Seizing inopportune moments

Seizing inopportune moments

Or to look at it another way—we are little men, we don’t know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etcetera—it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings.
—“Guildenstern,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. All epigraphs in this article quoted from the 1967 edition published by Grove Press.

Last weekend I went to Spring Green, Wisconsin for a treat I’d been anticipating most of a year: a double-bill of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at American Players Theatre. I’ve loved the latter play since high school, but until then I had never seen it performed live. Ryan Imhoff as childlike Rosencrantz and John Pribyl as the scenery-chewing Player especially delighted me among a uniformly strong, quick-witted cast—but I cannot repurpose this column for a theatre review, tempting though that is. I drove home from the theatre with lines and themes from the play pulling together disparate threads in my mind, such as opportune moments and their opposites, MIT’s report on its behavior during Aaron Swartz’s prosecution, the Biss bill as the latest twist in the movement toward open access to the scholarly literature, and sundry other past and present information-related struggles in academe, and I want to share some of my musings.

My question about the MIT report is simple: where were MIT librarians? Where were the rest of us, for that matter? The repeated mass downloads were handled precisely as an academic librarian would expect them to be, but once campus access to JSTOR was restored, the MIT Libraries exited the drama, cooperating with subpoenas as needed and otherwise claiming an inability to speak except to campus legal counsel (III.A.4).

Several issues raised by Swartz’s prosecution—the impact of our licensing decisions on our patrons, information access (including for unaffiliated walk-in library users), the consequences to information users of computer-trespass law and zealous copyright enforcement—fall squarely within our professional boundaries. Yet we were silent—just about all of us, not only MIT’s librarians—until Swartz’s suicide lent us an opportune moment. We were so silent that the MIT report does not even bother to list librarians among MIT’s several silent constituencies (p. 14, list item 4). Did it not occur to the report authors that we’d have something to say? If so, I find that a terrifying omen for the influence of academic librarianship on the academy and its information practices.

Was it an inopportune moment to speak? Certainly it was for MIT librarians, so much so that even I (scenery-chewing Player that I often am) can’t fault them. The rest of us have no such excuse, and it’s our turf—and our credibility and mindshare around our turf—at stake. I regret personally that I did not speak more loudly. I hope I am not the only one.

The Biss bill

We have not been… picked out… simply to be abandoned… set loose to find our own way… We are entitled to some direction… I would have thought.

Illinois is facing a scholarly-communication novelty they’d likely rather have avoided: strong pressure on public institutions from the state legislature to institute an open-access policy along the general lines of Harvard’s. Unlike grant funders like the National Institutes of Health, the legislature does not legitimize its demand by waving money directly at faculty research; unlike Harvard-style policies, Illinois faculty are not deciding entirely on their own initiative to support open access.

For academic librarians caught in the middle, this is a positively paradigmatic inopportune moment to promote open access. Faculty at public institutions all over the U.S. tend to distrust state legislatures owing largely to ongoing defunding, and faculty distrust of Illinois’s legislature is even deeper owing to poorly-handled state budget-management issues during the recession as well as benefits reductions for state employees. Biss-mandated debates about open access are therefore liable to be less concerned with the merits and challenges of open access, more variations on the theme “how dare they? If they want this, we don’t!”

Living in neighboring Wisconsin, I have quite a few librarian friends at public Illinois institutions, several of whom work directly on scholarly-communication issues. I’ve even taught for Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies a few times. I hope, and I believe, that my friends there have the courage to continue to support open access despite the inchoate faculty anger that could so easily shift from its current targets to them. I know they have the communicative skill to explain and defend their stance. I am well aware it won’t be easy for them; despite the inopportuneness of the moment, I believe it best that we support them in making their stance and the reasons for it clear.

The alternative—not just in Illinois, but for all of us—is to abdicate academic-library leadership on academe’s information issues, instead passively waiting for someone to tell us what to do, as Guildenstern does. Faculty status or no, tenure or no, why should anyone respect or heed us then?

Big Deals past and present

There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.

Did we have to arrive at Biss, at Swartz’s suicide, at the confusion surrounding the OSTP Memo? When could we have said no to the serials Big Deal, reasserted our privilege of journal choice? We can’t say we weren’t warned about the Big Deal’s eventual consequences. That’s past, though, and past remedy. Can we say no right now? Can we say no to the ridiculous inflation, the budget distortions by discipline, the erasure of monographs, the destruction of small independent scholarly publishers?

Some of us can. Some of us have, and lived to tell the tale. As best I can tell, what distinguishes those of us who can and have from those of us who feel they can’t is, once again, resolutely explaining the problem to our local constituencies and championing necessary change despite its unpopularity. I believe it’s better to do this work, unpalatable though it is, well before flat budgets and still-inflating costs force us to. Though such moments feel inopportune, and are, they’re still an improvement on reading the letter from some Hamlet or other on the faculty that seals our doom because we chose, like Stoppard’s Guildenstern, not to warn Hamlet of Claudius’s treachery.

As longtime readers of this column know, many universities are staring at another Big Deal in e-textbooks that boasts no structural reason to play out any better than serials did. Some academic libraries are strategically throwing their weight behind open educational resources, and good for them. What are the rest of us waiting for? As inopportune moments go, this one is as opportune as it gets.

Lights out?

We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…

I’m certainly not prepared to assert that academic librarians have become Stoppard’s hapless Danish courtiers, bereft of all sense of direction and self-propelled, purposeful action. That would be pointless panicmongering, and worse, altogether false.

I worry, though. I worry about information seekers and information sharers in heavily-surveilled digital environments, if academic librarians cannot work out how to defend them. I worry about my friends in Illinois and elsewhere. Will they have the defenders and support they need to stand firm? I worry a lot about my more idealistic and purpose-driven library-school students, who are all too likely to find themselves firmly slapped down in academic libraries even when explicitly hired as innovators and change agents. Will their library careers survive the disillusionment and frustration when mine didn’t? If not—and even in my short teaching career I’ve seen a few of my best march away from libraries—how much do we all lose? Lastly I worry about academic librarianship, that it will dwindle to darkness and death like a pair of bit players, because not enough of us could nerve ourselves to speak and act boldly.

I love Guildenstern, but I don’t want to be him.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”