Concerted Thought, Collaborative Action, and the Future of the Print Record

The working group on the Future of the Print Record has developed a white paper, a working draft of which is embedded as a PDF below. We now seek comments on this draft in order to continue developing the argument as well as our proposed solution. A discussion of this draft will be held at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia on Friday, 6 January, at 1:45 pm in the Marriott, room 401-403. We look forward to your feedback.


“What is the place of print in the digital age?” That is the fundamental question informing the attached white paper, building upon a thoughtful sequence of publications and conversations conducted over the last twenty years that persuasively articulates two correlate conclusions: 1) the collective cultural heritage embodied in the vast print record held in libraries’ general, circulating collections must be preserved and made accessible for future generations, and 2) that no single institution or existing organization can provide a satisfactory solution for sustaining this cultural legacy. A coherent, collective action is required on the part of the entire higher education community.

In this paper we propose a research agenda for, and suggest a path toward, a national system for print collection management that derives from core values that inform academic research and teaching, and that will provide over time a salient public good. Recognizing the rational imperative of the 20th-century model of large scale acquisition of print collections by single institutions, we recognize as well that contemporary robust networks, sophisticated communication, and infinitely reproducible content offer us an unprecedented means to augment and extend this traditional model of collection and access. Our proposal combines suggestions for a policy and governance structure and the rationalization of existing, high-density book facilities with strategically built and managed new facilities that would be operated as a coherent system. Fundamental to this built environment is the ongoing digitization of print content, creating a commonwealth of analog and digital resources in service to scholarly productivity and new discovery that expands our human capacity in ways that are more efficient, cost effective, and elegant than is possible within the academy today.

The title, “Concerted Thought, Collaborative Action,” refers to the logical consolidation and management of currently diffuse and distributed collections, and also describes the collaborative effort necessary to make such an ambitious and necessary project work. This is a rich amalgam of technical, behavioral, and cultural considerations. Implicit in successfully addressing this grand challenge is an elusive but foundational condition of engagement: mutual trust among institutions, their libraries, scholarly communities, information specialists, and administrators, a trust based on a shared commitment to the highest quality of teaching, learning, and scholarship.

Read or download “Concerted Thought, Collaborative Action, and the Future of the Print Record” below.

Download (PDF, 195KB)

James Grossman on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ve posted over the last several days. Wrapping up today, James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

This session is about the relationship between books, librarians, and scholars in literary studies and history. As an undergraduate and graduate student I learned that librarians were the historian’s best friends –not because a jobs in the library was helping with expenses at both stages – but because someone had to teach me how to navigate the complex and empowering world of bibliographical guides. A slight demotion took place during the course of my dissertation research, as the ability to find materials became as important as the ability to read them. I learned the difference between an archivist and a librarian (after ignorantly referring to an archivist as a “librarian”), and developed an appreciation – or perhaps awe is more accurate – of archivists at the National Archives, Chicago Historical Society, Howard University, and the University of Chicago. So for me, it was all pretty simple: no librarians or archivists (whom I still lumped together for far too long), no first book.

My subsequent publications relied on the work of librarians and archivists more indirectly. Instead I developed an appreciation at the Newberry Library of the enormous potential of collaboration with librarians and archivists in the conceptualization and implementation of undergraduate courses in history and literature.

Why does this matter? In the first instance, I developed an appreciation of the work of librarians and archivists, but not as scholars or collaborators. They were the custodians; we were the users. Good scholarship depended on good librarianship, but I inadequately apprehended what “good librarianship” meant intellectually. Librarians provided services and collections; historians did the intellectual work required to weave sources into scholarship.

At the Newberry I learned that true collaboration between humanities faculty and library staff was a broader partnership. And I worry that this partnership is fraying over a series of issues including the one on the table in this session. “The Future of the Print Record” focuses on an issue that requires librarians and humanities faculty to wrestle with the tension between the realities of budgets and space on the one hand, and ideas about the nature of books as primary sources on the other. These are not necessarily incompatible frames; but they can exist in conflict – especially when one of the issues on the table is the locus of decision-making.

