Category Archives: faculty

Following up on the Chemistry issue

I promised everyone, when we made the decision to cease subscribing to an ACS package, that I would follow up, saying, “The libraries have agreed to do a robust analysis of how well or poorly this works out in this year.”

So here I am. How’d it go? You’re all wondering, right?

In May, I met with the faculty in the Chemistry Department to talk through their experiences. The Libraries’ Collection Development Coordinator, Marianne Hebert, and I came to the meeting with our ILL data, our expenditures data, and questions. A few key takeaways from that discussion, and my responses and observations to each:

  1. Student learning was largely unaffected. This was the first question I asked; I want to know if students were able to complete the assignments given in our chemistry courses, and if their learning was affected by our choice. The overwhelming response from the faculty was “no,not really.” They had to do some assignments a little differently, and they leaned on librarians to assist with information literacy, but overall, the impacts were appropriate, expectable, and manageable. Also, small.
  2. Some faculty found that doing their own research became considerably less convenient. Everyone loves clickthrough access to full-text, and we took that away for the majority of our faculty researchers in Chemistry. The intermediation of ILL (with its attendant systems, delays, and potential for human error) as the solution is, understandably, annoying. We discussed at length with both the faculty and our ILL staff some issues we were having about getting black and white photocopies of articles that contained color figures, and worked out ways to ensure that faculty get color scans or .pdf downloads to fulfill ILL requests for which the figures are a crucial part of the article. We also discussed ways to leverage our participation in the Associated Colleges of St. Lawrence County, which includes Clarkson University, and how we might work with their library to provide information access for our faculty. And we discussed the libraries’ potential ability to add individual subscriptions to high-demand titles for which we would end up paying very high Copyright Clearance Center bills due to ILL volume — we only saw ILL spikes on a few core titles, and we shared the cost implications of those requests with the faculty (who are the admitted source of the ILL requests). We also reiterated that the personal ACS memberships that many faculty already pay for come with benefits, and that they should explore those as they do their research. One of those benefits is access to a limited number of articles annually — some frustration on their part and cost on ours might be avoided if they chose to use those benefits.
  3. Students doing focused undergraduate research and/or partnering on faculty research were somewhat inconvenienced. Frankly, for all the same reasons as the faculty, enumerated above under #2.
  4. Student memberships to the ACS need to be explored further by the institution. As we discussed the benefits faculty could realize from their ACS memberships, I asked a pointed question, based on the stated action intentions of our initial conversation last year: “Did you encourage your research students to become ACS members?” The answer was “No.” We began discussing why it would be a good idea to do that — student members gain access to meetings, begin the process of professional acculturation in their field, and also get access to a limited number of article downloads. Acknowledging that there are not only benefits to the institution, but to the student as future chemists, these memberships could be truly valuable on many fronts. The question I needed to answer as I walked away from the meeting was whose responsibility are those memberships? Are they the student’s, as an emerging professional? Are they the Libraries’, as information resource providers? Are they the institution’s, as the educational provider? I took the question to the Academic Program Committee, made up of the Provost, Associate Provost, Deans, and a few academic directors (including me) at the core of our academic endeavor. We all agreed, after some debate, that the responsibility needs to lie with the student or the department; it’s mission stretch for the libraries to take it on, and some could argue that it’s no more an institutional responsibility than textbooks are. I expect that the “whose issue is this?” discussions will continue this year, though one thing is clear: memberships in professional organizations make sense for our students in many disciplines, for many reasons.

And so. Speaking as Director of Libraries and based on this information, I can still confidently say that I facilitated doing a smart thing in support of appropriate and thoughtful resource use for my institution, in support of our mission of teaching and learning. Is it perfect? No. But is it sustainable and having appropriate impacts? Yes. Yes it is. I can work with that.

we are not the ones who failed

On Facebook, in comments online, and face-to-face, a few librarians and chemists have expressed sadness, dismay, or concern that we’re canceling our ACS content. The message, uniformly, is “That’s a bad decision. Your users need that content. You need to reconsider.”

So here’s the thing. I don’t disagree with two of those three points. It’s a crappy decision. Our users do need that content. But I cannot reconsider.

I’m notorious in a small SUNY circle for insistently saying the following:

“A good deal that I can’t afford is still a good deal, and I still can’t afford it.”

The difference with the ACS is that I don’t think it’s a good deal. I think it’s a bad deal, and I know I can’t afford it. So I cannot reconsider. And there’s been a suggestion that I should feel guilty for failing to prioritize teaching and learning for our students, instead choosing to make a big public statement about how our libraries and faculty are failing our users. I have one answer to that:

I am not the one who failed to prioritize teaching and learning. I am not the one who should feel guilty. Neither are our faculty.

