Hospitals in a Plague and the Unkindest Cut

By Will Cross

If you follow libraries and scholarly communications you’ve probably seen this phrase pop up online recently: “cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.”  Eleanor Crumblehulme’s pithy tweet has gone viral and launched a minor publicity campaign that is making the rounds online and in libraries.  The comparison is timely, of course, because libraries across the nation are experiencing historical cuts in funding, or even being closed down due to the harsh economic conditions.

It has also caught on because it expresses a central truth: in times of economic crisis the library takes on an increasingly vital role supporting individuals and society.  Libraries always serve as what Andrew Carnegie called the “cradle of democracy” by providing free access to information and entertainment as well as social spaces for public groups to gather, discuss ideas, and plan activities.  Libraries also serve as the front lines of support for job-seekers by offering resources for job-hunting and instruction on technical skills and professional development.  All of these needs are felt especially deeply in bad economic times.

Beyond their role as “the people’s university” libraries also play a second-level role in bad economic times as drivers of innovation as recently discussed in a series of articles in Harvard magazine.  By storing, cataloging and providing access, and help with searching, libraries enable the innovations in research and technology that drive the economy.  In this sense cutting libraries could also be seen as akin to cutting laboratories seeking a cure to the plague.

Most interesting to me, however, is the way that libraries themselves are reacting to the pressures of the current economic crisis by reexamining their own policies in light of changed circumstances.  This can be seen starkly in the University of California system where two major cases have arisen that may alter the existing landscape of copyright and licensing in higher education.

The first is the well-publicized decision by UCLA to continue to stream videos despite threats from content owners.  The second is the UC system’s decision this week to boycott the publisher Nature’s journals in response to a proposed 400% increase in subscription costs, a move that UC professors so far seem to be supporting.  In each case these institutions rejected prevailing norms of copyright and licensing, based at least in part on the significant financial cost the established system would have placed on a state budget that is already in crisis.

One of the greatest impediments to changing scholarly communication practices is the inherent conservatism and risk-averse nature of large institutions.  Where the law is unclear or a journal is extremely popular libraries often feel they have no choice but to grit their teeth and pay fees that are unreasonable or may not be required by the law.  But tough economic times may change the calculus, pushing libraries towards new practices that might otherwise have seemed too risky.

Particularly when budgets are already stretched thin and universities are pressured by the government to use student fees to subsidize content-owners more libraries may follow the UC system in reopening the discussion about what fees are reasonable and how aggressively to exercise their rights as nonprofit, educational institutions protected by specific exceptions in the copyright law.

Following up on Kevin’s discussion of “opportunity” in last week’s post, it appears that these economic pressures may create a different sort of opportunity for libraries to escape economic systems and legal assumptions that limit their ability to lift up the disadvantaged and drive innovation.  As in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, this “unkindest cut” may upset the system but may also liberate us from a system that is already overreaching its proper powers.

Will Cross, M.A., J.D., is an intern in the Scholarly Communications Office at Duke.  He also serves as the Digital Copyright Specialist for the UNC University Libraries and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Library Science at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science.