In September 2012 UC Berkeley appointed a distinuguished panel of scholars to examine the future of the UCB Library system. You can read the commission's original charge here.
Over the past 13 years months the Commission met frequently and consulted with numerous stakeholder groups. This March the Commission sponsored a daylong symposium about the future of the libraries, and in April I attended a talk by UCB University Librarian Tom Leonard that briefly touched upon the Commission's ongoing work. My reflections on that talk are here. I've been following the Commission's work closely, and eagerly awaited their final report.
That report, at 62 pages including the appendices, is now available. Given Berkeley's exalted position within the realm of academic libraries, it is very disappointing to those of us who care about their future.
There are two fatal flaws. First: The Commission assumes without question the traditional role of the academic library as a repository of "collections," with its corollary assumption that knowledge products can somehow be comprehensively collected and cataloged. As David Weinberger showed with Too Big to Know, this is not true. Librarians should be curators of the scholarly universe, not collectors akin to big game hunters who bring treasures back to the stacks.
Second: The other flawed assumption is that the monograph is the most legitimate means of conveying knowledge, which puts digital or 3d expressions of human understanding at a deep disadvantage. My point is not that books have no value; there are several on my nightstand right now, at varying levels of dog-earedness. But it's not a zero-sum, either-or situation. Yes, academic libraries such as those at Berkeley do have a tremendous heritage in print collections and to some extent this will always be part of the mix. But if we fetishize print we will exclude recognition of new modes of understanding.
While reading the report I grew ever more depressed. I earned my MLIS in 2002, and 11 years later -- as the Web has continued to profundly alter our daily lives -- our foundational assumptions about what an academic library should be remain unchanged. Deep in the bone, we'd rather navigate the stacks instead of figuring out how to preserve bits and bytes. We understand the stacks, as they have been part of our cultural heritage for centuries. The bits and bytes are still young whippersnappers, the new kids in town.
What we have here, then, is a profound expression of loss aversion. As Kahneman and Tversky so ably demonstrated, people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In library terms, that means maintaining the stacks while casting a long hard glance at the data curator.
Loss Aversion in Action
Here are some practical demonstrations of loss aversion in the Commission's report:
- The Commission calls for $13M in one-time expenses, and at least $11.5M in annual new appropriations, to faciliate "remedial acquisitions" of items the Library could not collect due to recent state budget cuts. This money would also support extensive new hires. The Commission documents the painful effects of haphazard staff attrition on library morale. I agree there should be an increase in professional hires although my fear is that these new librarians will end up performing traditional tasks rather than experimenting in the creation of the 21st century academic library. The report also presents statistics to show that UCB is not keeping up with Joneses (its peers in the Association of Research Libraries) in collection development prowess. The subtext is that UCB must do what everyone else is doing, and that since collection volumes can be easily counted this is the most central metric of a library's value. We don't know how to quantify the 3d visualizations or web sites that a library could facilitate with advanced tools and services, so therefore we assume that this does not matter. Here is loss aversion, writ large.
- There's another false binary -- similar to the one between books and digital objects -- between the role of librarians and that of search engines. In many ways Google is an atrocious search engine; librarians could design one that is much better. But the report says (paraphrasing) "don't go to Google! come to the library!" as though this would actually happen on a large scale. Far better to infuse librarian expertise into the design of widely used search products, rather than drawing stark lines of us vs. them.
Glimmers of Hope
Despite the conservative tenor of the report, there are some glimmers of hope. The Commission calls for the Library's web site to be extensively improved, offering personalized search recommendations based on the user's previous searches. Currently the site guides people blindly with each new search. I like this idea for two reasons:
- It would make the Library's web site similar to consumer sites, which offer these functionalities as a matter of course.
- More importantly, this could be a vehicle for exposing searchers to the riches of the wider Web and not only the content "collected" at UC Berkeley. As noted above, 21st century librarians should be curators, not collectors. Here's a space in which to enact that idea.
The Commission also recommends that the Library establish an office whose purpose would be to facilitate the broader dissemination of scholarship produced at UC Berkeley. The initial budget proposed for this office is $500,000 a year, a pittance compared to the $13M requested to shore up the Library's more traditional functions. It's a start. The goal of the office would be to make scholarship produced at UC Berkeley more openly accessible, presumably by beginning with open access journal publication. This could evolve into a platform for dissemination of scholarly works broadly defined, such as data sets and 3d visualizations or anything else that can only be rendered online. Here is a space in which to experiment with that idea.
The Long Game
Even while drafting those glimmers of hope just above, they felt like very slender reeds. Web site redesign? $500,000 for a new office of scholarly communication, within a $50M overall library budget? Please.
Beggars can't be choosers, and Rome wasn't built in a day. The change-maker is always swimming upstream, and in this case against a very stiff current. For those folks at the UCB Library who are dispirited by this report, I suggest swimming to those glimmers of hope as a way to make things happen.