The Meaning of Collections
Ownership, Access, and the Scholarly Ecosystem
A couple of weeks ago, while attending the Harvard Library Visiting Committee meeting, I participated in an amazing discussion of collection development strategies. I heard Harvard librarians saying that Harvard can no longer collect everything, indeed, shouldn’t collect everything, and needed to build strong collaborative relationships so that Harvard scholars and students would be able to find the resources they need to do their work. This view—access is more important than ownership—is not new among other academic and research libraries, but that Harvard was saying this seemed truly revolutionary.
Only two years ago, at the Harvard Library Visiting Committee meeting, we had heard from the provost that the One Library program was being implemented so that resulting cost savings accrued from consolidation and streamlining of services could be used to bolster the acquisitions budget, allowing Harvard to regain its standing in building collections. With the arrival of Vice President Sarah Thomas, the emphasis has changed. She is thinking in terms of strong interdependencies with colleague institutions both for off-site storage of monographic collections and for building collections into the future. She made it clear that no library, not even Harvard, could hope to acquire everything scholars need to do their work.
Other ARL library directors also on the Visiting Committee added that they continue to place a high priority on building local collections, but the amount of scholarly information now being produced is overwhelming, and they cannot hope to keep up. All of them spoke of the need to think of the scholarly ecosystem as a whole, and to ensure that the system functions well for scholars.
Two weeks later, I attended the Charleston Conference, where at a plenary session former provost of Georgetown University and library director designate of Arizona State University Jim O’Donnell had assembled a panel of faculty whose charge it was to tell librarians what they needed to know. A physicist, a classicist, and a faculty member/policy specialist in South Asia talked about what they needed from libraries. Of greatest interest to me was the way in which each of them relies on the ecosystem, not the library. The South Asian expert recalled lovingly her days at the University of Chicago where the librarians collected everything she needed and wanted, but now at a smaller institution, she cannot rely on the local library for the resources she needs. To her, interlibrary loan is absolutely essential. She also praised the PL480 program that brings hard-to-acquire documents from difficult parts of the world into research collections that she can then use. The physicist does not use libraries at all, and instead relies on arXiv for his news about what is going on in his field, and for access to the scholarly literature. He thinks libraries are important, but his work is independent of them. Finally, the classicist who is a department chair in a public college, urged libraries to form consortia that go beyond similar types of institutions and geographic proximity. He called on librarians to enter into partnerships that would open up the ecosystem of scholarly resources to all scholars, wherever they happen to be.
Both of these meetings triggered a number of questions about library collections for me. In our highly decentralized system of higher education in this country, who has responsibility for maintaining and nurturing the ecosystem? In a universal belief that no one institution can collect everything, what structures need to be in place to ensure that, collectively, as many resources as possible are being collected, preserved, and made accessible. Over the course of my career, I have seen several initiatives develop and then sputter¬the National Periodicals Center, the Research Libraries Group conspectus project, and several discipline-specific attempts to rationalize collection development among groups of libraries. Why did they eventually falter? What kind of new thinking will be required in this Internet-connected world?
We librarians are dedicated to supporting the scholarly enterprise. We have done that in the past by acquiring as many resources our budgets allowed. Now, our job is to connect scholars with resources wherever they are, but our local institutional structures may be barriers to providing the kind of support that is needed. The consortia we have supported facilitate interlibrary lending, but that seems to be an inadequate response to today’s needs. I would love to hear others’ ideas for how we can develop an ecosystem of scholarly support while still living within confines of individual institutions that report acquisitions statistics to professional associations and accrediting bodies as a measure of strength.