Three Jeremiads: a second look

Darnton-1-122310_jpg_230x1010_q85 Robert Darnton's The Library: Three Jeremiads (New York Review of Books, December 23, 2010) is a wonderfully written, rather gentle set of Jeremiads –for those of us used to reading the real Jeremiah.  He finds research libraries (and by extension, the rest of us) facing three crises, but he ends with hope, not doom.  (In that sense, he more like the original Jeremiah than many would realize.)

Darnton's three jeremiads are, in compact phrases:

  • Hard times are inflicting serious damages on scholarly publishing.  Scholarly publishers can no longer count on selling 800 copies of a monograph, and so many university presses have stopped publishing in some smaller fields (colonial Africa) altogether.  The scholarly monograph is becoming too expensive to sustain, and this back up the entire line from graduate-student research to publish-and-perish for newer faculty.  The pipeline is very seriously clogged.
  • University journals have experienced excessive pricing as control of critical scientific journals have passed to private hands.  The average price of a annual journal subscription in physics is $3,368; the average price in language and literature is $275.  Publishers impose drastic cancellation feeds, written into "bundled" journal subscriptions (sometimes hundreds) over several years.  Publishers seek to keep the terms secret, although a recent case in Washington casts doubt on that ability.  Academics devote time to research, write up the results as articles, referee the articles, serve on editorial boards, and then buy back the product of their labors at ruinous prices.  In order to break the monopologies of price-gouging empires such as Elsevier, scholarship needs open-access journals which are truly self-sustaining.  The Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity attempts to create such a sustaining coalition of universities.
  • The Google books settlement offers some hope for breathing new life into monographic publishing, according to Darnton.  (I disagree — see below.)  A Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) could succeed should Google fail, but the primary obstacles are not financial but legal.  Those works published between 1923 and 1964 are often in a copyright limbo called "orphaned works," because no one knows who actually holds copyright, if anyone.

Darnton's last Jeremiad offers hope, but is, I find, not a sustaining hope.  Recently I was helping my staff to shift part of our small collection because our shelving is at 100% of capacity and we do still desire to purchase some new monographs in print.  By chance I was shifting our modest collection of books on feminism and its development –but all the essential texts were there, starting with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (English translation 1953).  All of these titles are in print; the subject remains of great interest to many in the university; all of this material remains in copyright, but much of it is now old enough that the identities of the rights-holders can become difficult to trace.  Given the legal problems, little of this material is likely to be digitized on a large scale any time soon.

There may come a time when the sheer need for digitized texts will overwhelm the vested rights of very numerous rights holders, and society will enforce an equitable arrangement –the Google Books proposal would assign 63% of profits to authors and publishers, to be held in escrow by a trust persuant to a Book Rights Registry.  This proposal cuts the Gordian knot: the Copyright Act granted a long-term license which the government in turn never attempted to track, insofar as enforcement was to be carried out by a (presumably aggrieved) rights-holder.  This promises, however, endless litigation, and by the time that is ended, interest in almost all texts from the 1923-1964 period (or even later) will have faded further.

The sustainability problems for scholarly writing and publishing are very real, and remain.  For a smaller, teaching-oriented University, the reality that these problems are first dealt with by the Class-1 research universities is little comfort: we all live with the results of the mess society and technology has made of rights, copyrights, and the ubiquitous threat of litigation.  Predatory journal pricing structures remain, and it is little comfort for a teaching university that the prices are so far out of the realm of the possible that only a few mourn the impossibility of major scientific journal subscriptions.  The only way forward, as I see it, is to offer support to organizations such as the Public Library of Science, SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition), and the evolving identities and offerings of JSTOR and ITHAKA.  But this is not an answer.  It merely joins Darnton's appeal to change the system.

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