CRL's Eighth Decade: A Community Perspective

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

At CRL's recent Council of Voting Members meeting representatives of member libraries weighed in on two broad strategic directions for CRL's next decade that emerged from recent Board and management planning:   

  1. Integrating CRL print in a North American shared collections network
  2. Aggressive investment in open access and shared digital resources

Background information and the rationale for each strategy was posted in advance of the meeting.   

The discussion was lively and wide-ranging. The present report is a summary of the points of consensus around how CRL should move forward on the print and digital fronts.  In short there was general endorsement for the two proposed strategic directions. CRL's Board and management will now work with this input in setting CRL's operational and budget priorities.  

The Strategy for Print:  "Integrating CRL print in a North American shared collections network"

CRL Board Chair Virginia Steel opened the discussion with a question,Should CRL continue to be a print collection?”  The response in the room was an emphatic “yes,” that CRL’s commitment to the “Long Tail”-- i.e., to acquire and preserve materials that are specialized, not widely held, and potentially low-use-- remains vital. As one attendee put it, “This is the historic obligation of our profession.”

At the same time attendees acknowledged that as libraries continue to shift funds, staff, and space to other uses, that “Long Tail” domain is growing rapidly. The most prudent use of CRL's resources, then, is not to preserve widely available materials like Elsevier, JSTOR, and Springer journals and mass-market U.S. newspapers, but rather less common materials like the primary source, “critical corpus” serials not archived by regional shared print programs. 

The idea of CRL as a depository for member microform collections was raised, although most consider that microform holdings would be useful only as an added layer of redundancy, supplementing print copies that are preserved well and (eventually) digitized.   

Meanwhile, attendees endorsed the role for CRL as a “national platform,” helping to move the shared print initiatives “beyond small measures and isolated regional efforts.” Martha Hruska cited CRL’s unique ability to “draw the big picture,” and our work to date with the various U.S. and Canadian shared print efforts: providing landscape analysis and mapping, and opportunities like the PAN forums for sharing ideas and best practices. It was suggested that a “Constitutional Convention” on shared print could be a locus for further linking and coordination among the regional efforts. 

In general CRL’s agenda for shared print seems to be the right roadmap. The task at hand then is to identify the regional efforts in the best position to help implement this agenda, and work with them to enlarge the shared collections maintained under the CRL umbrella, focusing on the “Long Tail” materials.

The Digital Strategy: "Aggressive investment in open access and shared digital resources"

The consensus in the room on CRL’s digital future was less clear. One observation: “There are a thousand different possible points of entry for CRL investment in Open Access." Overall, however, it seems that a combination of collective action on digitizing “Long Tail” materials and aggressive engagement with digital publishers and other data providers on digital preservation is the right course. 

There was enthusiasm for CRL organizing cooperative support to digitize materials (especially materials not already held by CRL and microfilm collections), through partnerships with commercial publishers and/or non-profit organizations. (CRL’s prompt recent action to independently archive the Reveal Digital collections was generally applauded). Initiatives like digitizing global census data and foreign newspapers, which CRL is exploring with IPUMS and East View, would fall into this category. And the Purchase Proposal cooperative model could be adapted to set priorities. 

There was also agreement on the need for CRL to engage with the large digital media and data producers directly: the corporations and other organizations in the private sector that are creating and aggregating data and documentation important for research. There is growing demand among humanities and social science researchers for access to the raw data and files behind licensed and open web content, for text and data-mining. Although the New York Times site license was not considered an unqualified success, there was the sense that using market mechanisms like the site license as a lever could be useful and appropriate, particularly in core CRL collection areas like news. 

Some attendees saw CRL as a potentially centralized repository for researcher data, field notes, and other materials, in the wake of Elsevier's acquisition of the press platform. But most were dubious that CRL could achieve the scale (“a big enough boat”) needed to make an impact in the digital preservation realm, as opposed to operating in areas like shared print and microform collections, where it already has capability and standing.

A Broader Strategy

There was broad agreement on the need for a larger and more powerful narrative on the importance of what CRL is doing, a narrative that addresses the new threats faced by American higher education in general. This narrative should exploit the trust placed in libraries as institutions, and make a strong case for cooperation and the essential interdependence of institutions on the basis of the university's “enlightened self-interest.” There is a need for a more compelling justification for academic investment in library cooperation, much as the University of Michigan’s Teach-Outs demonstrate how Michigan is engaged with real-world problems, events, and phenomena.

Finally, since many four-year colleges and mid-sized universities are experiencing the same “sea change” as the larger research libraries, CRL must make a greater effort to appeal to a more diverse range of institutions and engage them in fulfillment of its mission. 

Bernard F. Reilly
President (2001-2019)
Center for Research Libraries