Home » Commentary » Can’t buy libraries love: FGI responds to Anderson’s Ithaka S+R issue brief “‘Can’t Buy Us Love'”

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Can’t buy libraries love: FGI responds to Anderson’s Ithaka S+R issue brief “‘Can’t Buy Us Love'”

I just finished reading Rick Anderson’s Ithaka S+R issue brief “‘Can’t Buy Us Love:’ The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections.” it is not the most articulate argument for the future of libraries, but it certainly may be the best eulogy.

Anderson’s perspective bothered me so much that I jotted down a few thoughts to ponder in response. I wanted to post as a comment but it ran a little longer than Ithaka allows on their site. By all means, read Anderson’s piece, and then my comments below. I’d love to hear what our readers think.

Full citation: “‘Can’t Buy Us Love:’ The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections.” Ithaka S+R Issue Brief. August 1, 2013. Rick Anderson, Interim Dean & University Librarian, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Here are a few thoughts to ponder:

1) Anderson’s argument that each “commodity” book can now be bought cheaper on amazon — or will soon be available to libraries on GBS (which I have seen no reason to count on) — is a red herring. It completely ignores the strengths of libraries in collecting and collocating (via metadata, physical location and virtual organization) each book with myriad other materials. Yes, I can get “East of Eden” on amazon for a few dollars, but can I also afford to get East of Eden PLUS the various critical analyses of Steinbeck shelved (or cataloged) nearby PLUS the journal literature about Steinbeck? Can the vast majority of readers?

Libraries are collections built and organized for users. Bookstores are tiny selections built to only sell and make money for investors. One could always purchase what Anderson calls “commodity” publications. That hasn’t changed. But no one person could ever purchase *everything* that he or she might ever want to read or consult someday. That is where the library leveraged the economies of scale and addressed the needs of all users in a community of users — and continues to do so. The “readers can buy it” argument is a libertarian every-person-for-themselves argument that sees no value in fighting for the rights of the community. It is an argument that values the producer over the consumer, the publisher over the reader, the individual over the community.

2) The ability for a researcher to request an article directly from the author has always been and continues to be important and valuable. But Anderson again ignores the important role that libraries have played and will continue to play in the scholarly communication system and the life-cycle of information. And as more academic libraries build open access repositories, researchers won’t have to hunt down authors, the articles will already be findable and freely and easily available. (and YES, libraries DO have a role in advocating for their communities and for long-term viability of the scholarly communication process).

3) Anderson follows in the same tenuous vein that David Lewis did in his C&RL piece “From Stacks to the Web: the Transformation of Academic Library Collecting.” Anderson states “We have failed to prepare for the emergence of a reality in which our very role as brokers, curators, and organizers has itself been fundamentally undermined.” This sounds like technological determinism. The *role* of libraries has not been undermined by technlogy. The role of libraries as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information and providers of service for information freely to a community still exists. While some libraries have failed to maintain their curatorial role, and some, like Anderson and Lewis, suggest that this is either inevitable or good, it is neither. If more library administrators buy into Anderson’s POV, it is they who will erode the value of libraries to their communities.

4) Further, I don’t agree with Anderson’s premise that libraries’ roles as broker, curator, organizer are fading. Try finding a specific issue or volume of a serial on google books (especially a serial like the US Serial set which runs from 1790 – present! BTW, the Serial Set IS available on Hathitrust, but try finding a specific Senate Report there. Go ahead, I dare you ;-)) or a digital copy of a non-public-domain book or try sussing out intellectual links between and commentary/critique of the two in a million-hit google search result based on google’s ads-driven algorithm. I would argue that the role of libraries is even more important in the disorganized world of google than ever. It may not be as visible, but, if so, that is the fault of libraries, not the predestined result of technology or google.

5) How many library patrons will really need to access Cellarius’ Harmonia Macrocosmica as primary academic material much less as a museum object? Instead, won’t a researcher want to see Harmonia in conjunction with the scholarly corpus surrounding it? And if my library has one of the few copies of Harmonia, how will researchers and students at the University of Utah gain any academic edification from it?

If a library’s collections move away from “curricular relevance and instrumental value” how does the library argue for its existence to university administration? Anderson admits as much: “rare and unique documents may not always provide direct support to the most centrally important mission elements and strategic directions of any individual library’s host institution” and “The academic library exists to move the university forward, not vice versa. Library leaders who lose sight of this fundamental fact will eventually lose their jobs, and rightly so.” I would argue that Anderson’s already lost sight of the fundamental raison d’être of the library as information/knowledge nexus.

6) One could make a case (IF one bought in to Anderson’s flimsy commodity vs non-commodity argument) that government documents are among the most important “non-commodity” material a library can preserve and to which it can provide access. These materials are often published on poor quality paper, even more poorly described in the library’s catalog and therefore hard to find, and neither freely nor readily available on amazon. Yet many of the same libraries who are following down Anderson’s road are heavily weeding their physical collections and have reduced their staff with knowledge of govt documents — or have diluted services to government documents by loading other duties on to documents specialists (I’m a govt information librarian in case you couldn’t tell ;-)). Collections and services work hand in hand. Service to the library’s community will be severely degraded without the collections and knowledgeable staff on hand to assist in the service. Libraries combine collections and services. Libraries work with users and provide services for users. This contrasts sharply with google, information vendors, and publishers who work for and are accountable only to investors, not users.

