Fighting for the middle

Recently I’ve been thinking about how hard it is for libraries to be in the middle between publishers/content providers and researchers, especially since it is usually libraries who get stuck with the bill. By “the bill” I mean, paying increasing amounts for various kinds of information needed for users to do their research. In academic libraries, by far the most money is spent on serials and electronic resources. It’s not at all uncommon for this type of information resource to take up 90% of their collections budgets, and we all know that those costs continue to rise every year.

And libraries really are in the middle, because publishers/content providers aren’t as concerned with libraries as they are with researchers. Put another way, libraries are not the primary customers for publishers/content providers; researchers are. Publishers/content providers are laser focused on trying to meet or anticipate the needs of researchers, and if that means circumventing libraries, or placing them on a lower level of priority, so be it.

The middle is a hard place to be. Libraries are very passionate about the importance of their role and their need/desire to be intermediaries. We are fighting for the middle, but we often seem to be at a disadvantage.

What is interesting, though, is that there are others who are also fighting for a role in the middle. An example of this is subscription agents. Historically, they have played a very important intermediary role between libraries and publishers/content providers for managing journal subscriptions. I think they still have an important role but it seems a lot less firm or secure than it used to be, in part because of the ongoing budget issues libraries face. As a result, some libraries are working more frequently in direct relationships with publishers than they did before, because they might get a better deal (e.g. no service charge). I’m not sure how widespread that is, but I do know it happens. It is telling that there are fewer subscription agents these days than ten years ago.

Other services and entities also operate in the middle. Library consortia are incredibly helpful and play a vital role but they, too, face great pressure to interface well between various constituencies. They are juggling lots of different issues and their library members demand a lot in return for the services they provide. Severe budget issues played a significant role in delaying implementation of a new, consortial ILS in my library’s primary consortium, for example.

Don’t even get me started on how commercial giants like Amazon or Google have dramatically reshaped and eroded the role of libraries as ready sources of information for the average person.

In some cases, libraries themselves are trying to step around the middle ground that publishers see themselves standing on when they take on the publisher role, usually of open access works of some kind. Libraries increasingly question the value add that commercial publishers provide, and many believe that one of the ways libraries can assure their future and increase their own value is by circumventing commercial publishers altogether. They hope to not only save money over time, but to cement a direct relationship between researcher/authors and libraries. Open access publishing (from libraries or otherwise) aims to make information freely available to all for consumption and reuse, of course, but strategically there is more to it than that, at least, it seems so to me.

These thoughts roll around in my head, but I don’t claim to yet have a full understanding of their implications or concrete ideas for addressing them other than we can’t hold this middle ground by ourselves. This post is one way to try to clarify my thinking. I hope to read or listen to what others have said or are saying on these issues over time, and spend more time probing them further. The middle or intermediary role is one that is slippery and prone to drastic change, and sometimes it can disappear entirely. I don’t believe that will happen for libraries — I certainly hope not — but it’s worth thinking about whether or not we are successfully fighting for the middle, what ground we should move to in the future, and with whom.

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