A shift in focus

I've altered the tagline on this blog slightly, to reflect where it seems to be going. (I am not in control here; I am merely the author-function! Sorry, sorry, lit-crit joke.)

At the same time, I've been thinking a lot about library collections, what's in them and how it gets there. (I'm teaching a graduate course in collection development at the moment, which has of course bent my thoughts in that direction.)

Here's where I'm sitting, and my commenters (who are smarter than I am) are welcome to challenge me. When collection development came into its own in academic libraries, forty years or so ago, it became a key locus of competition among libraries. The library that dies with the most books wins!

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Individual collections of particular excellence count as well; research libraries do have their specialties. Special collections is its own locus of competition, and so are various forms of digital collection-building. Still, when it comes down to it, the measurement we reach for most often to characterize ourselves is collection size. (The second most common measurement is probably collection budget, which itself is a proxy for size.)

Some notable problems have arisen with this siloed collection method. Perhaps the largest is that it's no longer affordable to build a sufficient collection, never mind a specialized one, on an individual-institution basis, what with the serials crisis and the immense growth in publications of all kinds.

Another problem coming to light is the considerable cross-institutional overlap in collections. It turns out that when you leave a lot of individual smart people to prioritize collections in a particular area with limited budgets, they mostly collect the same stuff, leaving a substantial pool of material collected in such low quantities that a natural disaster or an ordinary in-the-course-of-business book loss means there may be hardly any (or even no) copies left. This is, of course, a threat to the scholarly record. What isn't collected by research libraries with a serious commitment to preservation, often doesn't survive.

Rare-materials surveys are ongoing, so we don't understand the full scope of the problem yet, but already it's becoming clear that quite a few print materials, some too fragile to be saved by such initiatives as Google Books, are held in so few libraries that their survival is in serious doubt. Moreover, print runs of scholarly monographs continue to decline, and even today's meagre runs don't get bought. I heard a literature scholar once who was pleased that her monograph, representing three years' work, would receive a 250-copy print run from its press.

Not a few blogs have more readers than that… but I digress. The problem from a scholarly perspective is that this monograph is in serious danger of permanent, irrevocable destruction because it will likely not be collected, held, and preserved by enough libraries.

All this bother, ultimately deriving from an emphasis on local collection practices: collect from the world for your local patrons, and if that myopia causes systemic problems, too bad.

Well, what's the alternative, then?

Shortly after I started this post, Barbara Fister's lovely, fiery essay on Liberation Bibliography came out. She has since published another suggesting that libraries need to look up from their locales, acknowledge their part in the current difficulties, and move decisively toward open access. Unsurprisingly, I completely agree.

What Barbara envisions, I think, is a shift in the focus of collection development. Rather than collecting from the wider world for the local patron base, collection developers will collect from the local patron base, everything from datasets to postprints, in order to make it all available to the world, in the short- and the long-term.

Collection developers are now demanding of me, "But what about the winnowing function of collection development? If we don't limit our collection by our well-honed instincts about what our particular patron base needs and can best use, they'll be swamped!"

To which I respond, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm now that they've seen Paree?" Like it or not, the information-discovery universe has gone global, Internet-wide. Filtering is still important, heaven knows, but we can't do it via collection development any longer. We'll have to find other ways.

And how will we judge our own quality, if the easy numbers are taken away from us? I believe that metrics will shift from what we buy to what we contribute to the commons. Hathi Trust is a good beginning, but only a beginning; there's much more we can do. Under such a regime, supporting DOAJ and SCOAP3 and PLoS and arXiv isn't a dubious burden, threatening precious collection-development dollars; it's the heart of the mission, the most important arbiter of research-library quality. Under such a regime, the institutional repository isn't a careless afterthought; it's where the library magnifies the institution's value.

This shift won't happen overnight. It's not happening at all in most libraries, as best I can tell. Perhaps it won't.

Still, I think it should. I'd add "Liberation Bibliographer" to my business card, if I dared.


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