7) Anderson ignores one of the most important pieces of collection development for both general and special collections: subject specialists. The act of collecting is done by librarians with specialized knowledge of specific domains. Yet, he doesn’t even mention them, instead assuming that collection development will in the future be done through patron-driven means. But how then will his library staff maintain discipline expertise?

Those who think that the google book project is great should remember it would not exist if libraries had not selected and preserved those books over the last 400 years. Who is doing this now and will do this in the future, but libraries?

8) OPTING OUT OF THE SCHOLARLY COMMUNICATION WARS?! Is he serious?! If there are no libraries in this battle, then the entire field is ceded to commercial publishers. Libraries are important exactly because they move commodified information out of markets for wider public access and non-commodified preservation and access and act in concert as an important buffer between publishers and scholars/academics/authors. This is exactly where libraries can prove their importance and exert their collective power for the betterment of their communities.

Anderson sees the role of libraries as little more than that of a business office that pays the licensing bills. Perhaps Anderson sees a role for libraries to help users find something to buy, but that is a lot like the role of travel agents and we see what has happened to that industry.

9) Why does Anderson have to argue *for* special collections by arguing *against* general collections? I agree that special collections are important scholarly resources, but I find his perspective and his arguments highly problematic. It looks to me like Anderson wants to get rid of general collections on the extreme off-chance that GSB will be able to serve out poorly organized, less-than-adequate digital surrogates and instead turn his library into a museum that does very little to support the academic endeavors of his university’s academic community. We do ourselves, our communities and our histories a huge disservice by abdicating our traditional roles of collecting, describing, perserving and giving access to the world of knowledge.

10) Finally, Anderson overlooks a fatal flaw with his own argument. In his world, libraries that concentrate on their unique collections and digitize them for “access” and “visibility” will (through the same technological determinism he believes is making libraries irrelevant) turn those unique items into commodities. Either the libraries will have to protect these digitizations by restricting access, use and reuse, or turn them over to private companies who will do that for them. Thus Anderson’s argument leads, not to the inevitable future of libraries, but to a choice for self-destruction.

Some may find Anderson’s arguments persuasive, but there are many others who have a different vision of the future of libraries. We believe that there is a place in society for an institution that, as its primary function, puts users first by selecting, acquiring, organizing and preserving information esential to its user communities (irrespective of their geographic location) and provides services for those collections to those users. This is the once and continuing role that libraries and no other institution plays in society. If librarians don’t see this and fight for this role, who will?

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. 1) Here’s what my paper actually says: “With the advent of such internet-based outlets as Amazon Marketplace and Bookfinder.com, however, every home with an internet connection has direct access to the holdings of thousands and thousands of bookstores around the world, and the likelihood of finding a remaindered or used copy—often at a price of literally pennies, plus a few dollars in shipping—is very high.” (Notice the important differences between what I actually said, and your straw-man version of what I said.)

    2) I don’t “(ignore) the important role that libraries have played and will continue to play in the scholarly communication system and the life-cycle of information.” I suggest that libraries invest fewer resources in buying commodity documents and more in preserving and making available rare and unique documents. This is, to my mind, a very important way of playing a role in the life-cycle of information. Not all information is contained in commodity documents.

    3) What I said may sound to you like technological determinism, but it’s not. It’s a recognition of the fact that technology has given people alternatives to many traditional library services — alternatives that did not exist until recently, and which people are now using in droves. Determinism is a straw man. I’m dealing in tendencies, options, and likelihoods, not determinism.

    4) This argument is a non-sequitur. The fact that some things are still hard to find doesn’t mean that the library’s role as a broker, etc. isn’t being undermined. The easier it gets to bypass libraries in general, the more our traditional roles are undermined. And it is, in fact, easier than it ever has been to get information without using a library — despite the continued difficulty of finding some kinds of information. We could play Dueling Examples all day and it would never establish anything useful.

    5) I agree that maintaining an appropriate balance between commodity and non-commodity focus is a challenge. That’s why I wrote at length in the paper about the importance of shifting focus in a gradual, realistic, and wholly transparent manner, and said that “the appropriate speed and trajectory of the shift will vary from library to library, and will have to be determined in consultation with institutional administrators.” (Notice again the nuance in what I said in my paper, compared to your caricature of it.)

    6) My paper doesn’t deal with government documents at all. To my mind, they occupy a strange territory that’s neither precisely “commodity” nor “non-commodity.” They are outside my paper’s scope.

    7) The role of subject specialists is not discussed in this paper because that topic is also outside the paper’s scope, as is any discussion of patron-driven acquisition. PDA is an important subject, but (like many other important subjects) I discuss it elsewhere, not in this paper.

    8) This entire comment is based on an extremely sloppy reading of my paper. Look again at what I actually say about the scholarly-communication wars and about the role of libraries. If you come away from that second reading still thinking that I see “the role of libraries as little more than that of a business office that pays the licensing bills,” then that means you need to read it a third time.

    9) You say “it looks to me like Anderson wants to get rid of general collections.” Here’s what I actually say in the paper: “Does access to commodity documents matter in a research library? Of course it does. I want to be very clear that I am not advocating that research libraries abandon the brokerage and management of these documents.” (I guess that wasn’t clear enough.)

    10) Making rare and unique documents freely available to scholars online will do the opposite of turning them into commodities. There’s no reason why a library that does so will have to restrict access; the whole point is to break down the restriction imposed naturally by their entrapment in physical formats and make them as widely and freely available as possible. Nor is there any reason why a library would have to “turn them over to private companies who will do that for them.” Research libraries (including mine) are already digitizing unique documents every day and making them freely available online without any use restrictions.

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