Friday, March 18, 2011

The readings this week bring up a number of issues related to themes discussed in the last class, especially issues related to the increasing commoditization of university education.

The change in educational philosophy has resulted in (or perhaps results from) what appears to be profound change in the nature of governance in universities. There seems to have been a complete inversion in the power structure between faculty and administration. The traditional ideal has been one of collegial governance, but increasingly the corporate model seems to dominate. Boards have become inexplicably stacked with businesspeople, and the faculty increasingly serves at the pleasure of the administration, with a consequent erosion of faculty autonomy and collegiality.

The new business-like orientation is not really surprising in light of the change of college education from a small self-contained enterprise to an integral phase in the lives of most Americans, and one which is increasingly supported by tax revenues and consequently subject to the influence of the dominant political philosophy of the moment.

At any rate, the new model requires accountability for library services according to some particularly narrow models of value, which have to be justified using quantifiable “metrics”, which are often of a statistically dubious nature. Nevertheless, this need needs to be taken into account when thinking about academic library services. I will try to briefly make the case that it is very difficult to quantify the value of these services according to naïve economic models as well as to point out several other symptoms of the changing philosophy of universities.

The case of electronic reserves brings up a couple of issues. This is a service that academic libraries offer that provides a great deal of value to their institutions. Providing value like this is becoming more important in the increasingly bottom-line driven world of the modern university; as Weingand points out in a quote from the textbook, it is necessary to play the game (this is of course leaving aside the fact that in the long run it may well be more beneficial to try to reframe the debate than to play along). The question then becomes how much value is added to the larger institution, and how it should be measured. One thing is certain, mathematically speaking: most naïve models are sure to be wrong.

One of the primary benefits of library reserves is that large numbers of student don’t have to spend a large amount of time tracking down articles (and copying them if they are print articles). There are secondary effects as well: would students even bother reading articles that are hard to access, or would professors even bother assigning them, and is there an educational cost to this? It’s unclear how universities value this sort of service in a strict accounting, because it is in economic terms, an externality: it falls outside the normal pricing model. To demonstrate this, consider what would happen if a university decided to eliminate this service. Would they lower student tuition to compensate them for the inconvenience, and if so how much? Since the first answer is no, the second question is moot.

This, I think, demonstrates why libraries will continue to fight a fruitless, uphill battle as long as they continue to try to primarily justify their existence in the narrow economic terms that the business-school mentality that has overtaken university administration pushes on them. Library services are rife with externalities like this, and university administrators suffer from the problem that Alexander Pope identified as “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. Their educations seem to have provided them with the easy assurances of the simplified theories of Econ 101, yet not the means to understand the subtle interactions and second-order effects of real world phenomena.[1]

One of the other fascinating things about the topic of electronic reserves is the degree to which it is now dominated by concerns about and the process of copyright clearance. I can remember a time, not 15 years ago, when the world of course packs lived in the wild west of copyright, animated by the spirit of what Dorothea Salo calls ‘academic samizdat’.[2] There was a gleeful unconcern about the niceties of copyright in the giant packs of materials run off in university copy centers and bookstores. After all, most professors would not receive any appreciable royalties on their own publications, if legitimately copied, and none on journal articles; why should it matter if they copied other’s articles? There seemed to be a tacit understanding about this from all concerned (excluding the publishers).

However, publisher pressure and possibly the increasing business orientation of university administrations have changed all this. The centralized, standardized copyright clearance model now seems to be the accepted way of doing business. This seems to be another symptom of the change in the philosophy of university governance away from collegiality.

Indeed, the grubby matter of copyright has come to overshadow the educational interests of the institution, and the universities have let it. Academic publishers have, as usual, run roughshod over the universities and common sense. Ironically, if administration was really interested in running the university like a business, they would do something about this; instead they are more interested in running the university in league with business, and for the benefit of business interests.

After all, the universities are essentially the only consumers of the material produced by academic publishers. With only a little bit of concerted, coordinated effort it seems like they should be able to reach some sort of reasonable accommodation with publishers, where the amount of money that changes hands minimally reflects reality and doesn’t live in some made-up publisher fantasy land. Of course, it doesn’t seem like it should really be a serious effort to remove the publishers from the equation altogether, but that issue is perhaps inextricably interwoven with the problem of tenure reform.

ILL is another service performed by academic libraries for which it is difficult to accurately assess the value added. It is well established that users of ILL would not be willing to pay for the complete cost of ILL; it must be subsidized by the university. What is the true value that the ILL service adds to the university? It strikes me as almost impossible to accurately assess, and again counts as an externality. What would happen if ILL were eliminated (or self-funded, which amounts to more or less the same thing). Would users buy for themselves all the books and articles that they currently get from ILL? That seems unlikely. They would likely buy some, and forgo others, which would have some, probably unquantifiable, effect on their educational outcome or scholarly output. It strikes me that the value of ILL is something that, ultimately, an institution just has to take on faith as part of their educational mission.

Another question raised by ILL relates to e-books. The Hilyer article, from 2006, is too old to have addressed this. I’m not particularly familiar with the current state of ILL of e-books, but as far as I can tell, where it is not completely verboten, it is a tangled, uncertain mess. Certainty, regularity, and sanity have to be brought to this area before library users can derive any significant benefit. Perhaps just-in-time purchasing of e-books can replace ILL, but it seems unlikely that publishers will reduce the price of scholarly monographs enough to make that feasible.[3] If a sensible model could be developed, it would allow libraries to continue the shift from the ownership model to the access model, with some obvious adjustments to compensate publishers for declining sales on account of increased convenience and ease of electronic ILL (lower barriers to sharing will inevitably lead to reduced sales).

However, the history of publisher intransigence on the issue of e-books is discouraging. Eric Hellman writes that publishers have wanted libraries to accept the fiction of the “Pretend It’s Print” model, where libraries can only lend out one copy at a time.[4] As Hellman points out, this a safely conservative model, which doesn’t much disrupt existing business models (except that the benefits of lower production costs all accrue to the publisher). Roy Tennant, however, suggests that the simultaneous gutting of the first-sale doctrine which traditionally inheres to print books makes this fiction hard to swallow.[5] Hellman also discusses the recent decision by HarperCollins to limit e-books to 26 circulations, which pretty much destroys the fiction. Arbitrary, unilateral decisions like this on the part of publishers, besides creating enormous administrative and technological headaches for libraries, also create uncertainty in libraries about how to move forward with vital services.

However, it turns out that increasing pressure on the library to justify itself does have some positive benefits. There is increasing attention to outreach efforts and quality of service. Even if attempts to narrowly quantify the benefits are excessive, the focus that is being given to these efforts can hardly be anything but positive. Getting people to be more aware of the library and of the services it provides is an important component in building a consensus around the importance of the library. In reading the Carlile article, it occurred to me that in my undergraduate career, even though I was a frequent library user, I don’t think I ever asked a question of a reference librarian. Indeed, I don’t think I really realized that it was anyone’s actual job to help me find things. That’s a profound and disabling ignorance that didn’t have to be. Adebonojo, et al., make a number of terrific suggestions that I consider no-brainers: not in the sense that they are necessarily obvious, but that once someone has thought of them, there shouldn’t really be any debate. Also, it occurred to me (not seriously) that, having put a reference desk in the fitness center, maybe the next step is elliptical machines in the library.

[1] e.g. James Kwak,
[3] I mean, who could look at the Brill catalog and doubt this?