Stewardship, Librarianship, the ACS, and us

This blog has been dormant long enough that I think it’s probably okay for me to hijack it from its usual purpose (discussion of the hows, whats, and whys of library instruction) to address an issue that’s come to a head in recent days and weeks.

So a couple of weeks ago, the libraries at SUNY Potsdam went public with their decision to cancel their subscription to the American Chemical Society’s journal package for 2013.1  The ACS, as many academic librarians are well aware, is in the enviable position of both accrediting undergraduate chemistry programs, and selling access to a set of resources that are required (or nearly required) for obtaining accreditation.

Possibly as a result of this situation, the (non-profit,tax-exempt, 501.c.3) Society charges subscription rates for its journal packages that, for many libraries, dwarf the cost of any other resource they purchase. Details of the effect of the cost of the ACS package on the overall library acquisitions budget are provided in Jenica’s post linked above.

SUNY Potsdam’s decision was noteworthy enough that the Chronicle of Higher Education took note (the link is, ironically enough, only accessible to subscribers).  The Chronicle’s article was mentioned on various blogs and mailing lists, and discussion has focused especially on the quote from Glenn S. Ruskin, ACS’s director of public affairs, concerning his decision not to engage in public debate on the issues, preferring to confer by telephone or face-to-face with individual librarians.

There are a lot of issues swirling around this particular incident: we’ve got the ACS’s potential conflict of interest in its role as both accreditor and purveyor of resources required for accreditation; we’ve got larger issues of ownership and access in scholarly communication; we’ve got issues of age, gender, and power in librarianship; we’ve got issues of the Serials Crisis and the Big Deal affecting library budgets; we’ve got issues of language and context and code-shifting and public vs. private communication; and we’ve got issues of libraries, and librarians, as stewards of scarce resources.

And it’s that last issue that I want to focus on, with a soupçon of reference to some of the others.

Because Jenica has gotten some pushback on — of all things in this glorious mess — removing access to needed resources from her campus.  The pushback hasn’t come from her own campus, mind you; she and her librarians did a great job preparing the affected users for the loss of these resources, explaining the reasons for the decision, and finding sufficient alternative resources. No, the pushback is coming from other librarians and chemists.  “That’s a bad decision,” she paraphrases her critics. “Your users need that content.”

And that’s the point that I want to work through here: yes, her users need that content. So do mine.2 So does every chemistry department. But you know what? Her users need a lot of things, and so do mine and so do yours. Libraries have limited resources to distribute, to steward, to meet all of our users’ needs.  And stewardship is complicated: sometimes it means making decisions that make people unhappy — even make their work or their lives more difficult — in pursuit of a greater good.

And librarians have a really hard time making people unhappy. We’ve been trying, since the first librarian who saw beyond the Gatekeeper model of librarianship to the Facilitator model of librarianship, to make people happy. To help people.  We are, after all, a female-dominated so-called “helping profession.”  It is very hard for us to say “no.”

But sometimes we have to, either because there is no other answer, or because we have to keep the larger picture in mind. We’ve been saying “yes,” and bending over backwards to do more with less, and attempting to give everyone everything they need for so long that we have nearly forgotten that there are models of librarianship other than Doormat and Faculty Helpmeet. We have nearly forgotten that we, too, have expertise and experience, and a broad view of the scholarly communication landscape, to bring to bear on these problems. We recognize that something has to give, that library collections in all disciplines other than chemistry suffer because of the untenable situation that the ACS has put libraries in, and because we know this, we must use that knowledge to inform our stewardship.

We cannot let Jenica Rogers and SUNY Potsdam be the sole standard bearers for libraries in this matter.  We cannot breathe a sigh of relief and believe that now that they have taken this courageous step, things must necessarily get better for the rest of us — because if it’s only them who take this step, things won’t get better.  Other campuses, other libraries, other chemistry departments, and other librarians must step forward and stand with them, must steward their resources in responsible and effective ways. This sounds like hyperbole but I am fairly confident that it is not: the future of scholarly communication rests, in part, on decisions like this. Let’s not blow it.

Update, Dec. 14, 2012: My college’s library, with the support of our Chemistry faculty, has cancelled our subscription to the ACS online journal package for 2013.  More details can be found in the Library Society of the World’s discussion.


  1. More precisely, the Director of Libraries, Jenica P. Rogers, went public with that decision in a post on her blog, Attempting Elegance. The distinction may or may not be relevant.
  2. Though judging by our usage statistics for our ACS package, they don’t need it a whole freaking lot.