Is there a serials crisis yet?

Between Chicken Little and the Grasshopper

Summer lets me teach my favorite course, the run-down of what’s going on with several publishing industries and how libraries are riding the rapids. (It’s actually a course in environmental awareness and handling change, but such skills are much easier to teach given a concrete context in which to exercise them.) As I tore through syllabus and lecture revisions earlier this month to clear time for other necessary work, I found a few spare milliseconds to wonder whether the serials crisis, which hasn’t felt like an immediate all-hands-on-deck crisis in some time, might finally be heating up into one. Into many, really; the localized nature of serials pricing means that crises hit consortia and individual libraries at varying times, not all of academic librarianship at once.

Before I bring forward the evidence I’m seeing, the word “crisis” needs a definition. Rather than resort to the decontextualized dictionary, I’ll suggest that the situation with serials has at last reached crisis for a particular library or consortium when two things happen:

  • libraries and publishers can no longer conceal the damage from faculty and institutional/consortial administration, and
  • the broad base of faculty can no longer ignore it.

Neither is sufficient alone. Some libraries have already been sending frantic signals to administration (less often to faculty), only to have apathy block concerted action. In the meantime, such libraries have had little choice but to paper over the cracks as best they can through consortial purchasing and raiding other parts of the materials budget. Some faculty, too, are working hard at this challenge, but they are still too isolated to make much headway against their colleagues and the library status quo.

Publishers aren’t escaping unscathed either. I have been seeing a great deal more coverage of serials pricing and related questions of access and copyright-transfer terms in the higher-education trade press in the last year or so than previously. At least one major publisher is so spooked by this as to try to stifle the discussion in one of its own journals. The broad retweeting inside and outside library Twitter of Bergstrom et al.’s PNAS paper on the cost-effectiveness of Big Deal bundles speaks to me of considerable awakened or reawakened interest in serials challenges.

My sense is that papering over the cracks will stop working very soon for many libraries, if it hasn’t already. Most recently, the University of Konstanz and the Université de Montréal have terminated bundled serials contracts. Rather than doing so silently and shamefacedly, little more than a cancellation list buried deep in the library website to mark the event, they explained their action with press releases and showed their work. A few libraries whose budgets haven’t yet hit the wall, libraries of every size, have likewise chosen to signal publicly in the last couple of years that trouble is near or already here: Harvard has, Cornell has, SUNY-Potsdam of course has, and there are doubtless more I don’t recall offhand.

I don’t think publicly throwing up our hands over serials prices is defeatist or irresponsible; I think it’s no more than smart public relations. If there’s a single academic library that won’t hit the wall in the next five years (barring miracles), I don’t know which it might be, unless it’s a library whose faculty’s expectations are already so low that they don’t even expect more than a trickle of serials access. Once a library hits that wall, it seems to me that the first question faculty are likely to ask is “Why didn’t you warn us?” The best answer available is “We did.”

Picking the right time to communicate, never mind the right tone, is tricky. Too soon, and the library becomes Chicken Little yelling about a sky that never seems to fall. Too late, and the library looks as foolish as Aesop’s Grasshopper—“how could you not have seen this coming?” faculty can say with perfect hindsight—or unacceptably secretive. Communication will therefore take careful planning and scheduling. Perhaps the luckiest libraries are those like the University of California that have already fought several skirmishes and come out with their shields rather than on them, and with increased faculty awareness of the serials crisis and increased faculty support for library responses to it.

For libraries who haven’t had to fight such fights, the desire to avoid them and the difficult faculty-communication challenge they present is perfectly understandable. Where librarians fear faculty backlash, it’s generally for a reason! Considering the likelihood that many more libraries will soon hit the budget wall and reach full-blown crisis, however, I worry that academic librarianship doesn’t yet have its serials story straight, much less offer any tangible advice or help to libraries who need to get in front of a looming local serials crisis fast.

Our profession-wide scholarly-communication infrastructure seems the likeliest starting place. I absolutely understand the desire to focus on moving open access forward; developments there are tremendously exciting. Even library open-access efforts could find themselves assailed by angry faculty, though, at institutions where serials become a crisis flashpoint and the library isn’t ready for it, or doesn’t have sufficient support to cope. Perhaps, as I often hear from faculty, “open access isn’t about serials prices.” Perhaps so, though quite a few of the faculty I hear this from often use it as an excuse to belittle and ignore libraries and librarians. I still don’t see any reason library-based scholarly-communication organizations such as SPARC can’t lend libraries a helping hand with crisis communication about serials. Coping with serials prices isn’t just about open access, either.

We have an opportunity here to reassert ourselves with our faculty as California’s state-university libraries have, even to cast ourselves as the hero of the story, if we move deliberately and intelligently. Let’s put our collective heads together and work out how to do that.

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.”