My first impression of the Open Access debate was, that it’s about electronic documents. In the past, academic papers were written with a typewriter and printed out on a paper, while the future workflow will be centered around the internet. That means, the scientist is creating his paper on the Desktop PC, doesn’t print out anything and send the final PDF version to his publisher. From a technical point of view, this vision is right, and it well save a lot of money, but Open Access is much more. Open Access means to change not only the technical side, but the legal status of the libraries. Today’s libraries are so called public libraries. That means, they are owned by the government. The future is to transform academic libraries into for-profit companies with customers, employees and an annual report. Switching the storage format from printed journals to electronic journals is nice, but the more important step is to switch the legal status to a private company.
If the customers of future libraries are preferring printed journals over electronic versions, who cares? The library has to fulfill the customers needs. The more important issue is, that the library can have customers, income and shareholders. It is not only a question of mentality, but it is question of formal rules. Future libraries have not compete with Google. Google is an all digital company, while a library is based on physical locations in cities with physical customers. No, future libraries have to compete with other physical companies like McDonalds, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble is like a library located in the physical world. It is not a search engine for webcontent, but a normal retail company. And the libraries have to changed into this type of organization.
Let us take a look at todays libraries. According to the “Global Library Statistics”, https://www.oclc.org/en/global-library-statistics.html The United states have 47500 libraries countrywide which costs 11 billion US$ per year. Not included the academic libraries, special libraries and national libraries. In comparison, Barnes and Noble have a revenue per year of 4 billion US$. But there is huge different. Banres and noble is a company, while the status of the library is not defined. They are owned by the government, by the church or by the cities. The libraries are not listed at the New york stackexchange and they have no anual report according to the US-GAAP standard. Sure, the libraries have some kind of income & costs table because otherwise we wouldn’t know that the total costs was 11 billion US$ per year, but it is not the annual report of a for-profit company.
The future of the library sector is to become a commercial company with a profit orientation. This will help to reduce the costs, make the structure more efficient and make the transition to Open Access easier. The funny thing is, that this doesn’t mean, that in the future all the customers will have to pay huge amount of money. It is possible that for a certain timeframe, the government will sponser the libraries with huge amount of money. The difference will be that the library are no longer part of the government but become separate. The question which has to be answered is: if radio stations, TV stations, Barnes and Noble, and even security firms and supermarkets can be run at a for-profit company, why is that not possible for a book borrowing service?
According to the Open Access the top priority for the libraries is to change their publication mode into an all-digital one. I don’t believe, that this priority is right. Libraries didn’t have to band printed journals, if customers are there who want to read printed books, the library can fulfill the need. What libraries has to change is only their legal status. They have to become Starbucks like organisations. This will solve all problems of today’s libraries, especially this one which have to do with an identity crisis and a missing vision for the future.
Let us take a look to another company which works different from Google and isn’t located in the internet business: the postal service. Every day, millions of letters are send with the classical postal service, and a prediction say, that this will be the same in ten 10 years. Is the postal service obsolete, only because E-Mail is available? No it is not obsolete, and the postal service make a huge amount of profit. That means, printed letters, and physical information have a future. 100 years ago, in some countries the postal service was a government like organisation. It wasn’t listed at the stock exchange and had no customers. Is today’s situation so much worse, then 100 years ago? Or is a for profit company more efficient?