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)

11 thoughts on “Concerted Thought, Collaborative Action, and the Future of the Print Record

  1. A national system for print collection management! What a great idea. Wish I were going to be at MLA to join the discussion. For now I will only comment that an analogous project, to my mind, is the development of interlibrary loan as a widespread national practice. A couple of older, potentially useful articles on ILL and other library collaborations:

    Reynolds, Michael M. “Interlibrary Loan: A Reference Service.” (1964): n. pag. Web. 21 Dec. 2016. .

    Stevens, N. D. “Library Networks and Resource Sharing in the United States: An Historical and Philosophical Overview.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 31.6 (1980): 405–412. Print.

  2. As universities form book- and other asset-sharing consortia, will a need arise for a new system of filing objects, to replace the Dewey decimal system? We’ve already seen new ways to catalogue objects with the use of the DOI system and OCLC numbers.

    On another note, will the Library of Congress play any role in this project?

  3. I appreciate the work that has been done and the call for action with this whitepaper. The Center for Research Libraries forum on @Risk: Stewardship, Due Diligence, and the Future of Print, a CRL Collections Forum (April 14 2016, presented a similar call to action. Yet, in reviewing this proposal, the first session to discuss this paper will be at MLA (Modern Language Association) and although it isn’t specified which conferences will be targeted for further discussion, it seems that with ALA meeting in Chicago in June 2017 some sort of collaboration with the CRL would present an opportunity to further the work started at the CRL last spring. Secondly, although ARL and CLIR are mentioned, why is ACRL missing? For those college libraries that participate in regional programs for preservation, but are not members of ARL, it would appear that it is possible our voices would not be included in the discussion, yet as pointed out by Rick Lugg in an Against the Grain article in April 2016 “the average library holds just over 3,800 titles (1% of its collection) that are held by fewer than five libraries in the United States.” [“Middlemarch: working the Space between Libraries and Publishers”, ATG, April 2016, p. 16] “Average library” including many of the smaller college libraries not represented by ARL. I will hope that the authors will seek opportunities to be as inclusive as possible and include the smaller, college libraries in future discussions and planning for this critical initiative. Many of the smaller institutions have some of the unique and special collections that warrant preservation and consideration in developing the national plan. Again, thank you to the authors for bringing this important initiative forward.

  4. While I appreciate that this paper makes a good faith effort to confront the crisis facing libraries, there are several key points that the authors have left out.

    First, and in a sense, most important, is the authors’ using the “ongoing digitization of print content” as their foundation. As anyone who has tried to read an e-book for content (as opposed to entertainment) will know, the print book is to a digital copy what vinyl is to an mp3. Simply put, it is much, much harder to read scholarship on a screen than it is on paper. Partly in consequence, study after study has shown that students, when given the choice, usually prefer paper to screen, and the popularity of e-books has stabilized, with print books and independent book stores enjoying a resurgence. In other words, the authors are relying on a format that may have its uses, but whose appeal is limited to light reading or scanning, e.g., Facebook or Twitter.

    Second, when the authors’ refer to the “digitization of print content,” they leave out how said “digitization” is really the transformation of scholarly books into a revenue stream for Ebrary and their owner, Pearson. Universities do not own these works; instead, they rent access to the files, and that access can stop at any moment. The authors’ forget that the move to digital books is really part of the monetization of the library, its transformation of a public good to private profit.

    Finally, the authors barely acknowledge that despite the common perception, putting things on the web does not make them permanent. Nothing is free, and such resources as The Holinshed Project and the Emily Dickenson Archive all depend on constant funding and upkeep. These sites are available today, and they are amazing. But can one safely assume that they will be here a century from now?

    1. A national (or international?), coordinated, “collection of print collections” is logical and necessary and worth the hard work it will require. It feels like the right time to do it, too: when the current state of public discourse reminds us of the fragility of even long-standing institutions.

      The paper argues that the preservation (and enhancement) of the print record is necessary for future scholarship and teaching. This is right (of course) but it also seems too narrow a justification: prototypical scholars and teachers will not be the only use cases, I hope. The accumulated knowledge and tools to access it would be available to everyone? Journalists, unaffiliated people curious about the world around them, people wanting to read what their grandparents wrote . . .

