Library Stuff Book Perspective
Scholarly Publishing: Books, Journals, Publishers, and Libraries in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Richard E. Abel and Lyman W. Newlin. (Against the Grain “special millennial issue.”) Wiley: 2002.
This “special issue” in book form consists of 15 chapters, all but one of them single essays, from “a group of worthies”—publishers, scholars and librarians. The intent is “to offer readers at the turn of the twenty-first century as well-rounded and accurate an account as possible of the quite amazing and unpredictable sequence of interrelated events through which the information/knowledge transfer process involving books, journals, electronic, and other high-technology media, and libraries, has passed in the remarkable century just past.” (See, I’m not the only one whose sentences can run a little long.) The editors asked writers to focus on the last half-century “in which the most profound, intractable, and portentous developments in the conjoined worlds of the book, the journal, information technology, and the library occurred” and asked for brief speculations. Lengths were assigned. The writers are presumed to be gurus of sorts, selected “as a reflection of their achieved status among the knowledgeable with respect to the discharge of their various roles in the worlds of books, journals, electronic media, and libraries.” In other words, these are people not to be argued with. Most are retired; the rest (such as Michael Gorman) have “all achieved commanding presences in their respective pursuits.”
As I was reading this, I filled a 4x6 card with tiny notes on each chapter—unwilling to actually deface the book, even though I owned it. Then I set it aside, for months longer than I had intended. Now I’m not sure what to say. These are interesting essays—if you take into account some of the prejudices and blind spots of the authors.
A few examples:
Ø Albert Henderson’s lead essay makes interesting points, but he continues to argue that lack of library funding is the only real problem in scholarly publishing, that the explosion of journals and journal prices is warranted by an explosion in actual research. He affirms Fremont Rider’s 1944 claim that every college and university’s library should double its holdings every 16 years, else the institution falls behind and dies. That formula would have every library’s holdings be eight times as large in 1992 as in 1944, sixteen times as large in 2008, 32 times as large in 2024. Such growth is absurd and has not actually taken place; the formula derived in 1944 seems a prime example of the geometric-growth fallacy. (See below, where Henrik Edelman calls the formula “statistically discredited.”)
Ø Sam Vaughan’s spritely “Growth and change in trade publishing: What I learned at the library” is wonderful reading and offers a wealth of real-world sense. The following essay, after a plethora of numbers, offers comments about ebooks that include the usual notion that Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet was a watershed event rather than a stunt and ends with a flat-out statement that—despite all the evidence to the contrary—today’s students and professors “will eventually buy e-books for their pleasure reading.”
Ø Albert Henderson gets to bat twice, and his chapter on “Serious/Scholarly/Scientific Journals” strikes me as far worse than the worst of his lead essay. Much of the chapter seems to be about magazines, not journals. My one-word summary of the chapter can’t be repeated in this family publication.
Ø I enjoyed Allen Veaner’s From bibliothèque to omnithèque, about the inclusion of nonprint media in libraries (in particular microforms), but that may be because we share some prejudices (e.g., the “fallacy of displacement,” the notion that new media do or ought to displace old ones).
Ø Chapters on the growth of public and scholarly libraries are both particularly good. It’s interesting to see Henrik Edelman’s sentence on page 197, given Henderson’s absolute belief in Fremont Rider’s formula: “The now statistically discredited report by Fremont Rider in 1944 in which he calculated that research libraries were doubling their holdings every sixteen years was a major factor in the planning process.” Which process? That doesn’t matter. What does is that Henderson, who claims to be a master of statistics and the record, either didn’t get the message—or doesn’t accept that Rider’s numbers were bad to begin with.
Ø Ralph Shoffner’s lengthy piece on computerization in libraries gives more presence to his Ringgold than I remember as an observer, and he does get a few things wrong. For example, “There has been little progress towards self-charging of library materials” is surely wrong in public libraries. In discussing outsourcing, he also seems to ignore LSSI: “No academic or public libraries that I am aware of [that] have been operated under contract.” Shoffner explains “gigabit” as “trillion bits per second,” which is 1,000 times too high. Finally, the speculations seem sad. Shoffner assumes the triumph of ebook. He states flatly that “cataloging cannot continue to be a manual process.” He anticipates reduction in circulation and interlibrary loan. I’ve been acquainted with Shoffner for some time; I find this chapter a little sad…and, frankly, it makes me dubious as to the level of faith I should give to the other retired authors as correctly picturing their own areas of expertise.
Ø I enjoyed Michael Gorman’s “The economic crisis in libraries: Causes and effects” and Jack G. Goellner’s brief “The impact of the library budget crisis on scholarly publishing.” But again, that may be a case of shared prejudices, as in Goellner’s final paragraph:
One prediction that can be made—perhaps the only one that can be made with assurance—about the foreseeable future of academic libraries and scholarly publishing is that it will divide along the fault line between information and knowledge. As foreseen more than a decade ago, the various electronic media will always excel in the ordering, storage, and dissemination of scholarly information; and books as we know them will remain the primary repository of scholarly knowledge. The debate about the dichotomy between information and knowledge is old and ongoing.
Ø Finally—except for a “conclusion” by the editors that seems a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste—there’s Charles Hamaker’s feisty, fascinating, and -frenetic final essay. I won’t attempt to describe it further. It is certainly worth reading.
All in all? The editors make this claim:
The authors of these essays have provided what might prove, in time, to be the most comprehensive and faithful account of what genuinely happened in the world of the authentic book and serious journal in North America in the twentieth century.
Maybe, maybe not. I believe what we have here is capital-H History: The authorized version as written by the Recognized Experts. I recognize that where I was involved (as a little guy) in parts of that history, I find the treatment less than satisfactory—which suggests that it’s like most capital-H History. Of course, I also find what I usually do when reading Against the Grain—a fair amount of interesting material balanced against the frequent desire to scream and start writing cheap shots.
I’m nervous about offering these mild criticisms of some of the Eminences in their fields. By the definitions used here, I’m not a “worthy” and don’t expect that I ever will be. (Yes, I know, the March 2002 “Crawford Files” asserts that nobody should be afraid to doubt a Library Legend. Easy to say; not always so easy to do.)
Read it critically, if you read it at all, recognizing that there are places where the appropriate response is, “Or maybe not.”
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