By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
If you work at a grocery store you’re a hero today. If you work at a hospital, a superhero. If at a restaurant, you’re probably at home. If you manage a grocery store, you’ve had problems to solve but lack of customers isn’t one of them. If you own a bookstore, beauty salon, or baseball team, for that matter, you have big challenges still ahead (not that pro franchise owners should expect too much sympathy). COVID-19 is in many ways anything but a shared experience.
For experts—as if there could be any at this moment—for columnists, bloggers, Twitterati, editorialists of every kind, COVID-19 is a gold rush. Here’s all the material you can handle and more, day in, day out, with grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants, sports teams, bookstores, beauty salons, and everything else out there ready and waiting for your observations. It’s a time to make predictions, to say almost anything at all, just say something. Everyone’s hungry for what might be a glimpse of the future. Maybe you’ll be right, maybe not. Later, who’s going to check up on what you say today?
What to say about academic libraries? To back up one year to 2019, here’s the very first “Key Finding” in Ithaka S+R’s widely read triennial “Library Survey”:
Library directors continue to perceive the value of their roles—and the roles of their libraries—as declining in the eyes of their supervisors and other higher education leaders.
If from this starting point you jump to campuses emptied by stay-at-home orders and a pandemic with no clear end in sight—and pervasive uncertainty, anxiety, even fear—who’s looking forward to reading the next triennial report? The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Times Higher Education, they’re all full of news about COVID-19, news about room and board refunds, lawsuits over tuition refunds, courses going online with varying success (while starkly exposing a digital divide), pass-fail grading, objections to pass-fail grading, buildings closed, buildings repurposed, student loans (granting or forgiving), best and worst-case enrollment scenarios, high-tuition international students, already struggling low-income students. Will the football team take the field in 2020? Who’s up for an unplanned gap year?
Among all this bad news you won’t see much in the trade press about libraries, though. Who could blame a librarian for being a little uneasy?
So, let’s take a different approach, some librarians say. “I hate to be excited right now,” one put it, “but if I wasn’t, everything would be just terrible.” “I see this as an opportunity,” said another, “to look at a lot of things we should do better.” “Is this a humanitarian disaster,” asked a third librarian, “or an exceptional opportunity to learn from?” After all, what’s so new about change? Librarians have been talking and writing about how fast their world is changing … for how long? For longer than anyone reading this blog has been working, would be my own guess. What we’re seeing is an acceleration of what was happening anyway.
That’s one way to look at COVID-19. Courses are suddenly online, to take an example. It seems a sure bet for a lot of teaching and learning to stay there. This is news? Well, not exactly. It’s just that nobody had planned for the world to change overnight. But now that it has, let’s get back to work where some librarians have focused for years. “I’m having conversations now I’ve never had before,” reports one librarian. So many faculty members, so hard to engage in the past. Now they hold forth from a table at home, with much less ease than from the dais of a lecture hall. Suddenly they need help in a big hurry with, say, finding an online resource they’re allowed to use. If librarians don’t become more involved in online teaching, how do you like that scenario for the future? Libraries will get a bigger opportunity than this?
Reinvention is a different path to optimism. It’s hard to accelerate from a dead stop, so let’s start over. Take books. Demand for ebooks has certainly accelerated thanks to COVID-19, but so sometimes has the cascade of pain from professor to librarian to student—or in just about any sequence of the three—when a book that’s assigned or otherwise needed can’t be accessed. Maybe pricing and license terms keep an ebook out of reach. Maybe it’s not on an available platform in the first place. Or maybe what a library ‘owns’ is a perpetual license expressly forbidding inter-library loan. Or maybe the library has a print copy but can’t scan enough of the book to satisfy need, or with the building locked, maybe they can’t scan at all.
Not that “dead stop” is a fair way to characterize the effort librarians have devoted for years to negotiation, experimentation, and agitation over digital rights. The open access and OER movements alone are proof of that. To date, though, the big picture is that when it comes to books the world hasn’t changed much. But if we can hope for a vaccine, why not for a tweak or two to digital rights? Once more, there’s going to be a better opening than now?
Any vendor or publisher forecasting healthy library materials budgets for the coming year had better rush their crystal ball into the shop for repair. Everyone who sells content to academic libraries will be looking to find advantage for their own goods in what working crystal balls agree will be the leanest year in memory. Whether they find advantage in superior content, in new or special services, in better support, in pinpoint pricing, in smart marketing, or in perfect timing, all this is very much TBD. At last, though, a chance to reinvent licensing and DRM, say librarians who have been pushing for new online terms their whole careers.
Will COVID-19 lead to changes in ebook licensing? Will the pandemic make librarians indispensable to the online classroom? Acceleration or reinvention, sorry, no predictions from this blog, other than to say what librarians will know—they’ll need both.