Reconceiving and reorganizing collection development practices around the evolving processes and products of the scholarly communications cycle has become one of our profession's fundamental opportunities. However, our increasing use of market mechanisms and digital technologies to rationalize the production and distribution of scholarly information poses significant risk that business cycles and the obsolescence of hardware and software will lead to the inadvertent loss of significant portions of our intellectual heritage. This article introduces a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between academic culture and digital technology as they relate to scholarly communication and library collection development, drawing chiefly on the work of the social theorists Daniel Bell, Manuel Castells, and Anthony Giddens. The article suggests that Castells's theory of the network society and Giddens's account of disembedding, expert systems, and risk as hallmark features of modern society together poi nt us toward a more candid recognition that the fragility of digital systems and the resulting possibility of significant cultural loss are intrinsic features of the new landscape of scholarly communications. Moreover, acknowledging this risk is an important dimension of successful reform of the scholarly publishing system.
Scholarly communication has become a guiding metaphor for academic librarianship, and reconceiving and reorganizing collection development practices around the evolving processes and products of the scholarly communications cycle has become one of our profession's fundamental opportunities (Atkinson 1996, Atkinson 2000). At the same time, however, our increasing adoption of market mechanisms and digital technologies to rationalize the production and distribution of scholarly information--while promising a resolution to the cost crisis in scholarly publishing and bringing us within view of a truly national or international scholarly collection distributed across a network of cooperating repositories--also poses significant risk that business cycles and the obsolescence of hardware and software will lead to the inadvertent loss of significant portions of our intellectual heritage.
The challenges posed by digital technologies for long-term preservation of data and cultural objects have been extensively documented and discussed (see, for example, MacLean and Davis 1998). As Donald Waters writes,
[D]igital information and the technologies on which they depend are extremely fragile. Their fragility makes it highly uncertain that digital libraries can endure over time and it causes one to wonder about the durability of their supposed benefits. Rapid cycles of change and obsolescence infect the hardware and software products now in common use to create new knowledge (Waters 1999, 193-94).
Waters continues: "The challenge of creating the deep infrastructure needed to sustain digital records of knowledge over time consists, at least in part, of marshaling a complex set of political, economic, and technological forces toward the development of a system of organizations that have come to be known generally as digital libraries" (Waters 1999, 195). That is, the solution to the challenge of assuring the continuity of digital information is not just--or even mostly--technological; rather, it is economic and political or, more broadly, cultural. For example, economic models must be created for digital objects that may be used seldom, if ever, but that still assure long-term revenues to cover the ongoing growth and replacement of hardware and software; and governance models must be developed that define rights and responsibilities, that facilitate effective decision making, and that can be perpetuated across many institutional generations.
However, less consideration has been given in our professional literature to the question of the effect of technology on the cultural conditions necessary for the preservation of digital information. Scholars such as Lewis Mumford (1934), Harold Innis (1972/1950), Marshall McLuhan (1962), and Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979, 1983) have shown in various ways that representational technologies are not culturally neutral, that the material form of information storage and transmission conditions the practices of scholarly communities. As Eisenstein writes of the new fifteenth-century technology that integrated type molds, moveable type, and the printing press: "As an agent of change, printing altered methods of data collection, storage and retrieval systems, and communications networks used by learned communities throughout Europe" (Eisenstein 1983, xiv). Standardization of copies within a printed edition, for example, made it possible "for scholars in different regions to correspond with each other about the same cit ation and for the same emendations and errors to be spotted by many eyes" (Eisenstein 1983, 51).
These are scholarly practices that we now take for granted but that became widespread only by virtue of a particular form of representational technology. Moreover, Eisenstein points out, one cannot treat printing "as just one among many elements in a complex causal nexus, for the communications shift transformed the nature of the causal nexus itself. It is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change" (Eisenstein 1983, 273; emphasis supplied). As the academy and the larger society of which it is a part make increasing use of the technologies of digital representation and networked communication, it is worth asking how traditional scholarly practices and the values those practices embody might be affected.
In this article I will introduce a theoretical framework for thinking about the relationship between academic culture and digital technology as they relate to scholarly communication and library collection development, drawing chiefly on the work of the social theorists Daniel Bell (1976), Manuel Castells (2000), and Anthony Giddens (1990). I will argue that Castells's theory of the informational society and Giddens's account of disembedding, expert systems, and risk as hallmark features of modern society together point us toward a clearer recognition that the fragility of digital systems and the resulting possibility of significant loss of scholarly literature in digital form are intrinsic features of the new landscape of scholarly communications. Moreover, acknowledging this risk is an important dimension of successful reform of the scholarly publishing system. Librarians must recognize, in particular, that in initiating or taking leadership for certain reform activities, they are taking this risk on behalf of the scholarly community they serve; to maintain credibility, they must be candid about the nature of those risks. In this respect, the ideal of "seamless access" to information products and services, insofar as it obscures the legal and economic complexities of the scholarly communications system, may inhibit the cultural transformation that will be required to create lasting reform.
Library Collections and the Crisis in Scholarly Communication
Since the publication of University Libraries and Scholarly Communication (Cummings et al. 1992), the scholarly communications system has become an increasingly visible conceptual framework within which the traditional practices of library collection development are being rethought. This is for two reasons, at least. First is the budgetary challenge to academic libraries that the report did so much to document and publicize. Increasing output of the scholarly publishing apparatus together with increasing unit costs in scholarly journals far exceed traditional budget allocations of universities to their research libraries. These increases have resulted in a well-publicized drop in the numbers of monographs and journals collected by research libraries (see, for example, Kyrillidou 2000) and, accordingly, diminished access to this literature by researchers and students who depend on libraries. The effects of cost increases have been exacerbated, moreover, by sharp increases in the amount of published scholarly l iterature. Projecting from a hypothetical library that in 1980 could acquire all the world's published information, for example, Brian Hawkins factors together inflation in material costs, growth rates in publishing, and average rates of increase in research library budgets to conjecture that "available budgets in 2001 will only be able to purchase 2% of what they had twenty years before" and further that "collections will be archiving something of the order of one-tenth of 1% of the available information" (Hawkins 1998, 135). This sharp constriction of access to the body of peer-reviewed knowledge is variously known as the "crisis in scholarly communication" and the "crisis in scholarly publishing." (Two other dimensions of this crisis, in addition to the increase in unit costs and the increase in production, are the restrictions on permissible use imposed by many of the licenses that govern access to electronic books and journals, and the impermanence of digital information.)
A second reason for this new focus on scholarly communication--and a point perhaps more evident to us now, ten years after the publication of University Libraries and Scholarly Communication--is that the scholarly communications system itself is in the midst of a change that is unprecedented since its inception in the seventeenth century. If we define the scholarly communications system broadly to include the technological and institutional means by which theories, interpretations, and findings are submitted to the scrutiny of expert disciplinary communities and then critiqued, endorsed, disseminated, synthesized, and archived on behalf of a broad community of teachers and learners (novice and advanced, lay and professional), then the changes …