In the MIT Libraries we’ve just launched a new and innovative approach for our scholarly communications program — and for our collections budget: the collections budget is now part of the scholarly communications program.
Yes, you read that right: through the vision and leadership of new Associate Director for Collections Greg Eow and Director Chris Bourg, the collections budget has been incorporated into, essentially under, the scholarly communications program. Not the other way around.
We made this change because we want to use our collections dollars — in a more systematic and strategic way — to transform the scholarly communications landscape towards more openness, and toward expanded, democratized access.
I like to think of this as voting with our collections dollars, an idea I first grasped through Michael Pollan’s powerful and influential prose about food:
“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and ‘value’ or they can nourish a food chain organized around values—values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”
― Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Pollan has encouraged us to leverage consumer power to transform food systems toward health for people and the planet. In the MIT Libraries, we believe that by adopting this vote-with-your dollars approach to spending our collections budget, we will be contributing to transforming the scholarly communication system towards a healthier environment for people and the planet, too.
This will mean, as Pollan suggests, assessing value in a broader, more holistic way than relying primarily on traditional measures like list price versus impact or cost per download. For as Pollan points out, when evaluating cost, we need to incorporate full costs in our assessments. Some foods come cheap but cause health or environmental problems that are not included in the price we pay. In the same way, some pay-walled purchases may seem to offer value in the moment, but may cost us dearly in lost opportunity through artificially limited access, less efficient science and scholarship, and the resulting slower progress working on the greatest problems facing humanity.
In making a more holistic and values-based assessment, we will be using a new lens: assessing potential purchases in relation to whether they transform the scholarly communication system towards openness, or make a positive impact on the scholarly communication environment in some way, whether via licensing, access, pricing, or another dimension. Of course, like shoppers in the supermarket, we’ll need to view our purchase options with more than just one lens. We have finite resources, and we must meet our community’s current and rapidly evolving needs while supporting other community values, such as diversity and inclusion (which I will write about in a future post). So the lens of transforming the scholarly communications system is only one of many we will look through when we decide what to buy, and from what sources. How we will integrate the views from multiple lenses to make our collections decisions is something we will be exploring in the coming months – and years.
I hope others will join us in this exploration, though we recognize not all libraries will feel positioned to do so. The MIT Libraries are relatively well-resourced, and are privileged in having a bit of wiggle room to take this values-based approach. Our aim is to use that privileged position to act for the collective good. Ultimately, though, as Pollan tells us — and as the evolution of food markets has demonstrated — the power to transform a market comes not from one individual, or one library, but in the aggregated purchases all of us make, placing our votes for healthier options.