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The Library: Three Jeremiads

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When I look back at the plight of American research libraries in 2010, I feel inclined to break into a jeremiad. In fact, I want to deliver three jeremiads, because research libraries are facing crises on three fronts; but instead of prophesying doom, I hope to arrive at a happy ending.

I can even begin happily, at least in describing the state of the university library at Harvard. True, the economic crisis hit us hard, so hard that we must do some fundamental reorganizing, but we can take measures to make a great library greater, and we can put our current difficulties into perspective by seeing them in the light of a long history. Having begun in 1638 with the 400 books in John Harvard’s library, we now have accumulated nearly 17 million volumes and 400 million manuscript and archival items scattered through 45,000 distinct collections. I could string out the statistics indefinitely. We collect in more than 350 languages and many different formats. We have 12.8 million digital files, more than 100,000 serials, nearly 10 million photographs, online records of 3.4 million zoological specimens, and endlessly rich special collections, including the largest library of Chinese works outside of China (with the exception of the Library of Congress) and more Ukrainian titles than exist in Ukraine.

We want to make it possible for other people to consult those collections by digitizing large portions of them and making them available, free of charge, to the rest of the world from an online repository. We group the material around themes such as women at work, immigration, epidemics and disease control, Islamic heritage, and scientific explorations—2.3 million pages in all. This Open Collections Program, as we call it, is part of a general policy of opening up our library to the outside world and sharing our intellectual wealth. The latest project is devoted to reading, its practices and history. It involved the digitization of more than 250,000 pages from manuscripts and rare books, including richly annotated works such as Melville’s copy of Emerson’s essays and Keats’s copy of Shakespeare.

There are few places aside from research libraries where rare books and e-books can be brought together. At Harvard we use combinations of them for teaching as well as research. I now teach a seminar on the history of books in our rare book library. It begins with Gutenberg. The students investigate the origins of printing by examining a Gutenberg Bible, the real thing, and they do not just stare at it from a respectful distance, but they are invited to leaf (carefully) through its pages in order to appreciate the varieties of rubrication and typographical design. The seminar ends in a high-tech lab on the bottom floor of Widener Library, where experts in digitization explain how to adjust nuances of color while scanning medieval manuscripts.

Despite financial pressure, we therefore are advancing on two fronts, the digital and the analog. People often talk about printed books as if they were extinct. I have been invited to so many conferences on “The Death of the Book” that I suspect it is very much alive.

In fact, more printed books are produced each year than the year before. Soon there will be a million new titles published worldwide each year. A research library cannot ignore this production on the grounds that our readers are now “digital natives” living in a new “information age.” If the history of books teaches anything, it is that one medium does not displace another, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing continued to thrive for three centuries after Gutenberg, because it was often cheaper to produce a small edition by hiring scribes than by printing it. The codex—a book with pages that you turn rather than a scroll that you read by unrolling—is one of the greatest inventions of all time. It has served well for two thousand years, and it is not about to become extinct. In fact, it may be that the new technology used in print-on-demand will breathe new life into the codex—and I say this with due respect to the Kindle, the iPad, and all the rest.

But without neglecting our collections of printed books, we must forge ahead on the other, the digital front. Our purchases of e-resources increased by 25 percent at Harvard last year. We are expanding our enormous Digital Repository Service in a campaign not just to save digital texts but to help solve the problem of preserving them. A new Library Lab is inventing techniques for digital browsing and the preservation of e-mail, websites, and born-digital archives. Our open-access repository, DASH, is making current articles by Harvard faculty available online and free of charge throughout the world. And we plan to collaborate with MIT in building joint digital collections. In short, we are looking far ahead into the twenty-first century, and we hope to help shape the information society of the future.

Still, there is no disguising the fact that research libraries are going through hard times—times so hard that they are inflicting serious damage on the entire world of learning. We face three especially difficult problems, which I would like to discuss by drawing on my own experience, recounted in the form of three jeremiads.

