Like two hummingbirds who had also never met: IRs and humanities scholarship

December 21, 2007

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

(variously attributed)

Most of the time and to a much larger degree than I ever would have expected when I started this dual master’s program, my two worlds (library “science” and English/academic)  are parallel worlds, discovering similar things and having the same anxieties but hardly ever talking to each other. I’m not the type who thinks that this needs to change in general–faculty members do their jobs and librarians do theirs–but I often wonder if these two worlds will ever get together in time to see that they could do a lot for each other in certain, underexplored areas. And that this might actually be necessary sooner rather than later.

I started thinking about this today as I was reading this article by Mark Bauerlein on a new anthology of writing by the New Critics. The article is half an explanation of why such an  anthology is important even if much the NC’s work is seen as outdated in the contemporary academy and half an expose of just how difficult creating such anthologies is likely to become if intellectual property that was once stewarded by academic-leaning institutions becomes part of the asset package of for-profit publishers. This is hardly news, but I found this discussion of it particularly thoughtful and grounded in details that hit home w/ me, b/c this is my field. B writes that this is an anthology that:

…almost didn’t happen. And the reason why raises broad questions about how humanities fields progress, and what becomes of prior works and ideas once professors assume they have progressed beyond them.

Bauerlein names prices and names to describe what the anthology editor, Garrick Davis, had to do to secure the rights to the essays he wanted to include. A couple of the pieces were in the public domain, and many were in the hands of people who understood both their value to the anthology and their lack of commercial value to the marketplace and so let them go for reasonable, one-time fees of $50-100. And I was proud to see that the literary magazine of my own alma mater was very much among this crowd, licensing essays by Robert Penn Warren, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell for only $50 each. This is responsible stewardship of scholarly heritage.

That all changed when it came time to deal with those essays that, by a process of little publishers getting eaten by larger publishers, ended up in the hands of publishers who are grounded in a for-profit model and have neither the inclination nor the staff to recognize that they wouldn’t be losing any money by licensing out obscure essays  and that they would be doing a great disservice to the scholarly record. Davis “asked Harcourt Inc. for permission to reprint an essay by Blackmur entitled “A Critic’s Job of Work,” and Harcourt came back with the outlandish price tag of $2,350.” He wrote back to clarify that he was not expecting to make any money of of it, and asked for a lower price. A paralegal wrote back and said not only were they not lowering the price, they were closing the offer b/c he had refused it. The conclusion is predictable: no Blackmur for that anthology.

Bauerlein draws a parallel between this “disappearing” of essays under a curtain of excessive copyright and the revolutionary impulses of literary theorists who want to pretend that they arrived on the scene w/ no intellectual help from the tradition, and he concludes:

Whether the threat comes from revolutionary feelings among scholars and teachers who erase their forebears, or from business enterprises’ selling intellectual goods at exorbitant prices, professors need to stir up a counterforce. If they won’t respect their predecessors, why should anyone else?

Indeed, and you know who talks about exactly this? Librarians.

We are well aware of the consequences of letting intellectual material, created by scholars and often paid for by public funds, into the hands of people whose only interest is to make money off of it.  I could talk about this for quite a while, but I’ll use an example: the percentage of the library acquisitions budget that is devoted to paying for journals in the fields of science, technology, and medicine (STM). That percentage is huge and typically growing. It is not uncommon for the price of STM journals to jump by 20-30% in a given year, and seeing as STM departments are the darlings of the research university with all of their mad grant funding, libraries usually pay it and then cut from the humanities acquisition budget–I’m painting in broad strokes here, but that is the general idea. And of course in hard times, STM journals get cut like everyone else’s. Onward–this plays into a vicious cycle for humanities scholars, where their funding for not only journals but also for monographs gets re-directed to help pay for the STM rate hikes. Publishers in turn slash their budgets for humanities monographs, all while tenure requirements go up for new professors.

So it’s a raw deal for everyone involved. Librarians have been working on ways to get around this raw deal. We’re working to promote the open access publishing model and institutional repositories for scholars to deposit pre-prints and other forms of their work before it falls into a publisher’s copyright. Most likely, your institution already has one, it’s just underused (that link is to an article by one of my favorite library bloggers, Dorothea Salo–who, perhaps not coincidentally, also has advanced academic training in a humanities discipline).

Humanities scholars are also clearly thinking about alternatives to relying on the journal and monograph marketplace for scholarly communication. The other week I was reading a piece published a year ago about the MLA’s ongoing discussion about tenure requirements, and how eventually it might be better to base it less on what happens to get published by publishers swamped with submissions they can’t sell and more on the faculty’s assessment of the true intellectual value of the work–seeing as there might be ways for universities to take responsibility for publishing the work of their own scholars in a manner that makes it pretty powerfully accessible and relatively cheap to steward. (As an FYI, for all of their expensive journals, the STM people are way ahead of us on this. For them, an article published in a journal is an afterthought. By the time their research hits literal print, it’s been read and used and cited many times already. They stockpile all their grey literature and preprints and keep each other updated as to what they are putting in, not just via blogs but through more systematic means. It’s pretty awesome.)

What I’m trying to say here is, we’re all having the same problems and we all want things to get better. Librarians are waging a range of daily battles to get better prices on journals (it’s a bidding process–every time I find an article I need readily available to me through online databases my library pays for, I mentally thank the tough as nails librarian who likely held her ground to get a better price), to lobby our lawmakers to require publishers to allow public access to publicly funded research, to write better software for storing and retrieving scholarship. Humanities scholars are of course producing the scholarship that librarians work to steward and also becoming more engaged in what happens to that scholarship when it leaves their hands and gets them one step closer to tenure.

This is all good, and while I don’t expect two change-resistant creatures to change overnight, I do hope that eventually these two conversations spill into each other. I also hope that, wherever I end up in this spectrum of academic life, I can continue to have enough of a foot in both worlds to gently suggest that they try to at least become aware of one another’s efforts. Proselytizing isn’t really my thing–we don’t need converts, we need collaborators. If I do manage to make the switch from librarian to scholar, I like to think that I will be more open-minded than most when it comes to collaborating on projects to get control of the scholarly record b/c of my library experience. And if I stay in library world, I like to think that I will have the sensitivity to scholars’ needs necessary to be useful to them as they figure out what fits into their workflow in this area.

Until then, academics and academic librarians are usually like two hummingbirds who have also never met.


One Response to “Like two hummingbirds who had also never met: IRs and humanities scholarship”

  1. Bradley Says:

    Excellent post. Nothing more to add. Just excellent.

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