Rock and a Hard Place

The Houston Association of Law Librarians hosted a panel discussion today on “Alternatives to Lexis and Westlaw.”  As I am in the frozen tundra of Chicagoland, I did not attend, of course, but I was able to follow the tweets.

Editorial note: Since I only followed along via twitter and thus have my information second hand, I’m going to try to be very careful with language as it’s not always clear when reading tweets if you’re seeing someone’s personal opinion or if they are just reporting what they heard.   With that being said, I don’t necessarily disagree with what was said and I’m not trying to play “gotcha” when I report tweets that conflict (for example).  ETA: I also should have said that tweets have a way of oversimplifying a point made.  Please check out the comments section for Ed Walters’ clarification of his point.   If you’d like to go straight to the source, the video for panel discussion appears here and Ed’s comments are 10 minutes in or so, but I haven’t been able to get it to load – otherwise I would have linked to it when I first composed this.

It was tweeted that Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, said it sends a message to Wexis when libraries renew their subscriptions even though they complain about the large price increase. (SourceJason Wilson tweeted that librarians need to complain more and that complaining on a listserv is not always the best choice of action.  David Curle commented that Walters was holding a mirror up to the audience, which Carl Malamud then retweeted and added the comment “they have met the enemy and they are them!

Okay.  Got that?  Great.

Like I said, I don’t disagree with the idea that complaining on a listserv is not the most efficient or useful exercise in library/vendor relations. And we need to break away from the Wexis duopoly. But pointing out what people are doing wrong (or saying that they are not doing enough) without suggesting alternative actions that would be right isn’t that helpful.   So, let’s brainstorm here…what exactly are we supposed to be doing?  What can we do?

Cancel all West products?  That is a romantic idea, but that’s simply not going to happen.  As Kama Siegel noted, sometimes we’re not the ones making purchasing decisions.  Even if we are, libraries are in the business of providing information to our patrons – in the cases of firms and corporate libraries, they do as part of a business.  We can’t simply “go on strike” for acquisitions, especially in a discipline like law which is constantly being updated and created and analyzed.  Libraries can’t break from West until we have a viable alternative.

I know the current situation can’t go on forever, but I’m also not sure how to stop it.  Pressure from organizations? (On whom? What does “pressure”  mean?)   Consortiums engaging in an “acquisitions slowdown” and collaborative collection development?  Wikileaks our Wexis contracts? Other ideas?  Let’s hear it.

ETA: I’m glad Ed clarified his comments.  As it turns out, he was oversimplified by the twitter medium.  But  even if he was being interpreted correctly, I wouldn’t have really disagreed.  And this is far from the only time something along the lines of “librarians should do more than complain” has been said.  I say it myself a lot!  I really am looking for more ideas of concrete steps we (meaning librarians) can take.   The UC/Nature dispute of last year gave me some hope, but our information creation stream is slightly different than other disciplines.  (We can’t ask the government to stop creating laws and the writers of most of our secondary materials don’t do it for free and provide free labor like most academic writing.)   So….what can we do?


  7 comments for “Rock and a Hard Place

  1. February 10, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Some of the tweets reporting this shorthanded the point a little bit to fit the medium.

    The point was that Thomson and Reed Elsevier are global, public companies, and the language they speak is quarterly revenue growth, and quarterly profits. That’s what the law, financial markets, and their boards reward them for. And it’s the language they speak.

    So if law libraries complain about pricing practices (for example), but also renew at a 12% price increase, the message that’s received is only a renewal at a 12% increase.

    The point isn’t to complain more (that’s Twitter shorthand), it’s to complain in the language that global publishing companies understand.

    Law librarians, firm executives and lawyers are more powerful than they realize. And if they want great alternatives to traditional publishing companies, they have to use that buying power to invest in them — to build the alternative they seek.

    This is the long view. Building great alternatives by subscribing to them makes the alternatives better, increases the leverage of buyers on renewal of traditional contracts, and should increase competition and lower cost. Investing in alternatives sends a message, and in a language that public companies can understand.

  2. February 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    This seems like a perfect case for collective action. The AALL could make much more noise than it does.

    The AALL could do things internally (focus on the issue in governmental affairs and in the meeting and in working groups and price indices and such), but also could use it’s power to draft the ABA or the AALS or the ALA into the fight.

    I do think law librarians could be doing much more. We can own our law once again and you are the natural leaders to make that happen.

  3. February 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Money is what the publishers understand and, as Ed points out, the complaints are muted if they’re accompanied by renewals. An Ontario law library group went to a single source rather than licensing from both Westlaw and LexisNexis and saw both a huge cost savings by eliminating one vendor AND getting more competitive pricing (see page 21 of this Going to a single source is an option for a lot of firms and libraries. Libraries might try other methods, like only keeping one half of Wexis and pay as you go with the other, rely on Fastcase or another less expensive or free-to-bar-members site, be more selective in what you include in your slice. I’m sure there are libraries who have been far more creative than that.

    While our job is to provide access to information, we pay for an awful lot of resources that are lumped into the primary subscription that receive little or no use. One way we could improve our position is not necessarily to share our contracts but to share what we asked for and why, what we got and didn’t, and help others ask for the same things. Publishers treat big ($$) clients differently from small ones, and so perhaps there’s an onus on libraries with more clout to use it. We’ll have an impact when we can attach a dollar value to it.

  4. Sunshine
    February 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Considering who West and Lexis are sending to the meeting, absolutely nothing will be accomplished. Decision-makers won’t be at the table; errand boys/girls will be. Dig into this further Sarah.

  5. December 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I enjoyed waicnthg the video, interesting to hear views of the students as well as librarians. I totally agree with your views about not fighting against Google, we have a federated search but I have to admit I find it easier to find articles via Google Scholar which then link to our resources.

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