Jeremiad 1

In 1998 I had my first encounter with a problem that now pervades the academic world. It can be described as a vicious circle: the escalation in the price of periodicals forces libraries to cut back on their purchase of monographs; the drop in the demand for monographs makes university presses reduce their publication of them; and the difficulty in getting them published creates barriers to careers among graduate students. Although librarians have lived with this problem for decades, faculty are only dimly aware of its existence—not surprisingly, because libraries pay for the journals, professors don’t.

When this problem first dawned on me as chairman of Princeton’s library committee in the 1980s, the price of journals had already increased far more than the inflation rate; and the disparity has continued until today. In 1974 the average cost of a subscription to a journal was $54.86. In 2009 it came to $2,031 for a US title and $4,753 for a non-US title, an increase greater than ten times that of inflation. Between 1986 and 2005, the prices for institutional subscriptions to journals rose 302 percent, while the consumer price index went up by 68 percent. Faced with this disparity, libraries have had to adjust the proportions of their acquisitions budgets. As a rule, they used to spend about half of their funds on serials and half on monographs. By 2000 many libraries were spending three quarters of their budget on serials. Some had nearly stopped buying monographs altogether or had eliminated them in certain fields.

Another rule of thumb used to prevail among the better university presses. They could count on research libraries purchasing about eight hundred copies of any new monograph. By 2000 that figure had fallen to three or four hundred, often less, and not enough in most cases to cover production costs. Therefore, the presses abandoned subjects like colonial Latin America and Africa. They fell back on books about local folklore or cooking or birds, works that fit into niches or could be marketed to a broader public but that had little to do with scholarly research. And graduate students fell victim to the notorious syndrome of publish or perish.

As president of the American Historical Association in 1999, I thought I could do something, at least in a small way, to reverse this trend. I persuaded the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to finance a program, called Gutenberg-e, that would award prizes to the best Ph.D. theses in the most endangered fields. The prize money would subsidize the cost of converting the dissertations into books, books of a new kind, electronic books that would take advantage of the new technology to incorporate all sorts of new elements—film clips, recordings, images, and whole collections of documents. The originality and the quality of these e-books would legitimate a new form of scholarly communication and revive the monograph.

One of the first questions that the people at Mellon asked me was “What is your business plan?” Although I had never heard of a business plan, I soon began to appreciate the economic conditions of scholarship. Columbia University Press developed a program to sell the e-books to research libraries as a package for a moderate subscription price. The libraries responded favorably, but the scholars had difficulty in producing their books on time, the pipeline became clogged, and the delayed output hurt sales. In the end, after seven years of struggle, we produced a fine series of thirty-five books, and we had begun to cover our costs. But Columbia, like many university presses, came under severe financial pressure. It decided that it could not continue the series after the Mellon grant ran out. The books were assimilated into the Humanities E-Book program developed by the American Council of Learned Societies, and they are still available online. But Gutenberg-e did not open up an escape route from the problems of sustainability that were plaguing academic life.

Jeremiad 2

A few years later, “sustainability” had become a buzz word, and the inflationary spiral of journal prices had continued unabated. In 2007 I became director of the Harvard University Library, a strategic position from which to take the full measure of the business constraints on academic life. Although economic conditions had worsened, the faculty’s understanding of them had not improved.

How many professors in chemistry can give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a year’s subscription to Tetrahedron (currently $39,082)? Who in medical schools has the foggiest notion of the price of The Journal of Comparative Neurology ($27,465)? What physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3,368), and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)?

Librarians who buy these subscriptions for the use of faculty and students can shower you with statistics. In 2009, Elsevier, the giant publisher of scholarly journals based in the Netherlands, made a $1.1 billion profit in its publishing division, yet 2009 was a disastrous year for library budgets. Harvard’s seventy-three libraries cut their expenditures by more than 10 percent, and other libraries suffered even greater reductions, but the journal publishers were not impressed. Many of them raised their prices by 5 percent and sometimes more. This year, the publishers of the several Nature journals announced that they were increasing the cost of subscriptions for libraries in the University of California by 400 percent. Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science, technology, and medicine recently ran to 30–40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

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