Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Monash Library Disposals

Monash University is a member of the Group of Eight (Go8) Australian universities. It is the youngest, in fact. The other members are The Universities of Sydney (est. 1850), Melbourne (1853), Adelaide (1874), Queensland (1909), Western Australia (1911), New South Wales (1949) and The Australian National University (1946).

(BTW: The Group of Seven (G07) Australian universities excluded The Australian National University. The only Sandstone University missing from the Go7 and Go8 is The University of Tasmania, my Alma Mater.)

The Group of Eight have a series of committees. One of which is the Go8 Librarians. The representatives are Vic Elliott (ANU; Chair of the Committee), John Shipp (USyd), Ray Choate (UAdel), Philip G Kent (UMelb), Cathrine Harboe-Ree (Monash), Andrew Wells (UNSW), Keith Webster (UQ), John Arfield (UWA).

At some point in their recent (and seemingly secret) history—the Go8 have only been in existence since 1999—the Librarians "signed an agreement that between them they would preserve a complete set of the OUP print journals. Each University library having responsibility for a designated group of titles. The journals [Monash] are committed to keeping are being moved to off-site store and any we weed will first be offered to G07 libraries [sic] to fill their gaps."

On 13 October staff in my school were asked to look at a list of journals flagged for "possible weeding" and let library administrators know whether "there are any titles that you consider we should definitely continue to have available in paper. Unfortunately we have been given until Friday 23rd October to decide on the future of these titles and I do realise that this does not give you much time to consult with colleagues, but I felt that you would be in a far better position to elicit opinions that would I."

Ten days certainly wasn't long, and mid-October is just about the busiest time of year for academics: exam period. Nevertheless, I responded as follows:

I strongly oppose the removal of hard copies of these—and any other—journals.

I also strongly object to being given less than ten days to mount an argument to prevent journals such as these from being given away/sold/pulped. (Especially, given the time of year, when most academics have their attention fully occupied by end of term assessment.)

Regarding the G07 university libraries policy to "preserve a complete set of the OUP print journals": if this policy means that all-but-one copy of each OUP print journal is to be given away/sold/pulped then this is an extremely foolish policy, unworthy of a research institution.

It assumes

[1] that the access we presently enjoy to OUP journals will never ever be attenuated in any way: that the cost of access will not rise prohibitively (which cannot be guaranteed; prices rose so steeply last year that at least one GO7 university had to suspend its entire monograph acquisition program. If the AUD had continued to fall, it would have had to start winding back its digital periodicals access)

[2] that the existing digital copy of the OUP journals is faultless (it isn't; reading the low-res scans online is migraine inducing, plates are impossible to view, or missing etc)

[3] that the sole surviving exemplar will never ever be lost or damaged (which cannot be guaranteed).

[4] that there are significant cost-savings from giving away/selling/pulping the OUP journals (I do not believe that this is true. Technology is yodelingly expensive compared to off-site storage).

[5] That this decision could actually be reversed if a new policy were ever to considered. It won't be: have you any idea what it would cost to buy a replacement set of Mind? The Monash run is complete from 1876 to 1991. These one hundred volumes would cost a fortune to replace, if, indeed, they could be obtained.

I can't help but wonder what level of academic input—if any—that this policy had. Did nobody point out that a digital copy is not—and should not be viewed as—a replacement for a hard copy, it is a very, very useful adjunct, just as a facsimile is a very useful adjunct to an original edition.

Surely somebody read Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001) and followed the arguments that followed it. Do these arguments need to be rehearsed now?


As I one of the few people to object to this policy in any way I was asked to meet—on 15 October—a senior librarian and my subject librarian to discuss my objections. Both women were very courteous, and were anxious to explain the benefit that had accrued to Monash by acquiring perpetual rights to scans of the OUP journals for only a couple of hundred dollars. The librarians talked up the utility of electronic copies of OUP journals, the accessibility of "last resort" copies within the Go8 libraries, and the costs of keeping "duplicates."

I explained that I was delighted that Monash had acquired these scans of OUP journals, and had done so cheaply, but that these scans could in no way be considered a substitute for original copies (because of their myriad faults, as I had explained in my email), that "last resort" copies were vulnerable precisely because they are the "last copies" and that the cost of preserving originals was actually very low (certainly when compared to the cost of obtaining them in the first place, which Monash had done soon after it was founded in 1958). I might also have mentioned that, if librarians could not plan for, and deal with, the natural growth of their collections then something was seriously wrong with the management of those collections.

Well, the conversation went in a series of overlapping circles. The only thing new in our conversation was the detail I provided them (why hard copies are actually necessary, the ways in which they are useful) and an explanation of why inter-library loans are not a substitute for keeping hard copies (i.e., most institutions won't lend journals at all).

I also think it was news to them that careful scholarship always requires scores, often requires hundreds, and sometimes requires thousands of separate references to journals such as those they were going to throw away. Consequently, it would be an intolerable burden to request all those journals via inter-library loans.

(In fact, I left the University of Tasmania and moved to Melbourne precisely because I soon realised that it is impossible to undertake the research I had begun if one has to rely on inter-library loans. I loved Hobart, and I was very comfortable there, but I uprooted myself from my home of ten years so that I could have access to the journals and reference books I needed.)

When I was asked to meet with these librarians I said that I was not sure what the point would be, given I had explained my objections at some length in my email and given that the policy document has already been agreed on, unless there was any scope for changing/modifying the disposal policy.

As it happens, I was right to be skeptical about the usefulness of the meeting. The librarians wanted me to agree that a scan of a journal is a "duplicate" and see the need to dispose of duplicates. I wouldn't, because this is simply not true. They wanted me to chose for preservation the most important titles from the list they had prepared. I refused, on the basis that they should all be preserved (and even if this were not so, I am in no position to judge whether The Musical Quarterly (1915ff) is more worthy than French Studies (1947ff)).

And two weeks later, on 2 November, it was made clear that there was no scope for reconsidering/changing/modifying the disposal policy. I was informed that, as a result of our meeting, the library had "taken a more conservative approach" and that six of the fifteen journals on the weeding list were going to be "offered to an overseas charity in the first instance."

This decision reminded me of a passage in Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (1818) in which Mr Flosky describes the "fashionable method of administering a mass of vice, under a thin and unnatural covering of virtue, like a spider wrapt in a bit of gold leaf, and administered as a wholesome pill." All of the journals would still be "weeded," but some of them would go to charity.

As I have said, this is an extremely foolish policy, unworthy of a research institution, formulated without academic input, and carried out—in haste—and in the face of academic objection. It is also a decision that will be well-nigh impossible to reverse. It brings to mind this comment in a recent essay by Paul Eggert in Script & Print 33:1–4 (2009): 254–5:

Like most Australian academics in the 1990s and 2000s I sat through—and, as I became more senior, chaired—all too many morale-sapping institutional meetings; this period was not a good one for the traditional humanities, and academics were quickly losing effective control of the institutions with which they had idealistically identified and previously thought of as their own.

Or, as Sirius Black puts it "the devils are inside the walls."

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

Sirius Black was not so foolish.