The academic library has, by default, tied its destiny to a service with no realistic prospects of long-term survival. It has become a systems integrator that stitches together outsourced components into a digital recreation of a paper-based library. This horseless carriage provides the same commodity service to an undergraduate student majoring in chemistry, a graduate student in economics, and a professor of literature. Because it overwhelms the library's budget, organizational structure, and decision-making processes, this expensive and inefficient service hampers innovation in areas that are the library's best hope for survival.
A paper-based library gradually builds a collection of ever-increasing value, and its overhead builds permanent infrastructure. Its digital recreation never builds lasting value. It is a maintenance service, and its overhead is pure inefficiency. This overhead, duplicated at thousands of universities, starts with the costs of preparing for and conducting near-futile site-license negotiations. To shave off a point here and there, the library spends countless staff hours on usage surveys, faculty discussions, consortium meetings, and negotiations with publishers and their middlemen. But the game is rigged. If 15% of a campus wants Journal A, 15% competing Journal B, 10% wants both A and B, and the rest wants neither, the library is effectively forced to rent both A and B for 100% of the campus. This is why scholarly publishers were able to raise prices at super-inflationary rates during a time when all other publishers faced catastrophic disruption. After conducting expensive negotiations, after paying inflated prices, the library must still pay for, build, and maintain the platform that protects publishers' interests by keeping unwanted users out.
Many academics and librarians hope that Open Access efforts will provide an exit from this unsustainable path. If successful, Green Open Access will lead to price reductions and journal cancellations. Gold Open Access seeks to replace site licenses with author page charges. Either strategy reduces the efficiency of library-mediated digital lending by spreading its fixed overhead costs over fewer and/or less expensive journals. New business models for journals, alternative metrics that give scholarly credibility to unbundled works, and any other innovation that competes with site licenses will reduce efficiency even further. All of these factors hasten the demise of an unsustainable service that is already collapsing under its own weight.
Traditionally, a library adapts in response to changing user behavior, attitude, and opinion. However, the Wayne Gretzky quote became a cliché for a reason. When trends have become obvious and users have moved on, it is too late for strategic restructuring.
At the other extreme, an angel investor bets on someone with a compelling idea, accepts the risk of failure, and is prepared to move on to the next player who knows where the puck will be. The library does not have that luxury. It is an institution, not a venture.
The library must maintain sufficient institutional stability to ensure its archival mission. While Open Access is a given, the service portfolio of the future library is far from settled. We must create budgetary and organizational space for new services. We may not know where precisely the puck will be, but we can still move the team out of a field where there is no game to be played.
When canceling site-licensed journals today, the only legally available alternatives are individual subscriptions, pay per view, and self-archived versions of individual papers. This stands in stark contrast with the digital-entertainment universe, where there is a competitive market for providers of personal digital libraries. Services like Apple ITunes, Google Play, Amazon Kindle and Prime, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify, etc. compete on the basis of price, content, usability, convenience, and features. There are many scholarly-communication organizations that could launch analogous services. Within months, Thomson Reuters, EBSCO, publisher alliances, scholarly societies, and even some research libraries could provide a wide selection of options. This will never happen without starving publishers of site-license revenue. Instead of subsidizing publishers, subsidize students and faculty. They are quite capable to choose for themselves what information services they need. After a messy, but short, transition, a competitive market will blossom.
The only thing more terrifying than phasing out a core service is the prospect of outside forces triggering a sudden disruption. Libraries have the choice to disrupt or to be disrupted, to organize their own restructuring or to be restructured by a crisis manager. This is the perfect time to redirect resources away from digital-lending overhead and towards building a scalable, robust, and permanent infrastructure of open scholarly information (refereed papers, technical reports, lab reports, and supporting data). Björn Brembs wants to go even further; he wants libraries to take over all of scholarly communication.
We do not have to wait for Open Access to work its disruptive magic, which may or may not happen at some undetermined time. By forcing the disruption, the rationale for Green Open Access becomes much more straightforward: It creates a permanent public archive of culturally important content that is now controlled by private companies. As a public option to the publishers' walled garden, it may help keep prices in check. That role is much less important, however, when prices are set in a truly competitive market.
Publishers do not think Green Open Access has the power disrupt. They believe they can compensate lower revenue from Gold Open Access by increasing the number of papers they publish. Should site licenses be disrupted anyway, publishers stand ready to compete with libraries.
Publishers are well prepared for any scenario.
Is your library?