Saturday, October 6, 2012

I can see clearly now

During this past week, I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN). The organization came into existence just over a decade ago for the purpose of leveling the playing field with respect to providing access to scholarly journals for academic researchers and instructors across the country. The primary mechanism for attaining this goal was through negotiating subscription packages with journal vendors as a national consortium. Of course, since its inception, several key variables have changed. The economic well being of Canadian universities, large and small, is not what it once was. The percentage of journals available in electronic form rather than paper has increased dramatically, as has the actual number of available journals. Major vendors have acquired most of the small specialty publishers, thus creating super packages of journals that cover a broad spectrum of disciplinary output. The list goes on. Needless to say, a major assessment of the future value of CKRN needs to take place. However, this is not my immediate concern.

It is commonplace when attending conferences and meetings to acquire various promotional mementos such as tote bags, binders, key chains, and pens. These are usually accompanied by session handouts, tourist maps, discount coupons, and evaluation forms. This year, perhaps as a means of demonstrating fiscal constraint, CRKN decided to provide everyone with a simple name tag and a lens cleaning cloth. No great reams of paper or other clutter to take up room in your suitcase; just a lens cloth.

Here it is, in all its glory, being put to its most obvious of uses. Looking beyond the obvious, and reflecting a more tech-savvy worldview, a colleague pointed out that the cloth was perfect for cleaning the screen of a smartphone or tablet. It's not the usefulness of the object that bothers me. Rather, I'm disturbed by the deeper meaning it potentially conveys.

At the most mundane level, this small token of appreciation could be interpreted as a sympathetic acknowledgement that the vast majority of members attending the meeting had spent decades working as academic librarians, with all the attendant eye strain that such a vocation suggests. While this may amount to forgivable stereotyping, I read a bit more into it. Perhaps the staff of CKRN anticipated that members would be wondering if they were seeing things clearly, as the harsh realities of our current situation were presented to them in various charts, graphs, and lists.

Perhaps the cloth is a metaphor for CRKN itself. In order to see clearly through the great morass that is scholarly publishing, in order to give Canadian researchers and instructors any hope of competing with their international counterparts, in order to prevent the inevitable balkanization that will emerge as rogue institutions decide to fend for themselves, either because they think they can do a better job on their own or because they can no longer afford to do much at all, it is only CRKN that can provide the clear way forward.

To quote Shelley, way out of context: "Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!"