What if Wal-Mart Ran a Library?
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The giant retailer Wal-Mart is used here as a metaphor for large-scale industrial processes that are being brought to bear on many industries in the evolving global economy, but by and large not on academic institutions and libraries in particular. It is anticipated that the application of such processes will reshape the world of libraries as we know them, with an increasing division between the support of undergraduate education and the requirements of research faculty. While there will be significant opposition to the introduction of such processes, especially because of the resulting disruption of the lives of academic librarians and their institutions, inasmuch as the decisions to make these changes are driven by increasing economic pressures and will be made by authorities above librarians in the institutional hierarchy, the Wal-Martization of the academic library is inevitable.
Last summer I gave a presentation at a publishers' conference in which I attempted to list the various problems that publishers face today, with a special emphasis on the problems of publishers of scholarly journals. As I worked through slide by slide, I could see the faces of publishers darken in the audience. "I assure you that this presentation has a happy ending," I said, but I am not sure I was fully persuasive. After all, the message was that the business of publishing journals had gotten much harder in recent years and that a publisher's progress would require creativity and investment, especially in electronic delivery systems, and not a little bit of cunning to boot. All of us in that room longed for the "good old days" of growing academic library budgets, reliable systems of print delivery unencumbered by existential questions concerning the future of ink, and a prelapsarian innocence about matters of copyright, fair use, and Open Access. Publishers are optimists by nature (they invest capital, and investment without optimism is inconceivable), so perhaps by the end of my talk they shared my sunny view of the emerging role of content-management systems, sales channel differentiation and development, and search-engine marketing. But why must it all be so hard!
Coincidentally, at about the same time I had a number of conversations with academic librarians, whose tales of woe rapidly escalated into a resounding chorus. One librarian explained to me what it means to get a single bill paid; another described a furious race to reinstate a subscription as the grace period came to an end. We all knew that there was something wrong here. Librarians were being paid to chase paper, sometimes two or three times for a single invoice. Instead of working on ways to augment services to their constituencies, librarians were trapped in the giant maw of university administrative inefficiencies. Were the publishers' administrative systems any better than those of the libraries' parent institutions? "Marginally," was the answer.
Meanwhile, outside the world of research publishing and librarianship, life is good and getting better, at least in that small corner of the world where I conduct my everyday activities. I buy a book from Amazon in two or three mouse clicks, and the book appears at my doorstep three days later, with no charge for shipping. I transfer money online into my checking account without a hitch (if only I could remember my password!). Managing a Netflix subscription is a real joy: fast, reliable, with a pot of gold arriving regularly in my mailbox. Or I step into a Kinko's copy shop to make some file copies of IRS forms: insert a credit card, press for copies, and get a receipt printed out at the end, all without having a single exchange with a Kinko's staff member. Publishers are toiling in purgatory, librarians in hell, but there is a paradise somewhere, a world of carefully analyzed and optimized workflow, where, mirabile dictu, a person's time is so highly regarded that it is never, ever squandered.
So what if Wal-Mart ran a library? Wal-Mart is an increasingly controversial organization nowadays, as it has become the poster child for low wages, the outsourcing of American jobs, and the disruption of local communities, but it also is one of the leading technology innovators in the world today. For every person who does not like Wal-Mart, there are many more who do, whether they be the people who line up for jobs, shareholders, or, the largest group of all, the tens of millions who shop there. If being highly esteemed by end-users is the measure of success, Wal-Mart is the most successful organization on the planet. Wal-Mart achieved this status (which admittedly is not universally admired) in part by taking the concept of supply-chain management to unforeseen heights and is credited by many for having kept inflation down and improving productivity across the American economy. Politicians that did this much would, like Caesar, be declared gods.
(I cannot resist inserting a parenthesis about two recent events. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when it seemed that nothing would go right in the U.S., the very first trucks to reach the disaster area came from Wal-Mart, packed with supplies to aid the flood victims. Will Wal-Mart be running for Congress some day? Another item of interest was the announcement in the fall of 2005 that Wal-Mart's potent competitor, Costco, was beginning to experiment with selling health insurance; the premiums were expected to be 20-30% lower than would otherwise be available. It is simply mind-boggling to contemplate that the crisis in health insurance costs might someday be alleviated in part by a profit-driven behemoth answerable to no one outside Wall Street.)
I am not seriously proposing that Wal-Mart get into the library business; nor, I should add, do I own Wal-Mart stock. In fact, I have never even purchased so much as a handkerchief at a Wal-Mart, so whatever economic benefits this company has provided have gone right by me. And if Wal-Mart is too hot a potato even to use as a metaphor, perhaps we could use Dell Computer, that genius of just-in-time manufacturing, or any of the examples mentioned earlier (Netflix, Amazon). What I am proposing is that there is much we can learn from Wal-Mart and Dell even as we try to improve the affairs of libraries and publishers. We need to bring carefully thought-out industrial processes to the management of libraries and publishing companies, and we can only do this if we get beyond the increasingly shrill and adversarial pronouncements now being made by librarians and publishers alike. For things to work, people have to work together.
