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University of Minnesota Libraries Speaker Series So Far: Lorcan Dempsey & Paul Courant

The University of Minnesota Libraries has taken a new approach to its planning process this year to help deal with seemingly conflicting realities. On the one hand, everything said publicly by University administration indicates that the U’s financial future is Not Good. On the other, the Libraries has several projects in place that are innovative and many, many more on hold that would also be fabulous. These projects are in addition to the regular day-to-day work of a library. Something has to give somewhere, but the Libraries can’t just metaphorically throw its hands in the air and say “the heck with this, I’m out”.

So, the Libraries is hosting a speaker series with the goal of moving from lemons to lemonade. There have been two speakers so far – Lorcan Dempsey and Paul Courant. See https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries for more information – future speakers will be Jim Neal and Clifford Lynch. While online access is limited during the talks, the future speakers will be recorded and the webcasts posted soon after for all to view. And, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I believe our University Librarian’s – Wendy P. Lougee – opening remarks are also worth a listen on their own merits.

Lorcan Dempsey – “Discovery and Delivery”
Dempsey began by describing levels of rarity of library collections based on OCLC data with the suggestion that where libraries should focus their expenditures (presumably on preservation, simply having the space to hold, doing really good digitization, etc) is on the rare items. Non-rare items could reasonably be entrusted to network-level services like the Hathi Trust. He then presented a typology of library collection types sorted by rarity and current levels of stewardship. Government publications fell into high stewardship, but low rarity. Dempsey acknowledged that this was a broad characterization and that there might be rare items within a category like government publications or maps. Also, the University of Minnesota is a partner in the Hathi Trust and has sent some of its government publications collection in for digitizing, so the Libraries are already on the path he’s describing here. Caveats aside, I feel that he provides a well-reasoned and evidence-based rationale for shifting stewardship away from non-rare items and towards collections that are getting no real attention at all. This was only a tiny portion of his overall talk and I recommend going through the entire powerpoint or webcast to get the full presentation.

Presentation, Webcast, Related Readings: https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries#dempsey

Paul Courant – “Scholarly Communications and Publishing”
Courant’s talk can be best described as a reflection on just what is it that we’d like to pay for. He framed part of the problem in terms of the Parable of the Anarchist’s Annual Meeting (see http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/anarchists.pdf). In short: with coordination – either between libraries or between libraries and smaller publishers or both – we can take at least some control of the journal publishing arena. We already spend a fortune on a situation we don’t like. Surely the logical thing is to begin to spend some money on creating a situation more to our liking. This includes taking on more of a publishing role and allying ourselves with societies and small publishers (including university presses) who might be more interested in the benefits of open access that the big vendors. However, when I asked if he was advocating canceling contracts with big vendors, he answered (I’m paraphrasing) “Well, probably not. Well, not entirely. Might want to pass on those Big Deals they offer though.”

He also felt the library community should speak up loudly in favor of the recent RFI from the Office of Science and Technology Policy regarding increased access to the products of federally funded research. At the same time he reiterated that open access isn’t exclusively a library issue. In fact, he said it’s a faculty issue. Libraries need to keep pushing on the topic, but pushing faculty to understand that this is an arena they can control if the choose to do so.

Courant isn’t a librarian – he’s an economist by background and I found his application of an economics perspective refreshing. Again, like Dempsey’s talk, there was no magic “the Libraries should do this” moment because we are in a tough spot without easy resolution. But, also like Dempsey’s talk, he has a great way of expressing the issues facing libraries.

Presentation, Webcast, Related Readings: https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries#courant

I don’t know if these speakers really will lead to concrete ideas for coping with our budget problems, but I sure am glad we’re having them – each one has been thought-provoking.

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