[ Cross-posted on my website ]
I've finally made it through Kathleen Fitzpatrick's excellent text, Planned Obsolesence: Publishing Technology and the Future of the Academy. I highly recommend it for its forward-thinking analysis of and suggestions on how the scholarly communication system can adapt to C21 technological and social realities. I particularly like that the text is itself an example of Fitzpatrick's vision for digital scholarship, such as the use of peer-to-peer review and CommentPress.
As I was reading, Chapter 4 (on preservation) jumped out because it discussed the role libraries play in such endeavors. One quote in particular got me thinking:
...institutions will be required to weigh the costs of preservation less against its benefits than against the risks presented by failing to ensure persistent access to digital resources (p. 153)
This made me wonder, are libraries locked in a self-perpetuating cycle where incentives to digitally preserve and provide access to resources inadvertently create a world where libraries eventually become directly responsible for ensuring persistent access to digital resources?
A bit of context first; I won't go into much detail since these ideas and practices are widely discussed elsewhere. Also, for the sake of brevity I make some broad generalizations, so hum along with me for a minute or two. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s libraries began to feel the crunch of what has been called the serials crisis as publishers realized that libraries are not truly elastic markets. For example, as the publisher of Journal X, I can increase the cost of Journal X from one year to the next because library "customers" (faculty, students, general public, whoever) demand access to X and I am the only one who can provide that access. Thus, journal prices go up, libraries scramble to keep up (and library budgets do not increase proportionately, if at all), and tensions arise between libraries and publishers. But wait! Libraries strike back by endorsing open access (OA) and implementing institutional repositories (where they can provide access to this OA material).
There is much debate as to whether OA and institutional repositories (IRs) will cure the ails of the scholarly communication system. On one hand, OA and IRs have not yet drastically altered scholarly communications. However, more and more IRs are providing access to a continuously increasing amount of scholarly material, and more and more authors and publishing in OA journals or negotiating for the right to archive pre- and post-publication copies of their work. Also, libraries are becoming more involved in publishing efforts through ties with university publishers or by directly publishing journals and such materials. Furthermore, proponents of IRs often emphasize their role in providing access but IRs also play an important role in preservation. Matt Kirschenbaum argues that in the digital world, unlike the print world, access and preservation are not at odds but rather reinforce each other. With each article deposited in an IR and each library-based publication, libraries are collectively providing open access to and preservation of an increasing proportion of the scholarly record.
Will libraries begin to edge out publishers and become responsible for providing persistent access to the digital scholarly record just as they do with print? Publishers (I'm mainly talking about large, for-profit publishers; there are many others, such as MPublishing, who are on the vanguard of finding sustainable solutions) have not been particularly impressive in their attempts to adapt to the changing landscape (see, for example, Fitzpatrick's take on Nature's 2006 OA experiment as well as anything pertaining to "those in power..."). It would not be inconceivable to see some publishers go under, which raises questions of who then provides access to those resources. LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico might be triggered but these archives do not house the entire digital scholarly record, only what publishers allow them to.
Of course, this is hypothetical and depends on a host of confounding variables. If it happens, it won't occur tomorrow or the next day, but the implications of such changes are worth considering. First, are libraries prepared for this level of responsibility in terms of technology, personnel, workflows, etc.? Currently, no. Does academia even want the library in such a position? How would resources be organized and access points centralized? It's not helpful to have resources distributed across each institution's repository where they can't be easily found. What other considerations might there be?