      It does also feel, to build on Peter Herman’s comment, that this project needs to go hand-in-hand with a similar national/international coordination of digital collections, or needs to address the digital side of the equation in some way (even if it is to say “we’re consciously focusing on print only for these reasons”).

  5. This is a thoughtful, well-written report. I especially appreciate its effort to take a simple, high level view of the problems and opportunities for the academy to manage the collective record of scholarship in print in the context of a growing reliance by scholars on digital sources, tools, and means of dissemination. I also appreciate that the composition of the working group itself joins the voices of both scholars from MLA, AHA, and ACLS, and digital aggregators such as HathiTrust and the Digital Public Library of America, to what the report recognizes in its opening paragraphs has been already a very long national conversation. The report suggests that the conversation has been underway for 20 years, but the duration is arguably double that, dating back at least to 1976 when ACLS convened the National Enquiry on Scholarly Communication, the report of which called for a national periodicals center.

    However, the simplicity of the working group’s urgent call to action is also its weakness. Here I offer two examples in which the working group’s apparent resistance to complicating the argument threatens the credibility of the report. First, the report refers throughout to “books” but surely means the term to include books and journals in paper form. The failure to elaborate on this fundamental distinction obscures many of the opportunities for and the obstacles to a coordinated national initiative. As we know, there are many regional efforts in which libraries have joined collectively in attempts to manage the print record. One, the Western Regional Storage Trust, or WEST, focuses on serials. The challenges it faces differ in substantial ways from those faced by the Eastern Academic Scholars’ Trust, or EAST, which focuses on books.

    Second, as one of the commentators on the website has already noted, the failure to acknowledge the leadership that CRL has taken on this topic is a major sin of omission. The other major sin, in my view, is a failure to survey the literature before listing the research priorities on pp. 8-9 of the report. The research team at OCLC has been systematically delving into many of those questions for some time, and has provided other services as well on this topic. The report should have acknowledged the progress made by both organizations and focused on what still needs to be done rather than presenting these questions as if they have simply not been addressed. And it is worth noting that OCLC’s strength is in book and serial titles, not serial holdings, and CRL has risen in the field to help address these holdings issues, which are critical to the success of any national effort. The failure of the report to address the book vs. serial distinction is thus closely related to its failure to comprehend the various contributions of OCLC and CRL.

    One of the key points that the report contributes to the ongoing national conversation appears under the heading of “governance.” There, the working group notes the need for assertive leadership and advocacy on the issues. The report seems to call for a new, membership-based consortium charged to federate and advance the many existing efforts. The nation may well need a new consortium for this important effort, but some hard questions first need to be asked about why and how instituting something new is going to solve the book and serial issues with which OCLC and CRL and the various underlying regional consortia have already long been grappling. Building something new and shiny is not necessarily preferable to (and may even serve to obscure) the difficult political and economic choices that must be made to invest properly in national-level solutions already being undertaken, even if imperfectly, by existing organizations.

  6. In addition to the efforts noted by others who have commented, there is also an initiative underway to knit together consortiums and their member libraries that are actively working on shared print archives so that it is a larger effort. The Rosemont group, founded by the Big Ten Academic Alliance, Florida Academic Repository, ScholarsTrust and the Western Regional Storage Trust and their member libraries, has issued its program statement at While the current focus is on journals, the larger question of all forms of print has started to arise, along with recognition of other significant efforts underway in North America. We feel that combining forces in this effort will create the biggest wins for everyone. Perhaps the biggest question then becomes one of governance.