Librarians and faculty did not price the ACS content out of our ability to pay for it.

Librarians and faculty did not insist, repeatedly, for seven hours of face-to-face ‘negotiations’, that any compromise was outside the established pricing model.

Librarians and faculty did not insist that there should be only private discussion of the matter, and no public debate.

And, to take it bigger picture, librarians and faculty did not reduce State funding for New York’s institutions of higher education.

So I repeat: We are not the ones who should feel guilty. We are not the ones failing to prioritize teaching and learning. And speaking out about that conflict, that injustice, and that frustration does not mean we don’t value those things. It means we do.

Walking away from the American Chemical Society

There’s no gentle introduction to this, so I’ll get right to my point:

Librarians, this is a call to action.

tl;dr: SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013. We will instead be using a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS backfile, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier** to meet our chemical information needs. We’re doing this because the ACS pricing model is unsustainable for our institution and we were unable to find common ground with the sales team from the ACS. Instead, we explored other options and exercised them. You could do the same if you find yourself in a position similar to ours as ACS standardizes their pricing, and maybe together we can make enough choices to make our voices heard in meaningful ways.

So here’s how we got here.

The problem:
In May 2012, after much internal discussion and debate, three SUNY library directors from the comprehensive colleges (myself included) and the university centers, along with two SUNY Office of LIbrary and Information Services staff met with three representatives from the ACS at SUNY Plaza in Albany, NY, and discussed their pricing model. The ACS folks were very clear: they are dedicated to moving all customers to a consistent pricing model, the pricing steps in that model are based on a tiered system, and there is a base price underneath all of that. In principle, I absolutely support this kind of move: too many libraryland vendors obscure their pricing models, negotiate great deals with one institution while charging double to someone else, or “have to ask the manager” to approve any offer. In our discussions, the librarian stakeholders noted our support for this approach, but argued that while their tiers are reasonable and based on arguably sound criteria, the base price underlying those steps is unsustainable and inappropriate. (In the case of SUNY Potsdam, the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.) We also learned that their base price and pricing model, when applied to much larger institutions, did not produce the same unsustainable pricing – I cannot provide numbers, as they are marked SUNY Confidential, but I can easily say that what our ARL peers pay for ACS in support of their doctoral programs is, in my estimation, in no way fair or reflective of the usage, FTE, or budgets of those institutions as compared to the pricing offered my institution for my usage, FTE, and budgets. It seems to me that the tiered increases may be fair and be reflective, but the problem lies with the base price underlying their pricing model. That base price is unsustainable for small institutions. And, unfortunately, the ACS sales team is not currently interested in negotiating on that fact. In response to any suggestions of ways that SUNY or campuses might collaborate or negotiate to reach a place where we could sustain our subscriptions – one which might well be applied to other campuses, other consortia by ACS – we were repeatedly told “but that’s not our pricing model.” The ACS is clearly committed to creating consistent pricing across their tiers, which I respect. However, I firmly believe that their approach to the base price for their resources is unacceptable and unsustainable for institutions like mine.

What we did:
Given that there was no apparent ACS-based solution to our budget crunch in the face of what we feel is unsustainable pricing, we went to our Chemistry faculty and discussed all of this with them. This was not our first meeting; we’ve been discussing this since fall 2011 when we clearly understood that ACS pricing would continue to increase, and was pushing at the ceiling of what we could sustain.  Along with two librarians – the Collection Development Coordinator, and our subject liaison to Chemistry – I laid all the facts out. We described our subscription history in support of their scholarship, teaching, and learning needs, pulled out the costs for ACS content when we first subscribed in the early 2000s and referred back to the discussions we had then (when I was CD Coordinator, not Director), laid out the current cost of ACS publications and the price increases over the past five years, and estimated what our 3-year prices would be. Based on our discussion, I think that some of our faculty were surprised, some seemed resigned, some were horrified, and they were all frustrated by what seemed to be a plate full of bad options. However, after two meetings and much discussion of how to reconfigure our ACS subscriptions to meet our budgetary constraints, I believe that we all agreed that this goes beyond having a tight campus or library budget: this is simply not appropriate pricing for an institution like ours. The result of our first meeting was that the chemistry faculty agreed to take their concerns to the ACS based on their individual professional involvements with the organization, talking with sales and the Chemical Information Division about their concerns, and we agreed that we’d look into other library solutions to their chemical information needs.

