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A Librarian’s Defense of Despair

So an executive falls asleep on his private, three-engine jet. He awakens to a loud noise. Peering down is his pilot, a bright-yellow package clasped to his chest. Yelling to be heard over the cacophony of multiple alarms, the pilot reports that engine No. 1 is belching smoke, engine No. 2 is in flames, and engine No. 3 has fallen from the wing. Pointing out the window, through which the onrushing ground appears at a 30-degree angle, the pilot offers to sell the executive the yellow package for $2-million.

“What’s in it?” asks the executive. “A parachute,” the pilot replies. “Does it work?” asks the executive. “I’m not sure,” says the pilot, “it’s a new model.” “Sorry,” the executive replies, “but I didn’t get where I am today by taking risks on untested products. Plus, how can I continue making payments on this jet if I squander $2-million on a parachute?”

The executive’s argument differs little from those that librarians sometimes make when asked to support open-access publishing ventures. How can we possibly support new models of publishing when we struggle with less success each year to maintain existing commitments to serials agents, book jobbers, and database packagers? How can we justify new compacts when we can’t even pay the bills for current obligations?

I work at a well-established and relatively wealthy liberal-arts college with an extraordinary commitment to its library. We spend more money per student and per faculty member on library collections than all but five other liberal-arts colleges in the United States. And yet my library claims poverty with some regularity and justification. We spend in the neighborhood of $2-million each year on collections, but we cannot afford the journals our faculty members demand and the books our students need. Collection development has become, in essence, collection degeneration, a process of relentless cuts.

Three years ago, faced with looming deficits despite budget increases, we walked to the edge of our most expensive package—Elsevier’s $295,000-a-year ScienceDirect, the package that, at least in the company’s estimation, no serious institution can live without. We took a deep breath and canceled our contract. In effect, we closed our eyes and jumped.

The jump was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. It constituted our first face-to-the-wind acknowledgement that we cannot afford what we need, that our commitment to purchasing necessities is doomed. One of the best-endowed institutions of higher education in the United States, we conceded, cannot buy its way out of its predicament. My library seeks budget increases each year from a sympathetic administration, while knowing that whatever increase we receive may slightly slow but won’t stop our descent. The ground is rushing up to meet us. Colleges with smaller budgets will face the impact sooner than we will, but we’re all on the same hopeless—hence bracingly clarifying—trajectory.

The cause of this collective free fall—a broken system of scholarly publishing—is by now well known. What bears mentioning, however, is the potential liberation that comes from recognizing the impossibility of buying ourselves free—the freedom of despair, if you like.

The question before us all, then, is not whether we should continue to pay those responsible for our predicament everything they demand for whatever we need. We cannot. No library budget can keep pace with rising prices for essentials.

The question is whether we should spend all available resources to purchase an ever-decreasing fraction of what the current system demands. In just six years, despite budget increases, my library’s purchasing power has fallen by 22 percent. Should we spend our entire acquisitions budget on 78 percent of what we could afford six years ago? Should we spend the same 100 percent on what we know will purchase only 73 percent next year, and 68 percent the year after? Should we empty the kitty each year in pursuit of smaller and smaller returns?

Or should we embrace despair as an unshackling force that frees us to try new things? Might despair provide the excuse we need to spend money on ventures that—however risky—are less certain to fail than the system that bedevils us now? Perhaps it is precisely because resources are diminishing that we must spend those diminished resources on new initiatives. Hopelessness provides the impetus we need to make impossible choices.

Where despair takes each institution will and probably should vary by campus. I’m proud that my college has established an open-access press under the auspices of the library. And I’m delighted to see librarians in consortia exploring large-scale, collaborative schemes. Other institutions, I hope, will concoct and support more- and less-exciting experiments. A diversity of initiatives is all for the good.

What is important, however, is that we all devote resources to nudging the trajectory. We know where that trajectory points now. Better to spend remnants on reform than on accelerating the course of a broken status quo.

One more bad analogy: Perhaps we librarians should think of ourselves as coal-plant engineers contemplating whether to spend money on untested wind or tidal turbines—that is, whether to make an uncertain yet good-faith effort against global warming. Will we repurpose funds for experiments? Or will we demur, arguing that we can’t possibly afford to act, since how can we ever survive rising temperatures if we don’t burn more coal to run our air conditioners?

Bryn Geffert is librarian of the college at Amherst College.

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