  7. The comments provided below reflect our work with the Eastern Academic Scholars’ Trust (EAST)*, a shared print program involving 40+ academic and research institutions from Maine to Maryland. As of today, EAST member libraries have committed to retain over 6 million scholarly monographs for a minimum of 15 years and make their collections available to scholars, researchers, faculty, and students from fellow EAST institutions. We are expecting to increase the membership in EAST over the next few months, adding 10-20 new institutions.
    As individuals deeply involved in a major collaborative project regarding the “future of the print record” we are obviously invested in the same cause. We appreciate that EAST is acknowledged in your report as an important player in the arena, and we look forward to being part of the dialogues that the white paper engenders in the coming months. We’d like to share what we have learned from the EAST initiative and how those learnings might best be integrated into future efforts to preserve and protect the print record. Among the lessons we have learned and which we believe should be strongly considered are the following.
    • Since the burden of cost and many of the risks associated with any program of shared print management will be borne primarily by local institutions, these institutions must have a level of control over their participation. With EAST, we have attempted to balance the goal of ensuring that a reasonable minimum level of redundancy of print scholarly titles be retained collectively while allowing individual libraries and their institutions to determine how to supplement this based on the local needs of research, teaching and scholarship. We are finding that this balance between collective action and local control has been critical for reaching our goals. Based on the amount of negotiation we undertook in the EAST project, we believe the white paper gives inadequate attention to the difficulty of establishing “acceptable redundancy” as a standard.
    • Public and private institutions often have fundamentally different environments when it comes to the ability to make retention commitments, agree to weed and discard scholarly titles, change ownership of collections, etc. Any initiative that looks to include both sectors of higher education must be cognizant of these differences and ensure the necessary flexibility to unite them in a common set of goals.
    • Somewhat ironically, protection of the scholarly record is of value only as long as access is an integral part of the program. While access is defined differently by the varying stakeholders across the spectrum of higher education institutions, we are not convinced that housing materials exclusively outside of “local stacks” is a solution that will be acceptable to most. We certainly expect that high-density facilities such as ReCAP will grow, but there are reasons that – at least within New England – only the Five Colleges have to date been successful in building successful shared storage. We believe any program that is likely to succeed in the short-term must include some level of local access to locally owned collections for at least some of the participants.
    • Programs such as EAST that focus on shared print retention retrospectively are much easier to bring to life than programs focused on the prospective collecting of scholarly content. While there are certainly examples of academic library consortia that have done and are doing excellent work in consortial collection development, such programs require a different infrastructure and likely quite different governance from retrospective shared print programs. The challenges of agreeing on the best approach to prospective collection building on a national scale could easily derail progress already being made on retrospective shared collection building if the two are interdependent.
    We believe strongly that EAST is an example of just the kind of collaborative effort that serves as a model for ways in which regional programs, with strong governance, shared goals, and a focus on recognizing the importance of balancing the local with the collective, can achieve many of the goals set forth in the white paper. We can envision, and are already exploring with other shared print programs such as HathiTrust, ways in which regional and national initiatives can intersect to further retrospective print management.
    Fundamentally, we wish to advise caution in embracing the comprehensive national system proposed in the white paper. We certainly agree with many of its goals and believe, in fact, that EAST is already achieving some of them in a small but important way. By stating so forcefully that “this solution…cannot be achieved by regional efforts,” the white paper may discourage an extensive amount of collaborative ongoing work and may be akin to “the great being the enemy of the good.”
    We will certainly follow the course of further response to the white paper. If you find at some juncture that the EAST experience might be particularly relevant to the next phase of conversation and action, we would welcome continued contact with your work. We thank you for your bold expression of the imperative for attention to the print record, and for your effort to prompt collective action toward that goal.
    Susan Stearns, Project Director, EAST
    Laura Wood, Director, Tisch Library, Tufts University
    Tara Fulton, Dean of Libraries, University of New Hampshire

    *EAST ( includes 40+ libraries focused on protecting the print scholarly record. Over the last 18 months, EAST has completed a print monograph collection analysis across the 40 Retention Partners’ collective collection of over 16 million holdings and, following development of a retention model that focuses on ensuring that both unique/scarcely held titles and those with frequent usage are retained, has committed to retain over 6 million holdings. During this same period, EAST completed a validation sample study involving 240,000 items randomly selected from the 40 Retention Partner’s holdings. Analysis of the data from this sample study indicated an average 97% availability rate (that is, there is a 97% likelihood that a given item will be available for use) and of the items on shelf, 90% were deemed to be in excellent or average condition. EAST is continuing analysis of this validation data set and expects to publish further findings.

