The 'quiet culture war' brewing in research libraries

Speaking at UKSG, Rick Anderson explores the tension between a library's need to support local research and teaching, versus the responsibility to improve the larger world of scholarly communication.

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A 'culture war' is brewing in research libraries, according to Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah, speaking at UKSG in Glasgow earlier this month.

Anderson identified two schools of thought ranged on either side of the issue, each of which competes for scarce resources of time and money. The first school believes that servicing the scholarly needs of its institution's students and researchers is the library’s most fundamental mission, while the second believes that the library’s most important role is to play a part in changing the world of scholarly communication for the better.

Anderson was keen to point out that these two endeavors are not mutually exclusive, and need not, in principle, conflict. However given that these two endeavors will always compete for the same limited pool of resources, conflict between them is inevitable -- and is already in evidence within, and between, institutions.

Driving these developments is the fact that in the networked digital environment, information is no longer tied to physical objects. Questions of access, costs, rights and funding are no longer as clear cut as they once were – and from a technological point of view, libraries are able to address these issues on a global, as well as a local, basis. “At the same time,” according to Anderson, “we see demand for some of what we have always considered to be core functions of librarianship dropping – and in some cases dropping precipitously.” For librarians, all this serves to create ambiguity and even fear.

According to Anderson, the issues of local and global responsibilities are not mutually exclusive, but are in tension. The dynamic plays out in different ways – for example shaping a preference for interlibrary loans vs short-term loans, or a willingness to spend budget on open access programmes.   

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