It Isn’t Fair

A librarian recently said that a consortial resource package shouldn’t be priced based on institutional use, because that’s not “fair”. I held my tongue, but I can’t let the conversation go, mostly because I can’t think of anything fair-er than paying for use of a resource based on how much our users use it. It’s… it’s just the base fact of the transaction. We want to use it. Our users use it. We pay for what they use. Fair trade.

The problem, as I see it, is that it’s an industry in which “fair” has lost all meaning. In the same conversation another librarian said they won’t share any information for which they’ve signed an NDA, even though legally they can share that information in that group due to State definitions about NDAs. Presumably their rationale is that they agreed to the NDA, so they are bound by it regardless of overarching law to which they are also bound. Why? Because, in my opinion, our vendors have us flipping terrified of them, because “fair” isn’t even on the table. Violate an NDA and they have the power to raise your price 500% if they so choose. And how can we be sure what they’ll choose? So we stay safe, and hunker down. There is no “fair”, so be cautious.

I went from that call to a meeting in which we were discussing chemical information resources (again. just shoot me.) and I was reminded that in 2009 the ACS was adamant that their pricing tiers were “fair” and took into consideration size and budget and use… but then applied those factors on top of a base price they determined was appropriate (“fair”) for their resources. The base price itself pushed those resources out of my definition of “fair”, but they were certain they were behaving as good citizens and looking out for my needs.

Our vendors establish the value of their own products based on internal assessment of value, internal industry data, internal pricing standards, internal goals for profitability, and economic principles about what the market will bear. And the market, us, librarians, libraries, we just… take it. We buy and buy and buy and rarely stop and say “but that’s not fair.” We negotiate and we reallocate and we adjust and we say things like “I tried to find a model that made the product actually cost the consortium less, but instead I was only able to redistribute this ridiculously high price in these interesting ways, none of which actually work.” And we wonder about what’s “fair”.

I have a three year old daughter (or as my kid will tell you, she’s “Three and a half!”, because she’s very into precision). And when you’re three and a half, the idea of “fair” starts to come into play. Things are NOT FAIR. This is important to the three year old, because three year olds have to learn to share if they want to be part of society. Society requires sharing. Sharing toys, sharing markers, sharing paintbrushes, sharing the swings and the slide, sharing animal crackers, sharing the couch with mama, sharing the dog toys with the dog, sharing the bed with everyone who’s trying to sleep in it… You gotta share. Welcome to human culture. Sometimes it sucks, particularly when you want to use your three foot two body to take up a seven foot couch “ALONE, MAMA.”

Very little of this is fair. It’s not fair that the scholars producing the information aren’t paid by the journals that publish it. It’s not fair that peer review falls on faculty who do it as free volunteer service in support of their acquisition of tenure and the cycle of scholarly communication. It’s not fair that libraries are asked to pay stupidly high prices for the fruits of the labor of their own faculty (who, see above, weren’t paid for it). It’s not fair that in trying to buy at less stupidly high prices, consortial deals fall on the shoulders of libraries with wildly different resource pools. It’s not fair that our users don’t have access to the things they actually want to use because we can’t afford to buy them for them. It’s not fair that our universities can’t resource our libraries well enough to pay for the profits these vendors are generating. It’s not fair that what suffers in the end is teaching, learning, the generation and dissemination of knowledge, and the growth of information, of social good.

So I take it back. It’s not that very little of it is fair. In truth, none of it is fair. Fair doesn’t even enter into it.

Just take it out of your evaluation rubric entirely. We live in an information world where the only rubric I know how to apply is “what is bearable?”

Can you bear to share the couch? Great. Because I’m going to sit here, too. Can you bear to pay that price for that vital resource? Great. Because your users won’t even know they should thank you. Do what you can bear to do.

But I can guarantee you: It isn’t fucking fair.

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