Building the future of scholarly resources

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We at Berkeley Library have just posted a position for an Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources, an evolution of our current AUL Collections position. I’d like to offer some thoughts about what we think leadership in scholarly resources means for a research library.

Our mission, as I see it, is to help people find, evaluate and use information resources to build a better world. We seek an AUL for Scholarly Resources to lead our efforts in three key areas that advance this mission

  1. development and management of access to scholarly resources
  2. improving practices in scholarly communication
  3. systematically assessing resources and services

Access to scholarly resources

For more than 4000 years one of the most important functions to serve our mission was to create collections. Hence, our profession is known as librarianship: we are the people who create and maintain libraries.  Building collections was critical because information was expensive to publish and distribute, and thus information resources were scarce.  We couldn’t help people find, evaluate and use information without making a collection of these scarce resources available to them.

However, the economics of information production, discovery and access have changed radically in the past 20-30 years as a consequence of the digital revolution. Now the cost to reproduce and distribute most information is vanishingly close to zero, so we are faced not with scarcity, but abundance of information resources. (NB: the cost is about zero, but that doesn’t mean the price is always close to zero: more on this below.)  Our mission really has not changed in the past 4000 years, but the role of collecting to serve this mission has greatly changed.

To keep the focus on our mission to serve people’s information needs, it is more useful for us to say that, rather than a primary focus on building collections, the critical role is providing access to resources.  We pursue a mixture of strategies to make information resources available.  For example, we establish portals and way-finding assistance to help people locate useful resources wherever they might reside.  We license access to many resources (most notably, at present, scholarly journals), without ever owning or “collecting” them.  (Indeed, in our library, about 60% of our current resources budget is spent on licenses for access to digital resources.)

This does not mean that we are no longer in the business of collecting!  Some important information resources still are scarce and expensive, and so we still need libraries to collect these.  This is especially true for resources that are still primarily produced in print format (which currently includes most scholarly monographs, particularly those published outside North America and Europe).  And, of course, rare historical resources that are in print (or other analog) formats (our “special collections”) need to be collected by institutions if they are to be available to the public in the future.  Also, for some types of learning and scholarship, print format is sufficiently more useful than digital that we need to bear the higher cost of collecting print, rather than (solely) providing digital access.  After all, our mission is to serve our users who want to use the information, not to minimize cost (though we can’t ignore the trade-offs that the higher cost of print impose on us).

Another reason we still need to collect and maintain many print resources is that the information they contain is artificially scarce and expensive because it is under copyright, so we can’t (yet) digitally reproduce and distribute it at a price that approaches the near zero cost of doing so.  For example, Berkeley is a member of the HathiTrust consortium, which has an archive containing full-text searchable digital files of nearly 14 million volumes scanned from research libraries…but less than 40% of that is in the public domain; the other 60%+ cannot be read online (by most users).

So, yes, it is still vital that we continue to collect, but that is only one role — and frankly, a decreasing one in the broader function of providing access to scholarly resources.

Thus, we need an AUL for Scholarly Resources who is ready for and enthusiastic about dealing with the vast array of resources now relevant to students and scholars, in many different analog and digital formats.

It is important to realize that the revolution is not over.  Though the fundamental science of the digital revolution is mature, the physical and social engineering of the digital world is still immature and far from complete. Formats and affordances for use are evolving.  Business models and market structures are changing.  And user adaptations and uses are changing.  Thus, we need an AUL-SR who is a lifelong learner, who is adaptable and indeed embraces change.

Transforming scholarly communications

Let me turn to the second area in which we need scholarly resource leadership: scholarly communications.  Because the economics and technology of information production and distribution are radically changing, the ecosystem in which scholars communicate their results is also radically changing.

For example, much work is widely distributed in self-published form before it is peer-reviewed and “published” by an arm’s length organization. And even for formally published communications, because the cost of reproduction and distribution is zero, the socially optimal business model is to make access universal and free to all (open access).  Of course, there are still substantial “first copy” costs, even aside from the cost of keeping the author in food and clothing (costs, for scholarly resources, that are typically paid by university or laboratory salary budgets).  First copy costs include editorial selection, peer review, copy and style editing, and providing professional publication quality.  But when costs of reproduction and distribution are zero, the socially efficient way to provide for first-copy costs is through lump-sum up-front (pre-publication) payments, not through ex post per copy pricing.  Commercial business models are adapting to these social efficiency imperatives — but painfully slowly, and until we successfully navigate this transition to open access publishing, society is paying too much, and receiving too little access to the discoveries and insights of our scientists, scholars, artists and inventors.

In addition to necessary changes in the business of scholarly communications, we need to advance changes in the formats and media through which scholars communicate.  With the collapsing costs of digital media production, scholars are no longer constrained to publish solely in traditional formats such as the monograph.  Shorter — and longer — forms are feasible. Multimedia and interactive formats are feasible.  Living documents and contemporaneous, community-annotated editions are feasible.  The effectiveness of scholarly communications will be increased as we learn to use richer and more varied forms of communication, just as our communications are improved when we improve our writing skills.

However, our social and commercial institutions — including the behaviors of change-averse (that is, human) scholars — are slow to adapt. To benefit from the potential for reduced cost and improved access and distribution, we need to push hard on changing the scholarly communications culture.

So, we seek an AUL-SR who is knowledgeable and passionate about helping Berkeley play a leadership role in transforming the scholarly communication ecosystem.

Assessment

Finally, there is something else we need. With a mission to help people find, evaluate and use resources to build a better world, we can only succeed if we are a user-centric library.  We must discover and learning about the needs of our users (and non-users, since we’d like to start serving them too).  And we need to evaluate how well we serve those needs.

This point should be obvious for a leader overseeing the expensive business of providing access to scholarly resources: we can’t buy or license or provide expert finding assistance for everything, so we need to assess user priorities and ensure we are serving those priorities well.

But assessment is more important than ever in the current era of vanishing public support for public higher education.  Leading public university systems now survive with only about 14% of their operating costs provided by public support.  If we want to continue to deliver excellent information resource support to public higher education, we have no choice but to do more with less.  This may sound like an argument for the dreaded “corporatization” of higher education, but after we step away from political sloganeering, I think it’s clear that being more efficient in how we fulfill our mission is crucial for our service to the public.  And crucial to increasing our efficiency is to do a better job of assessing our users’ needs, and evaluating ourselves on how well we are serving those needs, so we can engage in continuous improvement in our provision of service to our students, scholars and the public.

Looking forward

There has never been a greater time to be an information professional.  We in university libraries are in the business of helping students and scholars find, evaluate and use information in their quest to build a better world.  And we live in a time when we can provide vastly more access, ever better tools for evaluating information quality, and explosively improving ways of using these information riches.

An AUL for Scholarly Resources at a leading university will be able to lead our top professional teams who are helping advance how scholars communicate, and how they find, use and evaluate information.