The options we found:
So Marianne Hebert, our Collection Development Coordinator, did some research, and came up with three options for Chemistry content.
A) The ACS Core+ Package at the new standardized price, ACS Legacy Archive, 2-3 selected titles outside the Core+, and ILL fill-in as needed beyond the 250 tokens offered. Based on our use stats, this would maintain a comfortable level of access to ACS content, but was going to save us virtually no money over our ACS full package, as we would have to pay the ACS full list prices for the selected titles, plus the $41 per article copyright clearance fee for ILLs beyond the initial free articles.
B) A Wiley 2012 STM package, which offered many chemistry titles. This was about 40% of what we would have spent on ACS content, based on our Wiley print subscriptions and other existing Wiley contracts.
C) A Royal Society of Chemistry Gold Package, and the RSC archive. This was about 54% of what we were projected to spend on ACS content.

So we gathered up the price quotes, the title lists, and our usage data, and presented the three options to the Chemistry faculty who were available on campus in July. These faculty are strong participants in their professional organization: Many if not all of them are ACS members, doing active research and publication both alone and with undergraduate research partners, some of them heavily involved in ACS committees and conferences. And they agreed on behalf of their department that despite the undisputed excellence of content and relevance to their work found in American Chemical Society content, we cannot afford the ACS content at the current pricing model.

What we chose:
When faculty compared the titles available from Wiley and the RSC, they preferred the RSC for reasons of quality, reputation, and relevance to our curriculum. On the library side, we agreed to subscribe to the RSC Gold Package, and to provide our standard ILL service for any needed additional titles (though we were careful to note the $41 clearance fee for ACS publications, and described how that works, so that everyone was clear on the many ways that the ACS has price-protected access to their content). We also added on the ACS Legacy Archive, as it is reasonably priced for an STM indexing and abstracting product. There was then a discussion of the appropriateness and feasibility of faculty encouraging students doing undergraduate research to purchase ACS student memberships (students’ dues are $25 and include 25 free downloads from any ACS publication), which could be nicely dovetailed with our Legacy Archive access and would be professionally relevant to our students as they graduate and move into jobs as chemists. Our Information Literacy librarians have also begun working with Chemistry faculty to integrate “how to do chemical research without university resources to support you” into some of our information literacy sessions for the department.  Teaching this kind of broader information skillset strikes me as just the kind of IL skills we want our students to have as they move into jobs outside of higher education, and I’m grateful this is one side effect of the discussion.

Librarians and faculty raised the valid concern that we might not be able to meet ACS approval of undergraduate programs without our ACS package. The ACS is in the unique position of both approving programs and selling the content necessary for approval, which I will leave to someone else to debate the ethics of. Throughout our discussions we agreed that any library solution we proposed would have the ability to meet the approval requirements in concert with our subscription to ScienceDirect. It can be done.

The dramatic conclusion:
And so that’s where we are. On January 1, 2013 our ACS content will dramatically decline, and our RSC package is already active to pick up the slack. The libraries have agreed to do a robust analysis of how well or poorly this works out in this year, but the chemistry faculty were willing to join the librarians in taking a stand against unsustainable pricing structures. I argued to them that while I will always try to do what’s best for our students and faculty, we also have an ethical responsibility as active members of the scholarly information ecosystem to make smart choices. I asserted that someone has to be first – someone has to stand up and say that this is unacceptable, that we must find or create better options, and that we have the power to make choices based on those options. I know that other libraries — some within SUNY, some outside — have already chosen to unsubscribe from ACS content, all for their own reasons, be they practical, ethical, financial… But no one is talking about it. Or at least, not loudly enough to suit me. So I’ll be the first one to stand up and say it loud.

Librarians are often disinclined to be first to try something – we’d often rather be second, after someone else has found the hidden pitfalls. So here I am, saying that we were willing to be the first to be loud, and to provide you with a public example of what is possible. Our chemistry faculty were willing to follow that lead, and I’m grateful to them for it. I’ll report back on what we learn.


** I am also displeased with Elsevier, as are many others. However, all 64 SUNY campuses buy ScienceDirect as a part of our Core Services through SUNYConnect, and given the broader interests of all of SUNY, I was not allowed to opt out of the Elsevier contract as a part of those Core Services.

More on weeding, part 2

We have a series of entries, from several faculty members in several departments, on the faculty feedback form for our weeding project that just say “Please do not remove from the collection. These are classic works [in my field].”

The ruthless inner collection manager in me wants to say “I don’t care.”

Fortunately for everyone, my ruthless inner collection manager is not actively in charge of this project. Instead, the librarians doing the work are putting them onto the Keep And Discuss Later list, and odds are that we’ll keep them because of the expressed faculty interest.

The question I find far more interesting than “should we keep it or should we discard it”, though, is how to compellingly present my argument about our collections, the idea that relevance and utility to today’s curriculum as demonstrated by active teaching strategies and student assignments is more important than the “classic” status of an unused work, to our faculty. I have made the argument several times, in several venues, in writing, in our newsletter, by blast email, in person, one on one, to groups, at the Senate, by proxy as librarians work with faculty… but still the message is not as valued as I would hope. The older model of “libraries have good books, and that’s a good book, so we must have it” continues to prevail in the minds of many over the newer “libraries have good books that are needed and used by users”. So I think I’m failing to communicate that as effectively as I could.

