The Primacy of Print Is Past
OhioLINK recently shared its vision for the library system of the future in a white paper. That vision, developed by a group of library deans and directors whose work was facilitated by Ithaka S+R, involves two key elements that have garnered some attention for what they say about the future of the library and the work performed within it. The first element is centering the library system—just like the library itself—around the user. And the second involves enabling the facilitated collection in all its formats rather than focusing unduly on the local tangible collection on any particular campus. Both these elements reflect the profound changes in how library collections are currently being used and how their resources must be redeployed in order to serve our user communities: the primacy of print is past.
What comprised a library’s core collection for hundreds of years—physical items—are embedded in deliberately designed control mechanisms, hierarchies of access, and limits on sharing due to scarcity, copyright law, geographical location. Our users, on the other hand, are starting their higher education with college-issued iPads for managing their entire undergraduate experience, have their phones with them at all times, and increasingly expect to do everything on those phones 24/7. Researchers are consuming and producing a tremendous variety of data and information, most of which must, at some point, be manipulated in a digital environment. In two decades, higher education rapidly accelerated through an information environment where ingest, access, and manipulation moved from a mainframe to a desktop to a smartphone constantly connected to the cloud (listen to the Exponent.fm episode 179 “The Water We Swim In” for a great discussion, and highly relevant to the purpose of the OhioLINK white paper).
Other kinds of content have far surpassed print, in terms of both expenditures and usage. Many academic libraries, at the R1 level, as well as the liberal education and specialized purpose level, commit an ever-increasing slice of their acquisitions budget to digital materials. This isn’t just journals, but e-book packages and “e-preferred” acquisitions policies at the single title level, not to mention databases of primary source materials and many other content types. At OhioLINK, the struggle to effectively manage streaming media at both the local collection and the network level is a constant and burgeoning topic of concern. Libraries run institutional repositories of various digital materials, create outstanding digital special collections with worldwide use, and increasingly are moving into publishing open materials—not just open access materials and monographs, but open educational resources (OER) which depend on digital infrastructure as a condition of their openness and desired global reach.
Library systems do not adequately provide the tools needed to manage and assess licensed e-resources, and they do not even attempt to serve the full set of collections and scholarly communication activities that academic libraries are today prioritizing. This is a consistent theme across OhioLINK’s central office staff, member libraries at both a front-line and leadership level, as well as OhioLINK’s colleagues in other consortia. To take one small, but economically extremely important example, there is an entire grant-funded effort, CC-Plus, to build a tool for better consortial statistics because vendors simply have not delivered the functionality needed, despite the hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars that library consortia spend with major publishers on behalf of their members.
Most OhioLINK institutions report declining print/tangible circulations (including renewals) on their campuses across a variety of time spans—ranging from a 13 percent drop in one year at one R1, to decreases ranging from four to 19 percent at other R1s including regional campuses, to a 75 percent drop over three years at a smaller research university, to a 58 percent drop over three years at a university law library. If Yale undergraduates aren’t borrowing print as much as they used to, probably no one is using print as much as they used to. Quibbles over exactly what the decline is, why it’s happening (no print monographic budgets, e.g.) and whether it should be happening in a perfect world obscures the point—it’s happening, and provosts, budget officers, and presidents have taken note.
Since the primacy of print is past—in terms of publishing, in terms of usage, etc.—we must rearchitect our systems to focus equally on digital as well as print collections, equally on open as well as paid-for collections, equally on shared as well as local collections, and so forth. That does not by any means indicate that libraries will abandon their efforts to manage print.
Print materials have lost their dominance for general academic and research purposes. But they are also underused and relegated because systems have not kept pace with user expectations for how to discover and access them. OhioLINK has a print sharing arrangement with SearchOhio, a public library consortium. In 2016, total requests from the public library patrons in SearchOhio outstripped total requests from graduate students within the OhioLINK network, and public library requests are on track to exceed undergraduate requests in 2020. It’s well known within the consortial world that there is no decline in print circulation at public libraries. Yet getting that material, both in terms of discovery and delivery, to the citizen scholars who want it is cumbersome for everyone involved. Indeed, tangible materials and collections have enduring importance. For example, we continue to inhabit the dual-format environment for monographs that Ithaka S+R has predicted for some time. The willingness to transition to increasingly digital collections use varies by age and by field. And there is ample evidence for the ongoing importance of non-book tangible collections. For example, even as acquisition and circulation of print books declines, some have argued for a commensurate reinvestment in special collections, at least at research libraries.
Therefore, in the white paper we argue that by changing the focus from the object to the user, the library community can and should demand much better tools to expose and deliver that print content to those who need or benefit from tangible materials. It is vital that academic libraries and their consortia find ways to improve the availability of print collections and the effectiveness and efficiency with which they are managed, preserved, and delivered. Improved systems would allow us to optimize them and ensure they stay relevant for user needs and preservation requirements.
But that said, no one should mistake this commitment to the diverse needs of researchers for a sense that libraries somehow do not need to shift staffing, organizational structures, spaces, systems, and other resources towards a user-centered and facilitated-collections vision of the future. Our profession, and the tools we use within it, would benefit from deliberate and sustained attention to that shift in focus. Those libraries that are leading this transition are preparing themselves to stay at the forefront of relevance for their institutions.