Charles Henry on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ll post over the next several days. Next up, Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

In 2013, CLIR founded the Committee on Coherence at Scale. The committee’s work is guided by the following assumptions: 1) the current array of large-scale digital projects offers a rare opportunity to think about the feasibility of a new, robust digital environment for higher education that, if designed as a system, would create a virtual educational ecology that would correlate many aspects of knowledge organization and the cycle of scholarly communication. 2) A well-designed environment that correlates these various facets of scholarly communication should enhance productivity and encourage new discovery. Working within this multifaceted environment will also foster new methodologies and intellectual strategies over time.

While the primary focus of the committee is digital phenomena, it is also keenly interested in the future of print. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a post-doctoral fellow has been hired to conduct an Analysis of Costs and Return on Investments for a National System of Print Materials Repositories. A key aspect of building a national system for information management in support of higher education must include analog materials. Working with the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the Modern Language Association, and the Center for Research Libraries, the fellow will begin an analysis of the costs to build regional repositories that will be backed up by an audited, trustworthy system of preservation and archiving of the deposited materials. Costs estimated will include construction of the repositories, moving costs, management, delivery, and ongoing storage costs. The return on this investment will include projections of costs saved/avoided by de-accessioning copies of the printed books and materials nationwide.

An impetus for this grant and its execution derives from the decades-long conversations about the future of print which has often not benefited from a rigorous cost analysis of constructing a national system to house and secure less used materials, redundantly held books, and over time an increasing number of print copies of digitized collections.

Geneva Henry on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ll post over the next several days. Next up, Geneva Henry, University Librarian and vice-provost for libraries at George Washington University.

The increased availability of digital scholarly resources coupled with a perception that libraries are throwing away print volumes has led to a belief among some humanities scholars that the print record is no longer a priority for preservation. Not so! The challenge with print is the physical space it requires at a time when there are real constraints on university real estate and budgets. The economics of limited space, ongoing cleaning of the stacks, and accreditation pressures for increased student seating in libraries require well thought-out retention policies. Many libraries have, therefore, established off-site or below-grade efficient storage for materials that have not circulated for many years. As these facilities also reach capacity, decisions must be made about how much to retain. Decisions to deaccession any resource are difficult, time consuming and expensive. The easiest decision is to keep everything. Librarians hold true to their mission to preserve the human record, thus great pains are taken whenever a single library makes a decision to no longer keep its own copy of a resource. It’s not a decision simply about circulation, but also about other factors such as the number of copies held regionally, nationally and globally. For many libraries, the primary decision that is first made is which resources will we commit to retain forever. With more and more shared collections and improved records of holdings, retention decisions are increasingly well-informed, with assurances that the human record will be preserved. A greater challenge that is now arising is tracking lost books and books “retained” by faculty in their offices for the length of their tenure (and beyond). Looking for a book that should be available? You might want to check your colleague’s office.

Andrew Stauffer on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ll post over the next several days. Next up, Andrew Stauffer, Director of NINES and associate professor of English at the University of Virginia.

What is the future of the nineteenth-century? In the wake of Google Books and the wide-scale digitization of library materials, printed books from this era are at particular risk. Most pre-1800 imprints have been moved to special collections, and most books printed after 1923 remain in copyright in the US (and thus on the shelves for circulation). But, as more people turn to digital surrogates instead of library copies, we face the downsizing of our historic print collections. What’s more, a large number of these volumes have been uniquely modified by their original owners: perhaps 10% of our national circulating collections of pre-1923 books contain annotations and other historical evidence of use (with books relevant to literary studies showing particularly heavy levels of marking). The Book Traces project is a crowd-sourced attempt to discover these unique copies in the stacks, and to help make the case more generally for bibliodiversity in our research collections. Book Traces will also gather evidence for the copy-based analysis of the history of reading and book-use in the long nineteenth century. Now is the moment for humanities faculty and librarians to work together to develop systems for discovering, cataloguing, and preserving the historical evidence in our collective circulating collections.

