The librarian as synthesizer

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  • Library Acquisitions: Practice & Theory, Vol. 12, pp. 139-147, 1988 0364~6408/88 $3.00 + .OO Printed in the USA. All rights reserved. Copyright 0 1988 Pergamon Press plc

    CHARLESTON CONFERENCE 1987

    THE LIBRARIAN AS SYNTHESIZER

    RICHARD ABEL

    Timber Press

    9999 Southwest Wilshire

    Portland, OR 97225

    In discussing a theme for this meeting the observation of Alphonse Karr, writing of the revolutions which wracked early nineteenth century France, the more things change, the more they remain the same, continually recurred. Looking back over the more than 30 years since my involvement in supplying books to academic and research libraries began, Karrs dis- mal, sobering, and pithy summary of the outcome of 50 years of upheaval, involving not just France but virtually the whole of Western European civilization and culture, seems particu- larly apposite. The world of learning has since World War II both created and experienced upheavals of similar moment though happily without an equivalent loss of life. And because the matrix of most serious writing is found in the world of learning, the world of books, jour- nals, and libraries has shared in these upheavals.

    So much for broad generalities and grandiose analogies offered simply by way of elucidat- ing and defending the theme of what follows. Let me now turn to the particulars which I advance to support the case that despite all the change, the world of books, journals, and libraries remains much the same as I first came to know it 35 years ago when I moved from the front rooms to the back rooms of libraries by virtue of becoming a bookseller to libraries.

    The delivery of knowledge as incorporated in books and journals remains simply too expen- sive. Let me here compare two clearly basic costs of living in the U.S., food and housing, to the cost of serious books-but as always some definitions:

    1. By serious book, I mean the original publication of a book the author of which conscien- tiously set out to convey knowledge about one topic or another in the broad mainstream of the generally accepted body of things and affairs which constitute the world of learning;

    2. Mass market paperbacks are excluded; 3. The figures for food are derived from the U.S. Department of Agriculture budgets for

    a liberal diet -the top of the spending heap- for a family of four; 4. The figures for housing are the nationwide average of the costs of putting shelter over

    ones head-not heating, cleaning, furnishing, or maintaining the space-again for a family of four.

    139

  • 140 R. ABEL

    As you well know, the list price of the kind of book defined here and the stock in trade of libraries is approximately $30. The weekly individual expenditures for food and housing are virtually identical-$30 per week for each. In short, our average book must be purchased by the average U.S. citizen at the expense of a weeks food or a weeks shelter.

    Incidentally, the purchase of books and journals is in these statistics lumped with R.V. vehi- cles, movie tickets, video rentals, vacation spending, etc. in a recreational category which in total is only about 20% of national spending for either food or housing.

    The comparison with the average journal is more unfavorable-approximating two weeks food or shelter.

    Clearly books and journals are elitist commodities sold only to the well-to-do or those whose need for knowledge is of sufficient magnitude that they will make hard economic deci- sions by reallocating their resources to depart from the typical spending patterns.

    Why are books and periodicals so dear?

    1. Clearly the twigging effect coincident with the growth of knowledge and first articu- lated by Curtis Benjamin is a part of the problem.

    2. However, I submit that the greater part of the problem derives from inappropriate means of advising those with a need to know of the availability of that knowledge and then delivering it to them.

    This is a structural problem resulting from the comfortable but ill-founded view that traditional 18th century means of providing notice of publication still suffice in the vastly changed world of 20th century learning. This structural defect is endemic to every orga- nization and group of organizations in which knowledge is a fundamental component - from research organizations through the book and journal trades to libraries. To illus- trate, about 25 years ago, we were asked to set up a turnkey library for a major new research facility being set up by a major high-tech company. I interviewed the newly hired information manager to establish the guidelines and parameters within which we were to select the books and periodical backfiles and how the materials furnished were to be cataloged and processed. Because we were beginning to feel our way to a cataloging program much more strongly oriented to subject cataloging- about which more shortly- I asked, as a means of establishing the value they would assign more extensive catalog subject entries, about the cut-off levels for literature searches. He replied that if a research project were estimated to cost no more than $75,000, the research direc- tor would allow it to go ahead without a literature search. Despite those heady days of heavy federal spending in this area, I was stunned. I was as severely taken aback 10 years later, after our thinking about additional subject approaches to the catalog was better defined, when asking the same question at the same place to learn that the new cut-off was $150,000.

