â€œWhatâ€™s more valuable than a library?â€ said a candidate at the forum last night, during discussion of an expansion of Mason Library. There was a murmur of agreement. Librarians worry, I think, about their role in the world today and in the future. But they are active in rethinking that role, looking at libraries as centers for community and learning.
Publishers have not been as proactive in explaining and revising their role to fit with social and technological changes. In general, perhaps because their priority is often as simple as this quarterâ€™s profits, they tend to barricade themselves, complaining about students who wonâ€™t read and ungrateful scholars who want open access. I once went to a panel called something like, â€œThe Weakest Link: Publisher, Aggregator, or Librarian?â€ By the end of it, I would have been hard-pressed to decide which was weakest; everyone on the panel seemed defensive and bewildered by the changes we are facing.
The days when only a publisher could create a book, market it, and put it online are over. Desktop publishing was the first transformational technology, but now authors and scholars have websites, blogs, wikis, and open access journals. So, are we obsolete?
Thereâ€™s only one publisher I have personally heard talk about the truly unique and valuable things a publisher does today, but I hope they are talking about this in private (and if you are a publisher and want to talk, call me!). For what itâ€™s worth, I think there are at least two things that will enable publishers to survive and prosper, in a role that has real meaning, even with all the changes we are going to face in the next decade:
1. We provide a virtual venue for knowledge communities to grow, a way for leading researchers to pool knowledge across borders and disciplines.
2. We reach people–professionals, students, and anyone at all–with ideas and information that matters to them but which they probably wouldnâ€™t find on their own.