Deanna Marcum on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ll post over the next several days. First up, Deanna Marcum, managing director of Ithaka S+R.

In 1994, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record called for the establishment of a network of depositories for housing and providing access to materials discarded by libraries. To many librarians, this sounded like the San Francisco library of unpublishable books in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. Manuscripts brought to this library would never be read, but they would be recorded, shelved, and cherished.

I was associated with the Commission on Preservation and Access in 1994, and we were deeply engaged in a massive microfilming effort to preserve at least 3 million scholarly monographs that were at risk of being lost forever because they were printed on acidic paper. We thought we were engaged in a noble preservation effort, and were dismayed to learn that our work was one of the motivating factors for the Ad Hoc Committee. Librarians thought scholars didn’t understand the preservation imperative. Scholars were equally sure that librarians did not understand their research need.

Now, we are looking at this issue again, this time in a very different environment. The digital future is here, not coming. Scholarly resources are being created digitally and they pose their own special preservation challenges. But many of the books needed for humanistic study were printed on paper. While tremendous progress has been made over the past 20 years in creating improved storage and preservation environments at many large research libraries, today these libraries face unprecedented pressure to reduce the campus space occupied by these very collections. With the development of HathiTrust, many libraries are seriously considering not only shifting vast quantities of collections off campus, but even beginning to withdraw from those book collections systematically. The beginnings of a print preservation network for journals has been created through the work of WEST, CRL, and many others, but today we are not very much closer to having a repository or a network of repositories for ensuring access to print books than we were in 1994.

Libraries are funded by their local institutions, but scholars need national and international solutions to their research needs. The conversations called for in the 2014 “Future of the Print Record” Working Group is a good start, but what we must have is new thinking about the broad-scale support that is needed for scholarly resources. The divide between librarians and scholars that was so evident in 1994 must be bridged, for libraries that do not support scholarship are meaningless. The discussions among scholars, librarians, and administrators that we are calling for in our statement will include serious considerations of national and international governance and funding models and new support structures for the scholarly enterprise.

The Future of the Print Record at #MLA15

Please join us in Vancouver for a discussion of the future of the print record, as well as the next steps for this working group. We’ll be posting brief statements from the presenters over the next several days.

242. The Future of the Print Record

Friday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 1, VCC East

Program arranged by the MLA Office of Scholarly Communication

Presiding: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MLA

Speakers: James Grossman, American Historical Assn.; Chuck Henry, Council on Library and Information Resources; Geneva Henry, George Washington Univ.; Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R; Andrew M. Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia

Session Description:

New technologies, changing approaches to research, and growing strains on library space and budgets are dramatically affecting prospects for future access to the print record of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This session focuses on the development of a framework for collaborative, productive decision making among faculty members and librarians in shaping the future of library collections.

Preserving the Print Record in the Digital Age

It’s been 15 years since the Task Force on the Preservation of the Artifact issued its report “Preserving Research Collections,” which concluded by noting that “[t]he combination of the brittle books legacy and growing numbers of media, electronic resources, and users–compounded by limited financial resources–points to a turbulent future for research collections.” In the intervening decades, digital technologies have introduced massive changes in both librarianship and scholarship, opening up new modes and ranges of access, and raising afresh questions about the place of print materials in humanities teaching and research. The opportunities and challenges are sizable and require a dialogue that includes both the custodians and the users of these materials. To begin a national conversation we have constituted a new, broad-based committee to think again about the future of the print record.

Many students and scholars in the humanities have embraced digital scholarship, and research libraries have been actively transforming their services and collections according to digital protocols. The community of scholars, students, librarians, and publishers now confronts a number of extraordinary opportunities to shape the future of research, teaching, and libraries. Not the least of these is the collective opportunity to ensure the preservation of the print record at national and international scale, as is becoming the case for preserving the digital record.

