarians will be sitting in front of powerful workstations, linked around the world, sending and receiving both textual and nontextual data, images of a quality higher than the original, voice, music, and other forms of multimedia not yet known to us.

Vast amounts of text and image will be stored optically, and inexpensive bound volumes will be available on demand. Sophisticated artificial intelligence software and expert systems will guide the user to the desired information and provide custom-made packages of selected information to be routinely digested by the individual consumer.

Well, I asked — what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, except the fact that, despite this eminently plausible and even conservative scenario from a technological perspective, most of the nation’s private colleges and universities and well over half of the public institutions filed for bankruptcy in the mid-1990s in a futile effort to pay the staggering costs generated by the enthusiastic and indiscriminate adoption of information technology in the exuberant 1980s.

On the other hand, back in 1850, there undoubtedly were similar skeptics decrying the enthusiasm for cheaply produced acidic books which fueled the spread of literacy and the amazing explosion of scholarship. The mere notion of huge multi-million volume collections of books and journals, meticulously cataloged, and housed in massive buildings duplicated across the country at enormous expense was probably ridiculed in similar fashion. And yet the 19th century concept of the research library — the acquisition and storage of printed materials, organized and cataloged according to nationally accepted bibliographic standards, and subsidized by private and public institutions of higher education — became our primary means of providing access to recorded knowledge.

I think my schizoid experience is a metaphor for the condition research libraries and the scholarly community face today. We can’t afford, intellectually or financially, to maintain the historic model, any more than we can afford, intellectually or financially, to unthinkingly jettison print on paper, a refereed publishing process, and an institutional archival responsibility for the technical glories of an ill-defined electronic scholarly communication process. The characteristics of information technology and its extraordinary impact on the scholarly process and the quest for knowledge are such that the past is no paradigm for the future.

The most significant change, in my opinion, is that we can now generate, store, disseminate, and use a scholarly work in different formats. We can store text in image format — on paper, film, or CD-ROM’s. We can store text in ASCII format on a variety of media. The technology exists to disseminate it by parcel post, UPS, FAX, or data networks and to repackage it in a variety of convenient formats for the requesting scholar, depending upon the contemplated use.

In the academic community, it is far easier to create than to transform; easier to introduce new networking capabilities, electronic mail, and sophisticated retrieval mechanisms than to link those capacities in a meaningful manner to the information habits of working scholars, whose inquiries span decades, disciplines, and formats.

If we are to proceed in an intellectually responsible way to transform our research libraries — our 19th and 20th century means of providing access to our society’s accumulated knowledge — I think we need to separate myth from fact.

It is a human tendency, I have found, to demand, in the transformation process, absolute perfection from the new model and adamantly deny the failings of the tried and true.

What’s wrong with the old model?

  • Paper disintegrates: we have an enormous and costly deferred maintenance challenge on our hands if we are to insure access for future generations to the literature of the past.
  • The rate of publication continues to increase, demanding more space and more dollars to collect less and less of the world output of publications.
  • Periodical costs continue to escalate: up 9.5% for 1990. Average price for domestic serials: 1990 = $93.45;
    1989 = $85.37.
  • Our large research libraries report that in the past 15 years, their annual acquisition of the world’s literature has declined from 15% to 5% in 1989. Statistics of ARL libraries indicate that “volumes added” declined during 14 of the last 19 years through 1988; the average collection nevertheless doubled in less than 19 years.
  • The illusion of space for continuing storage of print on paper in most of our universities is just that — an illusion.
  • Despite the spectacular growth of bibliographic utilities during the last decade, cataloging arrearages continue to grow in large research libraries, so that access to acquired materials is severely limited or nonexistent.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the innovative technology of acid paper provided the foundation for a greatly expanded system of scholarly communication. We stand again at such a watershed, and we can’t afford it all. Unlike the book, the visible, intrinsic obsolescence of the new storage media and access to hard- and software now forces us to confront upfront the costs of insuring access to future generations as we design the library of the future. How can we use this amazing capacity to generate, store, disseminate, and use information in an intellectually and financially responsible way which enables us to insure our primary objective of access to a very broad, verv disparate scholarly clientele?

The new technologies bring with them their own set of access barriers:

  • Transitory hardware and software storage and access systems;
  • A wide range of storage media of uncertain longevity;
  • Lack of standards for every aspect of electronic communication, reminiscent of the old institution-specific bibliographic systems;
  • A whole new set of quality control concerns, such as the authenticity of the information and the quality of the database;
  • The need for a new and costly infrastructure of networks, hardware, and software to provide access to all;
  • Problem of controlling costs centrally in a system of distributed access;
  • Capacity to control the distribution and ownership of electronic information: The ALA has monitored government publication through the past decade and issued a continuing report entitled “Less Access to Less Information by and about the U.S. Government.” A strong federal trend toward privatization of information published at taxpayer expense has severely constrained access to important research materials.

How do we transform our research libraries in an intellectually and financially responsible manner? What do we give up and what do we carry forward with us? How do we assess the value of the new technologies to the primary mission of instruction and scholarship so that we have reasonable grounds on which to accept or reject their utilization?

We have to take a clear-eyed look at our mythologies. How much browsing really takes place? Is it worth the enormous cost of space? Is it worth giving up access to a much larger slice of the worlds literature in order to have an increasingly smaller selection at hand? Is it worth crippling the institutions efforts to share the costs of bibliographic control, archival storage, and more efficient means of document and content delivery?

These are the painful questions we must explore together if we are to provide the scholars of the 21st century the breadth of access to scholarly resources that we have known. As one of my colleagues recently observed, sticking our heads in the sand is not an option.

Choice is the key word in librarianship today, as it is in the broader higher education community. The making of choices now permeates the entire process of developing collection strategies and insuring continuing access to our knowledge resources. And since no one institution can do it all, we need to develop a rational, cooperative national context in which local and regional decisions can be made. The higher education community is faced with three formidable obstacles to traditional access: lack of space to continue as before, the costly preservation of our historic knowledge base, and inadequate financial resources to support the traditional concept of the research library.

More than 40 years ago, my father, a politically conservative businessman with a sketchy educational background, taught his politically liberal, self-styled intellectual daughter an enduring lesson. I came home from my radical-chic college to find he had purchased the newest bourgeois monstrosity — a primitive black and white television set. After listening patiently to my intellectually pretentious railings, he said to me quietly and firmly that the new technology was here to stay, that it would be a major force in the world I would live in, and that I had better put my energies into channeling its potential into socially useful purposes. And so it is with information technology. If we don’t recognize what has happened, we could lose it all. Universities and colleges won’t be able to afford books and journals, our massive collections of acid paper will turn to dust, and we will he forced to buy, screen by screen for a hefty fee, the privilege of exploring the knowledge we have created.

In the 21st century, we face not only the preservation of the storage medium, but more importantly, the assurance of access. The library as a social institution was created to provide continuing and equitable access to knowledge in a free society. In the past, we could achieve that goal by storing, preserving, and providing access to printed books and journals. Access in the Information Age will be infinitely more complex, since we must insure not only the longevity of the storage medium, but the means of access and retrieval as well.