  8. It seems that just about everything that could be written about the “death of the printed book” in this new digital paradigm has already appeared in either print or electronic media. It is telling, moreover, that the debate had reached its climax just as we were starting to become comfortable in this new “digital” terrain. My guess is that there was a certain fear that accompanied our journey into this “brave new world,” especially for traditional librarianship with its model of amassing impressive print collections to span the ages and usher civilization into new eras with a firm historical footing. Perhaps the sense of sheer relief that I felt when learning of this white paper’s drafting came as a direct result of all the rhetorical hyperbole that I have encountered over the past decade about how we, as a society, will eventually have to say goodbye to the print record and its vestiges forever. If Darton’s argument, however, for the importance of printed books carries any intellectual weight at all—that is, if the idea that printed books and ephemera have an intrinsic value beyond the textual messages they convey—then maybe it is true that such obituaries have been written too hastily. It is no coincidence, I think, that much of the rhetoric has begun to shift away from a paradigm of replacement and toward one of co-existence. And although I am not a Luddite mired in a fantasy about the permanency of a single format over another when it comes to long history of the book, I certainly believe that our trajectory for current reading and collecting trends favors the latter position, and that we will stand to live in a world in which print continues to shape and support the digital in a number of noteworthy and interesting ways. And why not? History has shown that we were too quick to assume that when print first emerged, it immediately swallowed up manuscript culture like some technological leviathan. The reality is that, after a period of socio-economic tumult, manuscript and print, too, have co-existed for generations in a sort of homeostatic symbiosis.

    As a bibliographic scholar, I tend to appreciate the intellectual value contained with the materiality of a text. The contribution of my research is situated in the domain of what has been termed “ethnobibliography.” In this domain, we look specifically at the ways in which printed bibliographic objects inform the construction of our racial and ethnic identities. In order to do this research, it absolutely critical for bibliographic scholars such as myself to be able to work with extant manifestations of printed books and ephemera. My research has required a close analysis of the typography, the paratext, the binding, paper, and other material components of individual copies of works across different editions. Likewise, it has been essential to be able to learn about the provenance of these items. This research fits squarely into your point that “readers’ relationship to print is evolving, and their needs for it are changing…” The relevant points in the collaborative model that you have proposed in your white paper include promoting an “increased attention to book history and reading culture” and, also, an “increased attention to preserving unique, scarce, or unusual materials.”

    With these points in mind, I would only note that the OCLC needs to develop in a way that assists with faceting results. It needs to work as a tool for identifying distinct editions and somehow begin to effectively separate rare editions from the POD copies that have inundated the system and skewed data metrics in the Identities pages. It is true that with the skills and expertise of a trained information professional, one can use the catalog in this way. Yet, can there not be a more intuitive, automated way of achieving these results? I believe this suggestion is covered by the bullet point in paper that states, “Exploration and demarcation of the boundaries where variations among print copies become meaningful in terms of the number of copies to be retained in a national system; definition of the descriptive information [is] needed about these copies in order to make them useful for scholarship.” However, if “large-scale, super high-density facilities” are established for housing print materials throughout the nation, the question then becomes one of providing onsite access for rare materials that need to be analyzed “in hand.” The situation as it stands, with collections dispersed globally throughout various special collections facilities, each with their own reading room policies, is one that is prohibitive to convenient access. Yet, the preservation of these rare print materials must always be a factor when considering how one best provides access to intellectual artifacts of this nature. Moreover, there is the challenge of fully appreciating just how many printed works—rare books and ephemera combined—are housed in public, academic, and institutional archives. Of course, I do not have easy solutions to these types of challenges that I can pose here, but I feel that they should be seriously considered as we move forward into a nationalized agenda for the print record.

  9. In my comment, I refer to Robert Darnton’s (2009) The Case for Books. Here is the formal citation:

    Darnton, R. (2009). The case for books: Past, present, future. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

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