    This is clearly a dear price-one which fairly screamed of the structural problems inherent in moving knowledge from someone who knows to someone with a need to know. The same structural flaw in the book and journal trade is clearly evident on your desks daily in the form of the endless piles of catalogs, brochures, and announcements flowing from publishers advising you of their wares. The same piles can be found in the mailboxes of every one of your faculty members. And as telling is the publishers satis- faction with a 2% sales return on such undertakings.

    Now to put some numbers to this practice, let us assume that the typical piece you receive costs about 4OC including in-house and printing costs plus about 20@ for mail list acquisition and postage, you are looking at 6Oe pieces all over your campuses. One hun-

  • The Librarian as Synthesizer 141

    dred pieces cost $60. Clearly, sales to the two customers who it is hoped will buy must each bear a $30 cost of acquiring the sale.

    Now I know as well as you that this is an analysis at the margin- every publisher expects and usually receives an order for several books from the purchasing entities. So let us turn to average overall marketing costs to discover what orders for several titles do to our first case which was made largely to set the argument as to outmoded advice structures in the trade. Depending upon which study is used, you will find marketing/dis- tribution costs in publishing to range from 3040% of the list price with the mean hover- ing around 50%. In short, advising those with a need to know of the availability of a publication and delivering it costs $15 of the $30 list price of a typical book.

    If you are not as stunned by this analysis as by the first example I can tell you that I, as a publisher, often reflect on my sanity or my mental powers for ever having com- mitted my time and resources to such a marginal social/economic sector. To the best of my knowledge, Lyman Newlin was the person who first clearly focussed on this struc- tural discontinuity in the book trade. I recall to this day his phone call disclosing this analysis-surely a model for the theater of the absurd. I sat speechless as he poured a torrent of figures into the phone and then proposed a means by which we might seek a way of reducing, if not completely rationalizing, this insanity using the mechanism underlying the approval plan. While Lymans intentions in the event were frustrated, its basis in fact was and remains a heavy tariff on knowledge levied against those with a need to know.

    Having now roasted and so alienated one of the major players in the knowledge business on the spit of the cost of advising of and delivering knowledge, let me try my hand on this convocation of librarians.

    The contribution to the cost of delivery of knowledge by libraries is not so readily quan- tifiable as in the case of publishing since these costs are imbedded in cost structures other than the costs of materials. The hidden costs I have in mind are overtly included in capital and operating budgets and covertly in the time and frustrations of your clientele.

    Having been away from the tiny world of libraries for some years, I lack hard financial data, but permit me only to point to the functional areas of budgets for which libraries are the authors of unreasonable tariffs on users of and the delivery of knowledge:

    1. Library capital budgets-constructing and equipping physical plants-in a time when technology is so abundant are simply too high. We have made not a single gain on the storage of the tools of knowledge since the great library of Alexandria. We continue to construct massive buildings at extraordinary cost of which only a fraction of the inter- nal volume actually houses books and journals. What a massive impact the diversion of a fraction capital funds would have on materials acquisition and reader services budgets. In an age of computers, bar coding, conveyor belts, and industrial inventory systems- and here I do not have in mind glorified filing systems sometimes being installed as a poor substitute- the present Alexandrian library is little short of a scandal. Where is the vision to devise a system to store and disburse printed materials from a cheaply con- structed, dense storage, system?

