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    1.2 The Ecology of Libraries: Transformation in Context

    The research library is embedded in the broad social systems of information flow management: the production, distribution and use of information resources by members of society. This iterative process among stakeholders is the foundation of knowledge creation and transmission. As the information technology revolution has proceeded over the past three decades or so, all institutions participating in information flow management have been deeply affected. Consequently, the set of social needs, constraints, and power relationships that are served by the research library have changed due to developments in information technology.

    Simultaneously, new technology for information access and analysis enabled the development of new research methodologies and discipline interests. The changes in needs and capabilities have, in turn, stimulated pressure for institutional change in values and behavioral norms.[5] For example, new venues and methods for documenting and disseminating research have gradually become incorporated in practice, as the values associated with academic tenure have adapted to these opportunities. These interdependent forces have had an impact on individuals, on disciplines, and on libraries.

    Technology Forces

    The information technology revolution has affected all library types: public, K-12, academic, and organizational or special including corporate and not-for-profit research libraries. The "information technology revolution" is a vague moniker for a vast array of technological innovations and their rapid application throughout society. Understanding the effects of the revolution depends on understanding two fundamental facts that have driven substantial change: the exponential rate of decline in the costs of digital computation (silicon, i.e., microprocessors), and of digital communication (sand, i.e., fiber optics).

    Gordon Moore of Intel predicted in 1965 that the power of microprocessors available at a given cost would double about every 18 months (Moore, 1965). The equivalent form of Moore's law is that the cost of a given amount of microprocessor power would be cut in half every eighteen months. Moore's prediction has held for thirty years. There have been a number of astonishing technological and industrial advances over the past several centuries, but there is probably nothing that matches this rate of improvement. To give an idea of the power of this exponential cost decline, consider a luxurious house that cost $100,000 to build in 1970.[6] If housing costs had followed Moore's law, then this mansion would cost only $1.67 to build in 2003. Imagine how different the world would be today if mansions cost only $1.67!

    Digital communications technology experienced similar cost declines. In 1994 MacKie-Mason and Varian (1994) documented that digital communications costs had decreased 30% annually for the previous thirty years and, if anything, the rate has accelerated in the past decade.

    The cost collapse in computation and communication fostered the rapid development and deployment of powerful networked information technologies. The explosion of digital networking, cheap storage, and powerful computation and display devices has radically changed the constraints, stakeholder needs, and power relationships on which the institution of research libraries is built.

    In addition to these dramatic cost/performance improvements in computational power and communication, several concurrent trends have shaped the landscape in which libraries interact with other stakeholders. The development of standards for creating and protocols for sharing digital content have stimulated electronic publishing and associated systems of access. As a result, we've seen the rapid development of large-scale repositories of electronic publications by major publishers, and increasingly sophisticated retrieval systems and tools.

    Information Creators

    The community of information "creators" for scholarly or research content include individuals, the academy, and other research investors such as for-profit companies with their own research labs. These stakeholders are crucially interested in the values-based set of social practices defining intellectual property and its ownership. These values have been evolving both as modern societies depend increasingly on intellectual capital for wealth creation, and as digital information technology leads to changes in distribution, collection and information management practices. Institutional adaptation to changes in these social and technological forces has created significant volatility within the world of scholarly communication.

    For example, the academy has been revisiting and re-conceiving institutional intellectual property policies, often prompted by explorations of new distance-independent venues for courses (Knight Higher Education Collaborative, 2002). At the same time legislatures have been modifying copyright law. Although largely driven by mass-market commercial interests, the legal changes have important implications for scholarly communication. In response to these stakeholder pressures for institutional change, some universities and other organizations have boldly launched new services for managing and disseminating information.[7]

    A related trend is the emergence of open paradigms, which are realized as codifications of principles and social norms for interactions between creators and other stakeholders. These developing norms also result from the interplay of changing values, technologies, and social needs. Just as the open software movement is defined by collaborative development, programs such as the Open Knowledge Initiative (for sharing learning resources), Open Archives Initiative (for sharing research content), and the Open Access movement for journals embrace collaboration and a more open exchange of goods and services. These initiatives are challenging institutionalized practices surrounding the flow of information.[8]


    Much has been written about the transformation of publishing.[9] Many authors focus on the new opportunities for dissemination introduced by the capability for self-publishing on the Web, but most of the authors in this book focus on formal publication systems. Formal publication involves a distinction between content creator and publisher, and the use of independent reviewers. Thus the institution embodies norms and routines for interactions between these separate stakeholders.

