Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
It's a zero sum game. If there's no competitor for the database, the database can set its price to the moon. Library budgets being what they are, (i.e. quite limited, as university libraries were the first units to suffer severe cuts in the current economy) there is grave concern that library book buying/book publishing will be severely damaged, even ended, by monopolistic databases. Some of these already charge over a million a year per school. Budgets of libraries are being cut by 15-20%. Meanwhile, database budgets are rising by 20%. Jstor, for instance, has escalated way out of proportion to any real increase in their operating expenses. One database, Elsevier, went from $1.5 to $2 million from this year to next year.

The vision of the library of the future comes from the sciences, pushed by the idea that technical info will become more accessible online. A job ad for head librarian at Stanford recently read:

The librarian will head "a library, but in the most advanced definition of that term, and ultimately, as the literatures of the disciplines move to digital form, it is envisioned as a bookless facility."

At all of the New York state centers of research, there are plans afoot to either tear down current libraries (schools need the space that books occupy) or else use the old space for academic computing services. Now, what would be the point in storing books for retrieval IF the university is already paying Google millions for their digital book service? That makes no sense.

So, why be concerned by this? Well, in this atmosphere of budget cuts, the libraries are top targets. Why? Because they are a source of large, relatively accessible cuts that can be made on short notice (i.e. hack a database, save a million). That problem is worsened because many expensive databases are used mainly by the sciences, and those are looking at substantial inflationary increases. Put two and two together: budget cuts, price increases, something is going to give. In the political reality of modern universities, the sciences receive first priority.

About these science inspired bookless facilities: they've become more learning centers (i.e. computer & literacy skill centers) than research centers. I'm all for learning and literacy, of course, but in terms of allocated space, it will come at the expense of research.

I'm not bemoaning the death of book culture here as much as I am concerned with database monopolies. Book culture is a concern in that budgets for book buying and journal subscriptions are being slashed (and that's been expected for several years now). So, basically, the media (university books and journal articles) which sustain the conversations in many disciplines are disappearing. This has been the recent reality:

  1. University libraries have significantly reduced the number of monographs they purchase.  These reductions especially impact the humanities where much very important research is published first and only in book form.

  2. University presses, under constraint by the financial officers of university administrations to "break even," have significantly reduced the number of monographs they publish.

  3. I've run into difficulties accessing a journal online if my school has not subscribed to that journal directly through the database. Print copies are out of the question.

But again, this is mere carping about the dying of book culture. More concerning for me is control of digitization.

For instance, the model for online retrieval comes from the sciences. This literally means that books are now available only page by page, since that has become the price model (per page pricing). Many of those in the Humanities have been objecting to the new models because it doesn't fit our research methods.

In fact, many scholars have gone beyond the problem and already suggested ways in which Humanists can intervene in the debate.

Here's a lengthy quote from Johanna Drucker on possible modes of intervention for scholars (note, she isn't protesting the loss of books, but rather how books will be digitized, saved, searched, in competition with Google): "The task of modeling an environment for scholarship (not just individual projects, but an environment, with a suite of tools for access, use, and research activity) is not a responsibility that can be offloaded onto libraries or technical staffs. I cannot say this strongly or clearly enough: The design of digital tools for scholarship is an intellectual responsibility, not a technical task. After all, what will such "research portals" do? What kinds of work will they be designed to support? Editing? Annotation? Aggregation of leaves of manuscripts scattered at remote institutions? Collaborative writing? Close readings? Data mining? Information display? Multimedia writing? Networked conversation? Publishing? Those are enormous questions, to which no scholar would have the same set of answers as another. No scholar would have the same requirements. But creating boutique, custom solutions on a project-by-project basis is not practical, and the labor involved is too costly. The scope of the task ahead is nothing short of modeling scholarly activity anew in digital media. To answer that challenge, humanists have to do more than wave their hands at the technical professionals."

"Scholars in the humanities have been particularly remiss in taking seriously the role they need to play in this project. For years when I was at the University of Virginia, where the library took the lead on digital-humanities projects, serving as home, sponsor, mentor, and friend to the many research institutes that helped break new ground and establish now-standard practices, faculty members involved in those activities came up repeatedly against a wall of resistance from within their ranks. Humanities, arts, and social-science colleagues repeatedly dismissed digital projects as work for the library community. Most considered the creation of digital materials a technical matter of access, a thing "they" should do and take care of for "us." That attitude contains a grotesque misunderstanding of the basic problem: Unless we scholars are involved in designing the working environments of our digital future, we will find ourselves in a future that doesn't work, without the methods and materials essential to our undertakings. Returning to the architecture analogy, you shouldn't build a new house without dialogue between architect and client. Would you let a contractor determine basic space allocation? Technical experts and library professionals are not mind readers. Design must emerge from the context of use."

I think she's way way too optimistic. The likelihood is that as with the naming of "learning" centers, the Humanities instructor will be charged with literacy concerns, not research, while the digital database serves the sciences in a presumably adequate fashion. This has been my experience anyway, and I have access to one of the top two libraries in New York state, a state that spends more money on education per capita than any other US state. At my previous school, ranked in the top 20, my current library was the envy of my colleagues.

by Upstate NY on Wed Jun 17th, 2009 at 08:36:14 PM EST
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