Beyond Antagonism: At the NFAIS Humanities Roundtable

nfais logoLast week I had a chance to discuss publishing, digital humanities, and sustainability models with a group from the National Federation for Advanced Information Systems (NFAIS). The meeting, NFAIS’s Humanities Roundtable, included representatives from several scholarly societies, library vendors, and academic libraries.

It was an interesting cross-section (and intersection) of fields and trades, but what was most fascinating—at least for this relative outsider—was the peaceful convergence of producers and consumers. I think I’d gotten used to looking at the relationship between libraries and large-scale content providers as one of antagonism, an impression bolstered by the musty patchwork quilt of bad practices from the journal bundlers and walled gardeners (garden-wallers?) of the world.

But what is easy to miss from the perspective of the Open Access high road (a high road I am committed to in both theory and practice) is the fact that for as free as information wants and deserves to be, publishers really do add value to how information is packaged. And these packages can actually be worth what they cost.

Tim Lloyd of Alexander Street Press offered one example of this kind of value-add. Alexander Street has been around since 2000, and has become well known for its digital collections of text, audio, and video materials from across many different academic disciplines. Some of the services offered by these collections include access to unpublished and in-copyright materials, searchability across collections (by way of TEI mark-up and consistent indexing), and the collation of material into fully edited, discipline-based anthologies.

There’s nothing earth-shaking about the Press’s business model: they look for potential content need, acquire content around that need, add functionality to the collections they build (like search and navigation between full-text and catalog versions of material), and license these collections to libraries. But what’s smart about all of this is how they execute at each step. Especially interesting is their new evidence-based acquisition (EBA) model for streaming video content.  Basically, EBA allows libraries to shape their licensing practices through actual user data, rather than forcing their purchasing hand through wholesale bundling of content. This way, after an initial year of full collection access, libraries can consider their patron usage stats to make decisions about longer-term acquisition of particular titles or anthologies.

It’s a model that works (well, it’s new enough that data on how well the EBA model is working is still pending, but, according to Lloyd, it’s already proven extremely popular with the Press’s customers) because it considers how libraries want to do business—based on a cost structure associated with use, rather than arbitrary and inflationary pricing tactics.

What’s the lesson here? Well, for me the takeaway from talking to Lloyd, and to others at the bigger library vendors like OCLC and EBSCO, is that while open access may be an ideal state for information—and for the data behind that information—there are still effective ways to package this information so that libraries and library patrons can better use it. And these packages can be worth their cost if they’re 1) valuable as a collection of services—like, say, a well-edited anthology or better search functionality; and 2) priced in such a way that they support a more sustainable symbiosis between content providers and academic libraries. In the end, the problem that the open access movement is seeking to amend is that of predation—the abuse of scholars, libraries, and the academic institutions that support them. But not all content providers are looking to prey on the institutions that support them—many, in fact, recognize that it’s in their best interest to actively engage those institutions in discussions about how best to create economic sustainability across the information ecosystem.

Thanks to all participants at the NFAIS Humanities Roundtable for a stimulating and eye-opening series of conversations!