“We’re in a moment beyond statements now…” Jon Cawthorne’s remark captured the heart of the discussion at the recent ACRL/SPARC Forum on navigating the current challenges of COVID-driven budget cuts and the need for libraries to move from intention to action on equity and inclusion. During this time of profound change with economic upheaval and long-needed focus on racial justice issues, libraries are being pushed to rethink how to move forward. There is no definitive pandemic “end line”, where the world just goes back to normal—and, in any event, we don’t want to simply go back to the business of scholarly communication as it was. As Chris Bourg framed it, “This pandemic may be our ‘cross the Rubicon’ moment” where we have the opportunity to move forward with re-structuring this system to prioritize openness and equity at its core. With this year’s Open Access Week centered on “taking action to build structural equity and inclusion,” this focus on aligning actions with values is critical.
The recent Forum moderated by Brandon Butler of the University of Virginia highlighted how libraries and organizations are adapting to this uncertain environment and forging plans for operating in a culture of shared community values. A silver lining to the current crisis is an emerging alignment of thinking, a marshaling of courage to build a more sustainable scholarly communication infrastructure. Campus leaders who may have hesitated to change are now emboldened to consider meaningful reform in the wake of significant budget cuts.
Committing to Values and Being Proactive
At MIT, the library developed a statement about its vision that underscored a new urgency to act in this moment, explained Chris Bourg. It underscored a commitment to being a digital first library and prioritizing an open scholarship agenda that accelerates the progress of science, promotes equity and inclusion across disciplines, across peoples and reduces marginalization. Its Open Access Task Force and Framework for Publisher Contracts laid the groundwork to align the university’s values (openness and transforming the scholarly communication system) with its investments. Led by previous AD for Collections Greg Eow, MIT reflected this change in thinking in its organizational structure, moving collections under scholarly communications. “It’s made a huge difference both within the library and in the way that we talk across the campus,” said Bourg.
Adapting and thriving in the wake of the new reality will require organizations to address how they will deal with fear, said Jon Cawthorne of Wayne State University. He emphasized the need for libraries to have an open culture where questions are framed in a way that builds intentional decision-making structures. Cawthorne suggested that librarians think more broadly about the direction of higher education and do more than pass along their operating funds to vendors for products. Fresh ideas are needed and processes in place to allow them to grow and flourish—and individuals need to find ways to act boldly.
“We can’t be innovative, creative—and fearful,” says Cawthorne. “We have what people need. The challenge is us; we need to rethink the way we might be able to recast our value. This is a moment to think about ways to accept new ideas and think about how fear has impacted our ability to make decisions.”
Scarlet Galvan of Grand Valley State University underscored this point, noting that the question comes down to the role of the library in the unique communities that they are part of and how that will evolve in the future. If organizations don’t have the capacity to confront the confluence of challenges, they will be reactionary and fail to meet the moment. Galvan said: “We can position ourselves as the experts we are. That will give us an opportunity to gain authority and agency over our collections and services. We are not just a book warehouse.” said Galvan.
Representation matters. Kaitlin Thaney of Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) asked important questions about whose voices are prioritized, even within organizations that have a commitment to equity. “Who is making these decisions? Open for whom? We have to make sure we have the right representation around the table and continue to build that [representation] into our process and everything that we do.” she said.
Investing in Talent and Follow Through
“I’d rather cut resources than people, because I can always get the stuff back. But, I can’t get minds back once they’re gone,” said Galvan. She suggested that libraries need to commit to keeping skilled people who can help navigate through this trying situation, in which COVID-19 is just one of many accelerants to the resource sustainability crisis. She called on leaders to grant agency to workers in the library to help rethink scholarly communications. “It’s about all the services we are capable of building, and the structures and conversations we are capable of facilitating.”
She urged library staff to work with the campus community to agree on conditions for walking away from a negotiation and to be able to align library university values to specific clauses within contracts. Anyone can write a mission or vision statement, she noted, but tracking how that plays out in day-to-day operations is key. At Grand Valley, alignment has meant following how the library’s claims around values match its license agreements and supply chain. Galvan said she was given the trust and support to ensure that alignment.
