A good clean fight.

Below you’ll find an excerpt from the introduction to a panel I moderated at the Charleston Conference titled Capitulating or Capitalizing, Compromising or Combatting: What is Meaningful Discourse Between Library and Vendor?. I am so grateful for the participation of Ashley Krenelka-Chase, Cris Ferguson, Rachel M. Fleming, Erin Luckett, and Kristen Twardowski.

Capture

Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today. Let me start by saying what I want today (and always) is a good clean fight. This is a panel about academic library and vendor relations- I’ve been to a few of those, I’ve spoken on a few of those. I’ve dwelt on the benefits of building relationships and making time to check-in. The personal, individual piece of our interactions. This panel is ultimately not about those individual relationships- though we will inevitably speak from our individual perspectives about our individual experiences. What I want is to start the good clean fight necessary for all of us tangled up in the business of published scholarship.

I am requesting and attempting to scaffold a good clean fight between two market actors contributing to the instability in higher education. Yes, that’s all of us. No, I’m not kidding. There are real and natural tensions to our collaborations and transactions. Today we’ll talk about the barriers, complexities, and inequities that need to be addressed and acknowledged for meaningful discourse between library and vendor to be possible.

Because I think it’s a very fair question to ask- is meaningful discourse possible at all? One could look at the reductive and accusatory interactions occurring on social platforms and elsewhere and take it to be evidence that it’s not. I challenge this. I believe that our current adversarial dialogue- which involves a lot of the performance of conflict- is due to shared fatigue. It’s mainly shared fatigue about our necessary and ongoing compromises. But it’s also some mutual anxiety about where all this is headed. There you go- we have so much in common. 

But I’ll assert again that we don’t have to agree on everything. We shouldn’t. It is obvious in some cases where our conflicts have roots. Any real negotiation is an argument, a fight that ends with an exchange. But it would be valuable for us to arrive at the frank and shared acknowledgment of where our interests are aligned. The danger of business as usual at this point in the Serials Crisis, which we may all agree is just another symptom of what’s wrong in higher education, generally, is that we will continue to contribute to disfunction rather than problem-solving.

We share a space that is headed for a reckoning- and we will share in its fate. Vendors, you benefit from well-resourced libraries- what are you doing to ensure we are visible and valued in a way that ensures we’re able to afford renewals? Libraries, how are we reinforcing opinions about the value of scholarship when we focus only on cost? How are we contributing to the issue of unpaid and precarious labor at the heart of the scholarly enterprise? How can we both work (and perhaps work together) to take that target off of libraries and communicate the value of research not only as an outcome but as labor? I’ll tell you what doesn’t work- espousing the value of materials without supporting the value of library workers and academic laborers.  

We all share culpability in this current condition, which may contribute to the fatigue and frustration evident in recent and highly public interactions around vendor/library relations generally and the Charleston Conference specifically. The conversation has been reductive, performative, and counterproductive. There have been incidents on both sides- and I know this panel will offer some cogent examples. It’s a tense era for the work of libraries and vendors, and this panel is meant to provide an opportunity for a more nuanced conversation that grapples with some of the tensions inherent to the work without oversimplifying the relationship between those of us sharing in the management of scholarly content.

Putting on the white hat or the black hat doesn’t change the fact that Moody’s, a bond rating system in higher ed, anticipates we’ll see an average of 20 small colleges closing or merging each year. It doesn’t change the fact that while I don’t fully believe Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen’s doomsday forecast of 50% of all American colleges closing, the forces at work that are greater than our control need to be considered. I consider them an incentive to sincerely consider what we can fix together.  It’s me- your friendly Cassandra in a Pollyanna suit- and I hope you know the incentive is perilous but the alternative is worse.   

Ultimately, our work is inextricably intertwined, which means that pointing and shouting at one another is not only reductive, it is also self-implicating. Libraries and higher ed are not blameless in our current environment- I am frankly depleted and burnt out on simplified narratives that posit academic libraries as access heroes in the midst of the student loan crisis. I am also confounded by the tone-deaf approaches of vendors and publishers peddling excruciating and unreasonable cost increases on materials that scholars give them. Understanding these nuances does not make me complacent to them- on the contrary- it makes me unbearably angry. I am spoiling for a good clean fight that helps scaffold a more meaningful outcome than reinforcing our unsustainable status quo. That’s what today is all about. I am grateful for your interest and participation. 

When I decided I wanted to help develop this panel, I sought to build a group of experts from both sides of the conversation who could engage in deeper and less polarized conversation. We all know each other and respect each other enough to get real on these topics- something I hope you will honor in respectful but active engagement with this panel. It’s your fight too. 

If you know me, well hey there, but whether or not you know me, you should know I love a good thematic slide deck. I also wanted this presentation to memorably and correctly capture some of the theatricality of our current environment- because again so much of what I see is the performance of conflict and the performance of gender (though that’s a whole different panel). So our slides today feature images of GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women’s professional wrestling promotion that ran from 1986 until about 1992, and inspired a Netflix series of the same name. Because we have a short time frame for today, a full panel, and we hope you’ll have questions of your own, this panel will take on four prepared questions before opening to the floor. 

Without further adieu, let’s get ready to rumble! 

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