I first began to think about this about fifteen years ago, when I was running a vendor to a Wal-Mart affiliate, Sam's Club. We had heard that Wal-Mart pressured its vendors and we were wary, but rather than pressure, we got instruction. Wal-Mart taught us how to pack our books (Merriam-Webster's dictionaries) on the "skids" (portable wooden platforms) that are used to ship merchandise in a more efficient manner. Wal-Mart had us change the position of the price tags, better to run through store scanners. Wal-Mart also (and this verges on rocket science for a book publisher) accurately predicted demand such that we shipped books to the Wal-Mart distribution centers on a planned and orderly basis. I shared this story with a friend, who was running a leading map company. Wal-Mart had gone even further with his company. He could sit in his office and look up the inventory of his products at Wal-Mart on a store-by-store basis. With his plain vanilla personal computer in front of him, he could see what was selling, where, and how quickly he would have to prepare more maps for shipment. All of these techniques served to lower costs, which were ultimately reflected in Wal-Mart's famous "everyday low prices."
This is not to say that there have not been significant improvements over the years in the world of scholarly communications. I am particularly struck by such developments as the California Digital Library, which combines the electronic resources of the University of California system into a single entity - an entity, it should be noted, that famously exercised substantial leverage in negotiations with a major journals publisher. Or there are the initiatives for institutional repositories (often called IRs), which may be harbingers of an entirely new class of publishing, though I suspect that the IRs we see today are but a fraction as robust as what we can expect to see in the way of content management and publishing systems in the years to come. It does appear, however, that most initiatives set out to add new features to the system of scholarly communications (a worthy goal, to be sure) rather than ask how a reconfigured system could be run at a cost 30 percent less than is currently incurred. After all, especially since more and more of scholarly communications is taking place in digital form, why doesn't Moore's Law apply here as well?
Different people will focus on different aspects of academic publishing as they look for ways to streamline the system. Personally, I have long wondered why virtually every single publisher mounts digital products on its own Web servers or the servers of an outsourcing firm, requiring their customers (libraries) to access an extensive string of services during the course of doing research. Should the published documents all reside in a single (real or virtual) database for accessing? Should more libraries follow CDL's example and merge their electronic operations? There may be as much a case for consolidation in the library sector as there has been in the publishing sector, provided that such consolidations maintain services even as they reduce costs. Or, to choose an example that is particularly provocative, if Reuters can move many of its news gathering functions to India, why are publishers and libraries continuing to toil without any of the advantages of a globalizing economy?
It should be clear what is not acceptable: any changes in the overall system that sucks out costs, only to have the costs restored by higher pricing from publishers. This is certainly not the way Wal-Mart does it! Librarians know all too well that publishers scrutinize library budgets to see how much they can claim as their share. A larger pie theoretically means a larger slice. A reconstituted supply chain for scholarly communications would not have as its aim that librarians cut costs so that publishers can reap gains. Much of the costs of the current system are with the publishers, and although they have struggled mightily with their cost structures (the principal reason for mergers and acquisitions), there is no equivalent of Dell Computer in publishing today, nor does it appear that any publisher even aspires to that distinction.
If Wal-Mart ran a library, there would be fewer libraries, but they would be much, much larger. Wal-Mart would study the entire supply chain, from authors all the way to readers, to root out inefficiencies. If a particular vendor proved to be hard to deal with, Wal-Mart would encourage other vendors to enter the area. Wherever possible, solutions would be sought with information technology rather than high-cost First World labor. And never, ever, would a highly trained information science professional be asked to sort through a pile of invoices to see which ones had not yet been paid. But the hallmark of the Wal-Mart library is that all the savings brought about by reconfiguring the supply chain would not be taken to the bottom line but would be passed onto the libraries' patrons in some form. Of course, since a library is not a business, the company would require a new tag line: perhaps we should all work toward an era of "Everyday Accessible Scholarship."
How Wal-Mart Might Do It
This is probably the point where somebody stands up in the back of the room and says, "Although you have alluded to Wal-Mart's harsh reputation, you haven't really said what it is Wal-Mart would or should do, and what happens to those people who are not part of the Wal-Mart solution. What happens to them?" This is a very good point, for which there is, in my opinion, no satisfactory answer. The unsatisfactory answers include the economists' platitude that every job lost will be offset by new jobs springing up elsewhere, invocations of Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction," or my personal favorite: You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. None of these answers is wrong, but they don't speak to what it means, what it feels like, to be on the wrong side of a right decision, nor do they address the practical matter, namely, that the agents of change, the world's Wal-Marts, are not the same people whose lives are disrupted by innovation. While the world at large may profit, some people will lose.
