That is my main point. Let me spend the remainder of my time telling you why I believe it is so. To do this, I will read an imaginary letter that you might receive from your president or provost.
I am writing to begin a dialogue about a matter of great importance to each of us: the future of the university library.
If, as I suppose, our objective is to provide our faculty and students now and in the future generations with the greatest amount of information resources and services that we can for the money that we shall have to spend, some of our most fundamental expectations of the library will have to change. Specifically there will have to be a shift from a principal (if not absolute) emphasis on building the largest collection of published and archival material that we can afford, to an emphasis on making accessible to you the users the greatest amount of information we can, wherever it is located, and in whatever format. Our primary goal for the library must shift from maximum ownership of material to maximum access to materials.
The reasons why I think this is so lie in three areas: costs, technology, and intellectual need.
It is common knowledge that books and journals have become much more expensive in recent years. But do we fully appreciate the
facts: that journal prices have risen by 400% in the past 20 years, and books by almost 40% in the past 5; that on the order of 15% of our expenditures for library services now goes for computer technology that didnt exist 2030 years ago; that the amount of published material worldwide that our and other libraries will need to acquire will increase by as much as 50100%, while prices continue to outstrip both the general rate of inflation and the rate of growth of the universitys resources; that despite more than a 300% growth in expenditures in the past 20 years, acquisition of books and monographs declined by 30%, and we have been forced to significantly cut our journal subscriptions; do we further understand that 30% or more of our collections printed on acidic paper will crumble in our grasp within the next few decades unless steps are taken to preserve it, at great cost; that if we continue to acquire new materials at the present rate, much less at the rate we might wish to, we shall have to build new space at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, with associated ongoing maintenance and operating expenses.
These things add up to enormous costs that we simply cannot afford. Moreover, university resources, already tight, will grow even tighter over the next decade, as we face limits on tuition increases; as competition for faculty grows increasingly fierce with the forthcoming Ph.D. shortage; as we struggle with the renewal of our physical plant; and as we try to maintain our commitments to both teaching and research excellence in a broad array of programs.
If cost necessitates change, technology provides the opportunity and the means for it. Beyond its familiar impact upon the internal operations of our own library, computer technology has enabled the establishment of national databases about library holdings, promoted uniform standards, and created powerful networks for quick and inexpensive distribution of information. We are told that we are on the threshold, some suggest within five years, of the capability of electronic publication and transmission of complete texts. If so, soon it will no longer be possible to deny shared collection development on grounds of technological feasibility. Moreover, this technology will itself almost surely provide a further incentive for change as a competitive information market develops.
In the final analysis, then, the need for shared collection development and access rests upon the need to do better what the library was invented for in the first place. The ultimate argument is neither costs nor technology, but what intellectual resources can and should we have access to.
Stating the problem is easy; and if we set aside our traditional prejudices,
it takes no genius to name cooperation as the only tenable solution.
Envisioning how it can happen is another matter. But although the glass
of ignorance through which I view these matters is very dark indeed,
I have some thoughts to suggest. To begin with, we should not fear neglect
of our own considerable collections. Indeed, every university will have
to maintain basic collections for teaching and research, as well as
to accept responsibility for building depth in focused areas of the
collections. But we ought to envision a time when the autonomous individual
collections of our nations research libraries are in substantial
degree melded into a large dispersed collection to which we all contribute
and in which we all share equally, with appropriate allowances for our
respective needs and investments; a time when our faculty and librarians
will make choices between acquisitions and other expenditures not on
the criterion of volumes added, but on the basis of units
of access provided. We may hope for a time when the Library of
Congress will truly function as a national library at the hub of a nexus
of collections, and not just as the library of the Congress;
and a time when important regional or national consortia, such as the
Research Libraries Group and the Center for Research Libraries, may
not only help guide the collection policies of their individual members,
but supplement those physical collections with regional or national
collections that are mutually owned and operated.
There is much I cannot visualize, of course, such as how the economics of the publishing industry will adjust to such new modes, or how copyright law can be revised to continue to protect the rights of publishers and authors. But these should not be used as excuses not to confront the problem.
There will be losses of course: some degree of autonomy will have to be sacrificed; collective ownership implies some loss of the preferential treatment that we expect of our own library. And to the extent that we commit more of our resources to the support of such cooperative programs the growth in our own acquisitions budget may be curtailed. But considering the erosive forces that are already reducing to myth any idea of maintaining comprehensive collections in our own library, the net effect of such trade-offs can only be positive.
Cooperation among libraries is not a new idea, of course, and cooperative organizations have had a major impact upon librarianship, ranging from expansion of interlibrary loan services, to the development of tools for acquiring, cataloging, searching, and sharing information electronically. But these developments have for the most part been in service of the traditional role of the library and have had relatively little effect in focusing the collective capabilities of research libraries on the task of developing the best possible national library resources and in bringing acquisition costs back within our range of budgetary capacity.
If shared collection development has failed up until now, why should we expect it to succeed in the future? I would suggest that this failure is in part the result of failure of the scholarly community to engage change, and perhaps even to our active resistance to it. When we demand the greatest possible expenditure on acquisitions year after year; when we measure the success of the library in terms of volumes added; when so much of our sense of stature and pride is vested in the library; and when we structure our library budgets so that cooperative programs are directly competitive with acquisitions, even the most far-sighted librarian can do little. Inevitably the consortia which they comprise reflect this pressure, and so little creative effort goes into changing our traditional approaches to collection development.
It is hard to know what steps need to be taken to escape from this situation and move us from speculation to action, but in conclusion I will suggest two things that need to happen concurrently. First, we and other faculties need to commit ourselves to full exploration of the possibilities that cooperation offers for future collection development and access. Second, we need to direct or redirect existing consortia to focus primarily upon this issue, give them the support and freedom to do so, or if necessary create other organizations that can.
To initiate these steps on our own campus, I will shortly establish an office of library planning and development. This office will be under the supervision of the University Librarian and will report directly to me. In order to extricate it from the ongoing business of the library, a budget and staff will be established for this office independent of current library operations, and support for it in future years will be as determined by its ability to demonstrate progress toward making shared collection development a reality. An advisory council will be created to plan and direct the efforts of this office.
Its most immediate tasks will be (1) to conceptualize in practical terms the alternatives that are presented by the prospect of cooperative collection development; (2) to assess the costs and benefits of these alternatives over the next 1020 years as compared to our traditional approach and to define ways by which we can measure and reward progress; (3) to evaluate the feasibility of the proposition of shared collection development in terms of available or prospective technology, costs, and organizational capability; (4) to determine which part of our collections are most amenable to shared collection development and which we should continue to focus on locally; (5) to support and direct our policies toward cooperative library programs in which we participate, including, for example, the Research Libraries Group, the OCLC, and the National Preservation Commission; (6) to find ways to educate and engage the faculty in these issues; and (7) finally to advise the university community in general concerning what it should do in the coming years to help make shared collection development a reality.
There is probably much that is naive, vague, overly optimistic, overlooked, or otherwise mistaken in these remarks. But I am firmly convinced that the fundamental points are valid: that we have much to gain by moving thoughtfully from our present stance of rugged individualism to a cooperative approach to collection development and management; and that in our own self-interest we, the faculty, must become engaged in decisions about our options. I ask you to enter into serious consideration of these matters, and I look forward to your response and the opportunity for further discussion.
John Doe, Provost
Postscript: I ask you, colleagues, would such a provost be better advised to put his creative writing talents into preparing a letter of resignation, or could he hope when asked about his faith in shared collection development in a few years to be able to reply as did the man who was asked if he believed in baptism by immersion: Believe in it! Why Ive seen it!!