Of course, I also continue to acknowledge that you can’t win ’em all. Some of my colleagues will never agree with me, never believe in that argument, will never relinquish their conceptual ideal of The Library as a repository for knowledge. And that’s okay, too. It’s a great ideal.

I just wonder how many more people I might be able to communicate with more effectively if I could just figure out how.

Previous entries about this project: On Weeding, More on Weeding

Library Day In the Life: #libday8, Day 5

Hi.  It’s Friday.

Now that we’re all glowing with joy…

Up at 7:30, to work by 9. Justin made me coffee, and I put on a black suit and then took off the suit jacket and replaced it with a black sweater, because, ugh, I don’t want to wear a suit today. Too tired for that much formality. Black heels, dress pants, and sweater, purple shell underneath. Nametag, today.

I am more tired than I look. Which is, I guess, good.

9:00: Hi to Angie, sign things, email, check online news, check Facebook and the Twitters and the lot.

9:30: Confirm that the Libraries’ loaner staff projector has all its cables and that my MacBook dongle works with it; test it out and set up my laptop to not show a bunch of the crap it usually does. Notice iPad is at 23%; set it up to charge. Discuss complexities of campus shipping with Angie, send a few emails.

10:00: Let’s finish the libraries’ spring newsletter, shall we? Or try, anyway.

11:00: Got to 75% on the newsletter. Make a pre-event bathroom pitstop, check hair and face and straighten clothes, then pack up my tech and go to Thatcher Hall to set up for the luncheon.

11:30: Set up my projector, laptop, and presentation, then eat quickly as catering staff set up the food and before faculty begin arriving. Chat with arriving faculty, Dean, and Provost.

12:00: Welcome our guests, begin my presentation to the departmental liaisons on our new reserve-able limited-projection seminar room, our new website, and our upcoming weeding project. Take questions and foster discussion, and most of all, listen to the feedback. My favorite question: “How long is this new website going to last? Should I begin trying to love it, or just wait?” I suggested that the bones are fixed for a while — we may re-skin here and there, but the architecture is solid. Feel free to learn to love it. :) Lots of expectable and thoughtful questions about the weeding process and how we might tweak my proposal to better suit faculty needs. Gathered some ideas, explained why we’d already rejected a few others, and generally felt as though our message was heard. We work with good folks.

1:10: Back in my office, laptop back on my desk. Oh, look, 21 emails arrived in the last 2 hours. *headdesk* Take call from furniture vendor about my incoming office furniture, talk with Keith about the loading dock, deal with some procedural budget stuff with Angie, and then head out again…

2:00 Medical appointment. Dr. Roy is technically a chiropractor, but he does full bodywork — less “crack, pop, fixed” and more “oh, you’ve got a muscle spasming here, so let’s loosen that with pressure and stretching. Ok, so now where does it hurt? Let’s see what we can do for that.” He eased the ache in my foot, my knee, my hip, my mid-back, and my shoulder. And he also reminded me, kindly but laughing at me, that I should stop crossing my legs when I sit, stop sitting with my foot tucked under me (which hyperextends my knee), and stop wearing heels. I defended today’s 3″ heels with “I had an event to host!”, though, really, he’s right.

3:00: Back to the library, pick up my ILL (Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery) then back to my office. Oh, look, 16 emails since I left. Put on the first of my iTunes mixes I could find featuring Rilo Kiley’s Silver Lining, and get to work. Talk to Keith briefly about operations stuff.  Email.

3:30: Get to work on finishing the faculty newsletter.

4:20: Realize I am accomplishing precisely nothing, just rearranging text and staring at the Word file, and after one lass pass at the email, declare this day over. Leave by 5ish.

And so that is a week in my worklife, and a relatively typical one, though I often come in earlier than I did this week, because I had fewer meetings than usual. Including my logged Sunday hours and minus my lunch/dinner breaks, it’s about a 45 hour week on campus, plus another 5-10 hours of evening work. And that’s the low end of average for my semester schedule. It’s also very likely that I’ll be working on Sunday again this weekend, because I do need and want to finish the newsletter, clean up my orientation info for our new librarian who arrives Monday, work on the ACS-SCLD project, revise the circulation governance group draft, and make progress on the assessment documents I had hoped to finish this week (ha! Never even touched ’em). I know that when the idea of working during the weekend makes me feel calmer rather than more tense, it’s not a terrible idea. And trust me, I’ll indulge in some relaxation, as well. Everything in moderation… Happy Weekend, everyone!