For better or worse, subjecting academic institutions to increased scrutiny by those trained in industrial processes has the ring of inevitability. As the Borg say, resistance is futile. This is because the fate and strategies of libraries are not in the hands of librarians but the responsibility of senior administrators, who are beginning to worry about complaints from parents about tuition increases and who wonder if the well of alumni contributions is going to dry up. It appears likely that widespread rationalization of the cost structure of American universities is before us, and libraries are bound to be investigated with an intensity they have never before experienced.
A likely scenario is that university administrators will find themselves more and more under the gun, financially speaking, and they will scour their institutions for ways to reduce costs, even as the fund-raising apparatus continues to operate in fourth gear. Sitting in the middle of such institutions is that marvelous cost center, the library, which will initially be asked for an ounce of flesh, then a pound. Ignoramuses will ask, Why do we need a digital library when we have Google and the Internet? And these ignoramuses will get an attentive hearing from the Board of Trustees. Under pressure, libraries will begin to examine their own processes and develop various strategies, sometimes in combination with other libraries.
I recently stumbled upon Ann Okerson's "Reflections about Collections" (http://www.charlestonco.com/features.cfm?id=185&type=ed), which is a potpourri of ideas about how libraries have collaborated in the past and could do so even more in the future. Particularly intriguing is the point that certain commercial vendors sell services to libraries that would cost libraries like Yale's (where Okerson is Associate Director) millions if the libraries had to develop these services themselves. This is an argument about outsourcing and industrial scale, which leads me to believe that clever commercial organizations are likely to go over the heads of library administrators and take their appeal for "re-engineering" directly to the senior administration. Such organizations will study libraries for generic activities (the holdings of the Rare Book Room are not at risk), identify ways to outsource them, and develop a business model based on scale. These organizations will likely focus on digital collections and services, for a number of reasons: digital technology presents new issues, so there are fewer established traditions to wrestle with; digital technology requires expertise that not all institutions, especially the smaller ones, can afford; and digital technology has no geographical loyalty: the World Wide Web is literally worldwide.
While it is difficult to anticipate what strategies entrepreneurs are likely to come up with (they are, after all, defined by their creativity, and if I can think it up, innovators will already have moved on to the next opportunity), it appears probable that at least some new ventures will begin by looking at libraries along two axes: print vs. electronics, and undergraduate education vs. academic research. The matrix that can be drawn from these axes has four boxes: print/undergraduate, print/research, electronic/undergraduate, and electronic/research. I suspect that the greatest entrepreneurial opportunities lie in the fourth group, the use of electronics for academic research, but there are assuredly opportunities in all four categories because, as a truism, there are few limitations to a person of imagination with an economic incentive.
Although more and more library resources are available, often exclusively, in electronic form, it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which print does not play a large role in most libraries for the next decade. Most obviously, as noted above, some collections are inherently print-based, as in archival collections from the pre-digital era. Print also has a historical hold on us, and for people who don't like reading from a screen (yes, there still are one or two), the absence of a high-quality reading device is the principal obstacle to the complete dominance of electronics over print. I happen to believe that we are approaching a tipping point in the print vs. electronics debate, however: listening daily to audiobooks on my iPod, I wonder how long it will be before the iPod's screen will be as large and readable as a mass-market paperback book. Perhaps 2006? 2007? By 2006 it is estimated that sales of iPods will reach almost 24 million units (see http://www.macobserver.com/article/2004/11/24.4.shtml), even as daily readership of newspapers continues to drop. It seems reasonable to forecast that even as print endures, electronics will take an ever-increasing lead.
Entrepreneurs, who like nothing more than a growing market, will steer clear of print for the most part, except for where print lends itself to digital intervention. Current examples of this are in the scanning and conversion world, where Google famously is digitizing monographs for its Google Print for Libraries program. But Google is not alone: small conversion operations are cropping up everywhere and are attracting venture capital. While even a few years ago many libraries operated their own digital conversion facilities, this is rapidly becoming economically untenable. What we are seeing instead is capital being applied to a problem, the development of new technology, the outsourcing of that technology and service to a commercial supplier, and the application of techniques of industrial scale. There are too many examples of this kind of thing to list them all. One more example before we move on: the outsourcing of the content management and hosting of academic research journals. Companies like Atypon Systems, which published an earlier version of this essay, and Highwire Press (and other firms as well, such as Metapress and Ingenta) now routinely assist journals publishers by providing technical services that only a few years ago would have been managed in house. In five years no one will run an in-house Web server operation any more, any more than an organization will manage its own payroll (call ADP!) or provide for its own water supply.