    2. Operating budgets. This body of costs is in some ways closely related to the archaic cap- ital costs already noted. Vast sums are spent yearly in every library to heat, light, and maintain such buildings. But even more costly is the time and energy devoted to retriev- ing and shelving materials. Assuming a modern library system incorporating the man-

  • 142 R. ABEL

    agement and technical features required of a truly cost-effective, integrated library system, I submit that budgets of present proportions could better be used to: a. Greatly enhance collection building, and b. Free librarians of clerical and supervisory chores, allowing them to take a fully active

    role in promoting the use of books in what is educations fundamental purpose- training people in

    I. how to locate information and knowledge II. how others have thought about this information and knowledge both for the

    conclusions reached and also as models of how they might think about it. In short, to revitalize the role of the librarian as an educator and a full-fledged

    member of the intellectual community. 3. The third burden which libraries continue to place on the cost of disseminating knowl-

    edge relates to the second, for it involves costs presently imposed upon users- both in terms of the time they must spend to locate the knowledge they seek and the many frus- trations they experience in this task. Here I have reference to the skimpy and i&defined subject guides presently provided in the catalog. The subject information both in the headings and call numbers borders upon being medieval. To illustrate, some years ago proceeding largely out of our own frustration with the limits of subject cataloging, and a gut sense that others less involved with the problems of getting a handle on the store of knowledge available shared the same frustration, we commissioned a study of patrons approach to a library. Let me hasten to add that this was far from a scientific survey. We simply: a. Obtained the consent of a group of university libraries to station a surveyor by the

    card catalog. b. The surveyors were in place various and different days of the week for an eight-hour

    period over a period of five weeks so that every day Monday-Friday was sampled. c. As many patrons approaching the catalog as the surveyor could deal with were ques-

    tioned. d. The initial question asked was, Are you seeking a book by

    I. author or title II. subject?

    e. They were then requested to check back with the surveyor on their way out to advise on whether they had been successful in finding what they were seeking.

    The results confirmed our gut feeling: a. Over 80% of the patrons, mostly students, were in search not of a book by a par-

    ticular author or with a specific title, but rather a book dealing with a specific sub- ject matter.

    b. Over one-third or nearly a half of those approaching the catalog seeking specific knowledge failed to find what they were seeking and had given up.

    Now I fully recognize the shortcomings of our survey design and analysis, so please dont hammer me about that aspect of the project. We were not planning to publish a scientifically defensible paper, but rather were seeking a heuristic to guide us in augmenting conventional subject cataloging against the day when we could find a librarian prepared to give our pro- posal for radically increased subject approaches a trial-and then let him/her write the paper.

    Let me sum up the point I am trying to make by asking you to reflect on the savings in costs of transferring knowledge if the enormous sums spent by users were reallocated to mate-

  • The Librarian as Synthesizer 143

    rials and public service, all the result of radically rethinking the operation of the library as a system, in the light of the knowledge and technology available today.

    The more thinks change, the more they remain the same is the clear conclusion when looking at the allocation of library materials budgets as between books and journals.

    We first began looking hard at this problem in the mid-1960s after the growth in the num- ber of journal titles, and the costs of subscriptions had already begun to explode. In earlier years, the relation between the scholarly uses of journals and books established in the eigh- teenth and nineteenth centuries seemed to prevail in a relatively well ordered and predictable way. New experimental results, new lines of evidence, new theoretical approaches, etc. were first presented or given a trial run in a journal. The body of new experimental results or new evidence in a particular field was accumulated for a period of two to five years and was then folded into a larger writing, a book, summarizing and synthesizing the new results into the theories in the field. In the case of new theoretical approaches, the wrangling over and con- sequent modifications of the theory as needed went forward in journals for several years, after which a book was written, usually by the creator of the new approach or theory which recast the body of knowledge in that particular field in terms of the new synthesis. Again and equally obviously, a large body of journal articles become fundamentally useless....

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