Penny wise, systemically foolish

Sep 02 2010 Published by under Open Access, Tactics

On the Twitter-river this morning, a tidbit bobbed by about an academic library told to earn revenue by renting out its meeting spaces to campus constituencies. (I decline to name the library lest the tidbit-teller land in difficulties.)

Bluntly: the just-mentioned suggestion is stunningly myopic and does not heed mission. For the record: among the mission-driven tasks of the library is the equalization of resources among its patrons, the strong resistance to creating means tests for access. That goes as much for meeting space as for any other resource.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick commented, "The entire university system has become a demented revenue generation machine, with one branch being extorted by another and looking for ways to pass those charges on." I think that is just exactly right. What the accountants who often make this bizarrerie happen don't ever seem to consider (nor does anybody in authority ever lay at their door) is the overhead costs, the friction created. Is the added effort of shuffling money around internally really creating more money, or anything else of value, for the institution? Whom does it block from the action? Wouldn't the whole system run better, cheaper, and more fairly with less money-shuffling friction?

This gives me to think seriously about some of the trends in open-access-space. Barbara Fister crystallized some of my internal disquiet in her discussion of markets versus missions, and I recommend that post (at the risk of self-aggrandizement; it links back here) as a complement to this one.

By way of example, consider the arXiv. In contrast to nearly all voluntary green open-access efforts, it's wildly successful. (In fact, I would say that inappropriate generalization from the arXiv community has been one of green open access's worst bêtes noires. For all the "physics envy" noise, faculty generally won't do things just because the physicists do.) It's a feather in Cornell's libraries' cap.

But prestige and success aren't enough to guarantee underwriting from its host institution. The arXiv is now asking for support from other libraries. To give credit where it's due, many other libraries are ponying up. (Gee, I don't see you on the list, Yale University Libraries. Got no physicists, mathematicians, or computer scientists? No, no, no, I know you're just open-access slackers… and I for one will continue to call you out on it until you stop slacking.)

To me, this is the library-space-rental problem writ large. It's undoubtedly cheaper overall if Cornell pays for arXiv and its peer libraries make analogous investments in complementary services. It costs real money in overhead to create the kind of "sustainability" envisioned by many experts, in which services like arXiv constantly have to run on the fundraising hamster wheel, and libraries have to budget not for one service that they offer, but for tiny bits of many services that they contribute to.

Moreover, I see more incentive for cost-containment in the closely-owned services model than in the hamster-wheel model. Let us postulate a Cornell University Libraries that suddenly discovers that they can bring in external money for the arXiv. Why contain costs? Why not just raise membership fees? Whereas if the money comes from inside, efficiency is a much greater consideration. To be sure, efficiency becomes service-starvation when taken too far, but from an overall-system perspective, isn't efficiency what we want?

Closely-owned services are an even harder question for smaller libraries than for research libraries, of course. Their consortia likely have to be part of the answer, and we may have to consider hybrid sustainability programs, in which small bugs pay into a fund that the big bugs with the staff to run programs can draw some support from.

Maybe I'm mad, maybe I'm naïve, but I have to hope—have to believe—we can find better paths, more system-aware and less myopic paths, to open-access sustainability than the everlasting hamster wheel of fundraising and friction-heavy money-shuffling. And I do still believe that part of the answer is assessing investment and calling out slackers (YALE).

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