By Meredith Farkas | April 5, 2010
In response to my post a few days ago about EBSCO, Sarah Houghton-Jan just wrote an impassioned post about unethical vendor practices, suggesting that we let our vendors know when we are not happy with what they’re doing. While I do agree that libraries should make their dissatisfaction with specific vendors or vendor practices known to the vendor (and to the public for others to learn from), I don’t know how much of a difference this will make on an individual level. If my Director contacted our EBSCO rep and said “we’re really unhappy with the fact that you’re making the Journal of Military History available only through an expensive database package” would it really matter? Would they change? We’re a small private university, one of many, many small private universities that do business with EBSCO. If we decided to drop all of our EBSCO subscriptions (which is impossible — some of them are things we must provide access to and there’s no other option) would they care that much? I’m sure they will make degrees of magnitude more from locking up the Journal of Military History content in those databases than they will from us.
One of the commenters on my post wrote “where is a David to take down this Goliath?” In my mind, what we really need to take down this Goliath is another Goliath; specifically, a Goliath made up of a lot of Davids. Pretty much all libraries are members of consortia of some sort; local, regional and national groups dedicated to advocating for and supporting their member libraries. If these aren’t the groups that should be fighting unfair or unethical practices of vendors, I don’t know who should! It’s only in large numbers that we can actually make a difference in scholarly publishing.
We’ve certainly seen major Universities doing it, since it seriously impacts their bottom line. Back when I was in library school, I remember when a whole bunch of big schools like Cornell, Harvard, etc. boycotted Elsevier journals in response to bundling of journals, exorbitant pricing, and an unwillingness to negotiate fair deals. In addition, their faculty Senates made statements suggesting that faculty not support journals with exorbitant pricing by not publishing in them or serving on their boards. When we’re being faced with unfair deals or unethical behavior from publishers, we should get our faculty members involved too. We have three members of the Society for Military History on the Norwich faculty. I contacted them last week, as I thought they might be able to exert pressure on the Society. If faculty drop their memberships and stop publishing and serving on the boards of journals like this, the journals will have little choice but to change their practices (not that I think that will all happen, especially with historians rather than scientists, but one can dream, right?).
I’m not an expert on what consortia do by any stretch of the imagination, so maybe those of you with more experience can answer this. Are our consortia exerting pressure on vendors when they do things like this? I know the consortia we belong to get us discounts with vendors (and mainly seem focused on group discounts and training), but do they fight vendors when those vendors do things that are harmful or exploitative to their member libraries? I see that an International Coalition of Library Consortia exists and that they’ve made some statements about issues in scholarly publishing, but they’ve made so few over the years in light of the huge number of issues libraries have grappled with. Looking at the mission statements of a few consortia, they talk about group purchasing and a single point of contact for dealing with vendors, but I see nothing about actively advocating for member libraries.
So, if the consortia don’t fight for us, who should? ALA? ACRL? I always hear about how ALA has such a strong advocacy arm, but it seems to be all about advocating for libraries in the national and state governments, not with scholarly publishers and content providers. It certainly makes no sense for us to form separate organizations to advocate for libraries in this realm when we have these consortia that have relationships with publishers and are supposed to be negotiating with them on our behalf.
More important than making our dissatisfaction known to our vendors is to make our dissatisfaction known to the organizations that are supposed to represent and advocate for us. We are much more powerful in large numbers than we are alone, and we joined consortia in the first place to band together for our common good. It’s not just about getting deals and taking classes on cataloging and Web 2.0 technologies — it should be about collective advocacy. And if the organizations we give money to are not providing that for us, then we should pressure them to do so. Because we will not be able to create real change in the scholarly publishing and library technology landscape unless we act as a group.