Libraries are thus likely to see many digital in-house projects go out of house. The creation and maintenance of institutional repositories will be outsourced relatively soon, despite the widespread and deserved acclaim for dSpace, which requires expensive systems integration for in-house use. Cataloguing and collections management will increasingly move to outside vendors, essentially putting more and more librarians in the position of being in the business of purchasing passwords to digital systems whose resources reside elsewhere (perhaps in India). At some point in the future, when we talk about, say, "the Cornell digital library" or the "Cabrillo Community College digital library" or the "Michigan State digital library," we will really be talking about a set of authentication codes to a central data warehouse, each of which is mapped to a particular billing system. By analogy, think of your personal telephone service and your relationship with the faceless carrier. Where is SBC? Who is Verizon? For people who want "the personal touch," there is often the opportunity to pay more to get it, but in the evolving world of the academic library, the senior university administrators will no longer tolerate the cost. They would as soon allow librarians to travel first class at university expense.
More intriguing, however, is the axis for undergraduates on one hand, and research faculty on the other. Undergraduates live on the vertical axis of the fully integrated site-based institution; they literally "go to college." Researchers have a toe in Palo Alto or Hyde Park or New Haven, but their real connections span multiple institutions horizontally and are thus more susceptible to fully electronic implementations. Keats is taught on every college campus, but not all institutions are doing Keats research; Keats scholars create a virtual community. These horizontal connections become more apparent when one contemplates specialized areas of scientific research. For example, for a project I worked on two years ago in the area of the use of marine microalgae for atmospheric CO2 mitigation, I was interested to see that the small number of people working in the area were spread around the globe at a handful of institutions.
The "horizontal college" - really not a university, because each group of researchers tends to be organized around a narrow area of specialization rather than the study, literally, of "everything" - is of particular note in the context of the economic issues of today's libraries, because the cost of publications for the faculty has become unsustainable. Libraries have reacted, as well they would, by seeking alternatives to expensive publications from Reed Elsevier and John Wiley, of which the Open Access movement is the most conspicuous, if feckless, element. (I have addressed this more fully in "The Devil You Don't Know" at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_8/esposito/index.html.) Librarians, of course, support their parent institutions, who hire and pay them. The loyalty of the research faculty is likely to be to their own virtual college.
One can imagine commercial organizations entering the horizontal market by developing means to, first, put pressure upstream on journals publishers (Wal-Mart has an excruciating genius for this; just ask any vendor), and, second, by creating value-added services, perhaps through the application of sophisticated (and expensive) information technology services that tease out emergent properties in the growing collection of domain-specific publications. Neither of these strategies would work for a solitary library, but the combined buying power and financial muscle of an external commercial entity could alter the basic structure of this part of the marketplace. By analogy, simply ask any trade book publisher if he or she would prefer to work with thousands of independent booksellers or with Barnes & Noble and Borders. Give us the chaos, please!, of thousands of reasonably inefficient customers, rather than the big dog of B&N. In such a scenario where the Wal-Mart-inspired library serves as a gateway to an entire customer base, we would expect to see ongoing reductions in costs, as journals publishers strive to keep up with the demands of their shrewd, impersonal customer.
Getting Out Ahead of the Problem
Wal-Mart is a useful proxy for the imposition of industrial processes precisely because it is both hugely successful and controversial. The efficiencies that Wal-Martization will bring will not be without their consequences, and those consequences are hard to manage in advance, in part because they are not always predictable, but also because the decision-makers may not have the will to do so. If the economic fortunes of universities and their libraries do in fact diminish in the years ahead, as I believe, the first attempt to deal with the problem will be belt-tightening. This is always worse than useless because it doesn't solve the problem, it wastes time that could be put to coming up with real solutions, and it makes people miserable in the interim, as they suffer through the demoralizing and ineffective rounds of hiring freezes, de facto salary reductions, and the elimination of basic resources. Only when the crisis is recognized as a crisis will the big and necessary changes be made, often without sufficient preparation. Better, I think, to get out ahead of the problem - as some therapists would say, Write a letter to your demon - and develop scenarios not for how we want the world to be in five years, but for how the world will be. It is not only the cost of academic journals that is unsustainable, but also the behavior of entire institutions that are currently operating outside the demands of a globalizing society steeped in industrial processes and a stubborn, if narrow, view of accountability.
http://prosaix.com/pbos. Mr. Esposito may be reached at email@example.com.
Publishing note: An earlier, redacted version of this essay first appeared in the Extenza newsletter published by Atypon Systems (http://atypon.com) in September 2005. The author thanks the Atypon CEO, Georgios Papadopolous, for his support in developing this essay for The Journal of Electronic Publishing. —J. Esposito