    The early 1990's saw a number of significant experiments among publishers (e.g., Elsevier Science's TULIP project, the predecessor of the PEAK project discussed in several chapters in this book). These experiments typically focused on methods for creating and distributing electronic versions of print journals. Gradually capabilities for linking, more complex search functions, and customization options emerged. These tools were increasingly important to users as the volume of electronic content grew through conversion of older literature and the aggregation of current titles.

    While this extrapolation from print to digital production and distribution represented a significant development evident among commercial and non-profit publishers alike, several concurrent and alternative development paths took shape. Inflation in publication prices and concerns about constraints on rights for use and re-use prompted encouragement of alternative models, often within a non-profit context. Similarly, the open access movement to free up access to publications spurred new models for managing rights and supporting costs.[10]

    As one recent market analysis of the journal publishing industry reported, initiatives to launch alternative publication vehicles face significant obstacles:

    Libraries and academics have been trying for over a decade to develop new ways of disseminating academic knowledge and research, but the barriers to entry enjoyed by the incumbent journals are just too high (loyal readership, brand recognition, 'boards' of academics who peer review research), as are the value proposition [sic] (they bring order to an anarchic process—the development of knowledge) (Morgan Stanley, 2002).


    The picture would not be complete without discussing changes in individual user behavior and expectations. Several recent surveys report on the changing dimensions of user activity. The user base for libraries is expanding and the demand for instruction in use of library resources is also increasing. Yet there has been a downturn in circulation of physical collections and use of in-library reference services (Kyrillidou and Young, 2003). While the majority of students and faculty are using online library content, they report that they still desire a hybrid environment with both print and electronic collections (Friedlander, 2002). As the volume and complexity of electronic publications increase, users are also expressing a desire for greater personal control in managing access to electronic content (Cook et al., 2003).

    Individual user preferences are strong forces for change, but do not represent the whole picture. Community practices and preferences within specific disciplines are also potent forces, and each discipline community has responded differently to these new opportunities for communicating and documenting research. Traweek's (1988) anthropological analysis of life among high energy physicists captures the culture and practices of this community and depicts the social conventions that enabled the early and extremely rapid adoption of e-prints. In economics, by contrast, the first significant non-commercial e-print site started in 1993, but of the 2500 papers submitted to date, nearly half were only submitted in the last two years.[11] More recently behaviors among authors and editors within ecology have been analyzed to understand the decision processes that lead to publishing in electronic journals in that field (Hahn, 2001).

    The changes associated with technology and community norms and values have been sufficiently radical that we should expect to see major transformations of the institution of the research library. Since institutions by nature do not adapt quickly, a period during which the foundations are so quickly transformed might be compared to an earthquake that causes cracks and damage as the institution responds to the quake. When a stable institution experiences increasing pressure to change rapidly, understanding the changes in the interactions between stakeholders is especially important.

    The Economics of Libraries

    An important contradiction has arisen from the fact that the information technology revolution has been driven by cost reductions, but the costs of research libraries have been increasing during this period. Many observers (and budget administrators) expected a decrease in research library spending over the past decade. In fact, although the costs of the technology have decreased, these constitute only a fraction of the inputs to the research library. The costs are high for creating, adopting, implementing, maintaining and managing new information systems that rely on networked information technology, in part because these activities depend largely on human labor, not silicon or sand. Meanwhile, during the transformation, the older systems must still be staffed and maintained. Overall, the costs of transformation have been added to the ongoing costs of the institution, and the total cost is correspondingly higher.

    The seeming paradox of lower input costs but higher total costs is no paradox at all. It follows directly from the nature of institutional transformation. The change in library constraints reflects a decrease in the costs of some inputs to a stable, functioning system. However, adapting to this change in constraints—undertaking the transformations to reach the new stable system—is itself costly, and during the transformation total costs can be much higher. The transformation of the USSR from socialist to market economy is a colloquial example. The institutions of a market economy are likely to be much less costly and more efficient, but the transformation from one to the other is costly and slow.