Cawthorne added that leadership is not just people in positions of power. ”Leadership is a station everyone in the library can have to influence change. I would encourage everyone to think about what agency you might have to influence the direction of your organization,” he said. Complementing this point, Galvan later added that leading in the midst of multiple crises is a skill, “It’s the difference between looking and seeing.”
Kaitlin Thaney said there are questions about how to reallocate budgets and there are issues with staffing, hiring freezes. “I envision a world where we can couple cancellations of Big Deals with plans to make sure funds are not sucked up by austerity measures within the broader university,” she said. “We are going to see increased scrutiny and various organizations coming together to find best practices and values-based, mission-aligned criteria to look at budget expenditure.”
Leveraging Data, Garnering Support, and Taking Considered Risks
Despite pressure on libraries, both from themselves and from vendors, to keep up with their peers and the concerns that the moving to individual journal access could lead to higher costs, Cawthorne has successfully led multiple institutions out of Big Deals without the negative fallout.
“We took a risk, and it worked out OK,” he said in reference to a journal package costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that West Virginia University Library cut while he was dean there that subsequently saw only hundreds of dollars in usage. “It was just mind-boggling how it could go from that amount of money to that smaller amount.” Cawthorne continued, “We have this money to spend, and we need to think more holistically about how we do our work… it’s time that we step back and think about not bringing these old models of what we’ve done in the past to this new context.”
Cawthorne also pointed out how a recalibration with publishers is deeply needed and how often that isn’t understood by others within the institution, “I asked our procurement people to get involved with our negotiations because we were at a stalling point, and when they came back, they said ‘We’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve never seen this aggressive type of sales pitch, and it really is an unfair environment.’”
Galvan noted that too often publishers want to maintain the status quo, while institutions suggest terms based on values and it creates an impasse. “We have a moment to say, ‘This is a business relationship and this is no longer working for us,’” she said. But to be able to walk away, institutions need to rely on metrics other than journal impact factors for tenure and promotion. It can be useful to have a statement of support from faculty, as was the case at the UC System and other institutions that have now canceled, to create clarity around values going into negotiations.
Opportunities to Rebuild A More Equitable Foundation
As more information about COVID-19 is becoming freely available, it’s becoming clear that not investing in open slows progress and hurts patient care. “If there is an opportunity here, it’s one that must refuse to continue as usual as loudly and as unified as we can,” Galvan said. “The crisis shows us information in new contexts. It reveals who was and was not aware of existing inequality, structural problems and invisible labor that maintain an illusion of civility.” Bourg added a similar point that “digital first is not some panacea that’s going to solve inequality” and that we must be intentional about building equity in as a foundational value.
As institutions focus on addressing histories of racism, Cawthorne said that “If you’ve written a statement, you really should think about how the specific actions that you’re taking in your library to create this new equitable environment or culture are really moving things down the line to be different.”
At MIT, Bourg said the library has made an effort not to talk about open access alone but to frame the discussion around “open and equitable scholarship.” That shift has created new opportunities for the library to engage with the broader campus around equity issues. “Students at MIT were very troubled by an upcoming Springer article about facial recognition software that would predict criminality… they thought to reach out to the library because they said you talk about this stuff and you might be helpful.”
Galvan said that while many institutions are starting to promote open as a solution, we still insist that scholarship “comes in particular containers that we define as scholarly” or “look and feel a certain way.” Galvan added, “We talk about open education and open knowledge like they are new things when it’s really just that they’re new to white people. We know that Black people, indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups have had methods of open communications within their communities for hundreds of years. We now want to go out and acquire this kind of content, and then turn around and put it in a container that we’ve decided is scholarly.”
Institutions need to promote diverse scholarship and resources that call attention to equity problems and put them in the curriculum. Added Galvan: “As we build infrastructure, I’m going to be looking for not just representation but critique from those whose projects actively resist classification and containment. If we’re going to suggest open is inherently good or that we can document without causing harm, we have an obligation to interrogate the systems we construct for the biases that exist there.”
A full recording on this August’s ACRL/SPARC Forum is available here.