Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Unpacking value – there has got to be a better way


The recent posting in Scholarly Kitchen on “unpacking the value of peer review” seemed quite familiar to me.  Like the early Christian Apologetics, Kent Anderson attempts to defend the non-OA publishing work (both for-profit and nonprofit) against the naysayers of the Open Access by rationalizing the value of their work.  This appeal has the same refrain and tone as the many rants against the “death of libraries” that so tires us librarians.

First, Kent is preaching to the choir – other publishers.  Yes, there is an OA segment to Scholarly Kitchen, but most of the readers of this blog are already familiar with all of the aspects he describes.  Similarly, librarians extol the value of libraries most often to ourselves – library blogs, library forums, library conferences.  Even when we open our forums to others, few outside the field attend, and they are often our best supporters, and thus are part of our “choir”.

It is clear that Kent is attempting to provide the ammunition to his peers that could be used to fight off the charges that publishing a journal is easy and shouldn’t cost so much, but unfortunately, the ammunition is weak and limited in force.  It is focused on processes and resources – it takes time and money to get a journal off the ground, to recruit & manage peer reviewers, to prepare the artwork, to manage the process.  Librarians, too, focus on these same issues – it takes time, effort, knowledge, etc. to run a library.  But these arguments do not justify the libraries’ (or publishers’) existence; they do not explain the value that library brings to the community.  They merely describe how hard or expensive it is.

Which will lead any naysayer or skeptic to punch holes in these arguments, notably how cumbersome the process is and how much more efficient it could be made.  Indeed, such a skeptic could turn his arguments around and use them against the idea of peer-review – it is too expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive to continue to exist.  There has got to be a better way.  Such is also the position that librarians have put themselves and their institutions in with such arguments.  Yes, it’s expensive to run a library – it takes professionals and trained staff, the resources of all types and formats cost money, and it’s a high-stakes gamble.  Will anybody use the books, the DVD’s, the journals?  Will anybody partake in the services we provide?  But that doesn’t justify our existence to the community.  These arguments do not unpack the value of libraries and librarianship.

Much could be learned from the early Christian apologies – they addressed those who questioned the faith head-on, seriously considering the potential truth of their skeptics and unbelievers.  We, too, could better prepare for the arguments against the very existence of our passions (scholarly publishing and librarianship) by not dismissing such ideas as rash or haphazard or impossible.  Would the elimination of public or academic or school libraries really be a bad thing?  Really – think about it.  What is the opportunity cost of supporting a library?  What value would be lost if libraries and librarians ceased to exist?  These are the questions that could help us get to the value that we provide.  Answering these questions will provide better arguments to our existence than simply saying how hard and expensive it is to do our jobs.

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2 comments on “Unpacking value – there has got to be a better way

  1. Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
    November 30, 2014

    By way of contrast, Stephen Abram provides some statistics that provide some support for the value of libraries in the Ontario community: http://stephenslighthouse.com/2014/11/24/ontario-public-library-statistics-and-talking-points/

    Although he is still preaching to the choir and many of the stats he uses are simple outputs, they are outputs that are proxies for value – engaging student volunteers, millions of items borrowed, percentage of people who visited libraries. Furthermore, the stats he provides express both emotional and financial value – providing millions of dollars worth of resources for low cost per taxpayer; high return on investment; more locations than McDonald’s (or Tim Horton’s or Starbucks).

  2. Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
    November 30, 2014

    One further comment – this article in Wired seems to represent the most common arguments against traditional scholarly journals: http://insights.wired.com/profiles/blogs/science-journals-have-passed-their-expiration-date#axzz3Ka3pdcuZ

    So, let’s imagine if Daniel Marovitz’s (CEO of F1000) model were the norm – what would be lost? What would be gained?

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2014 by in LIS Profession, Publishing, Scholarly Communication.
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