Humanists have a large stake in the future of our increasingly hybrid academic and research library collections, which contain a wide range of printed materials—including books, scholarly journals and other periodical publications, and government records—alongside a broad array of digital records. Digitization efforts continue to progress, and large-scale resources such as Google Books, the HathiTrust Digital Library, and the Digital Public Library of America are evolving to meet many of the requirements for students and researchers. Digitized texts are opening up the study of the past. At the same time, humanities scholars have continued to assert the need for the rich evidentiary, bibliographic record in its physical forms, along the lines of the 1999 Task Force report.

Academic and research library collections remain at the heart of the humanist project. In 2009, Christine L. Borgman observed that

The library continues to be a laboratory for the humanities, but not the only laboratory [emphasis supplied] … Humanists need to partner both with librarians and with the information technology planning and policy groups on their campuses. These communities urgently need to ‘think together’ about the common challenges faced in a time of shrinking budgets for collections, physical space, staffing, and technology services.

We want to urge such thinking and collaboration beyond local campuses towards a more coordinated regional and national conversation about the future of legacy print collections.

Budgetary and resource pressures add urgency to these questions. The 655 million volumes in the stacks of research libraries in the United States alone occupy more than 19,000 kilometers of shelving. Libraries continue to add print materials to their collections while also developing spaces to support new teaching and research modalities. As a result, on-campus space comes at an ever-higher price. With these pressures, libraries have been prompted to rely on off-site shelving facilities, placing little-used materials in remote warehouses for on-demand retrieval. Off-site storage has itself been controversial among humanist scholars, some of whom object to the loss of browsing and the familiar, physical access to materials. And collectively, that storage investment is significant as well; estimates suggest that $1.2 billion is being spent annually on the off-site effort.

Given impacted spaces, strained budgets, the continued acquisition of print materials, and the increasing availability (and cost) of digital resources, many libraries must reshape their print collections. Yet these decisions about retention and deaccessioning (with some notable exceptions: WEST, ReCap, HathiTrust) are generally being made at the local level, and in most cases occur without significant input from the faculty and students. If the broader scholarly community is to be assured that decisions about materials have had the benefit of review by all key stakeholders in the community, a larger conversation needs to be convened and a broader system for decision-making needs to be implemented. In the United States and Canada, the opportunity for national and international collaboration to address this risk is particularly compelling.

We recognize that libraries and their parent institutions must steward both space and resources to meet a great variety of needs. In taking up the question of coordinated print collections management, we do not mean to suggest that libraries entirely refrain from withdrawing print materials from their holdings or curtail the digitization programs that have been so fruitful for increasing access to them. Rather, we hope to encourage a broad conversation about collection management, involving scholars, librarians, administrators, and other stakeholders.

In the coming months, we hope to build support for and consensus around that framework by engaging the many constituencies involved in a process of data gathering and discussion. These constituencies include: scholars across the humanities, via their scholarly associations (including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and the College Art Association, among others); different kinds of libraries, including both research libraries and those at regional institutions and liberal arts colleges, via the various library associations (including the Association of Research Libraries, the Center for Research Libraries, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and the Independent Research Library Association); higher education administrators, via their organizations (such as the American Council on Education); and a number of national-scale projects and entities (such as the Digital Public Library of America, HathiTrust, the Digital Preservation Network (DPN), OCLC, the Andrew W. Mellon and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Library of Congress).

Our plan of action is to develop a steering group to lead this project (as well, potentially, as other working groups), to request input on the issues involved from the above constituencies, to build upon and expand the data gathered in such resources as the PAPR registry (for journals) and the ICON newspaper database, and to hold a U.S.-Canada symposium that draws participants into discussion. The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) is involved in several such efforts, and has received funding from the Mellon Foundation to convene international representatives of print preservation initiatives—conversations which could support our own effort. We hope that the result will be a framework for action that might be employed on any campus to help facilitate collaborative, productive decision-making about the future of the institution’s—and the collective’s—research collections.