First Monday

"The Big Lie" and the Great Newspaper Caper by Albert Henderson

Recently, in First Monday Richard Cox challenged Nicholson Baker's attacks on libraries. While he provided reasonable and sophisticated counter-arguments, he also opened the door for a sharp rebuttal. He wrote, "If American libraries and other repositories have been engaged in fabricating a lie, it is truly one of immense proportions (and certainly Nicholson Baker believes this is the case)."

Yes, the fabrication is not only large but profound in its effects. "The Big Lie" goes deeper than debates over newspapers and card catalogs. Yet, anyone familiar with the literature of scholarly communications can readily substantiate it for themselves from sources I can cite.

"The Big Lie" is mostly about money. Spending on libraries has decreased in comparison with the growth of authorship, the growth of institutional spending, the growth of library use, and other reasonably related measures over the last 30 years. There seems to be a policy of cost containment, one that is not reasoned in terms of library use or the needs of library patrons. The National Enquiry on Scholarly Communication noted this trend in its famous 1979 report, relying on an earlier National Science Foundation ( NSF) study by Bernard Fry and Herbert S. White [ 1, 2]. The National Enquiry complained that inadequate collections were the most serious problem facing scholars, yet it failed to confront the financial policy head on [ 3]. NSF also funded a study by Alan Kent and others, which it released in 1978. Called "A Cost-Benefit Model of Some Critical Library Operations in Terms of Use of Materials," it soon became a magnet for critics who nicknamed it the "Pittsburgh Study" [ 4]. Kent had attempted to justify reduced library spending by using circulation data to impute meager in-house use of open stacks and reading rooms. His methodology was reviled by library researchers; his conclusions were repudiated by the Pitt faculty senate, which described the report as "a clear threat and a present danger" [5, 6, 7, 8].

The Association of Research Libraries ( ARL) collected statistics, beginning around that time, on the declining share of its members' library spending. ARL deliberately omitted these statistics from its apparently exhaustive annual statistical reports! Finally, in 1993, ARL released a sample (probably prodded by a reference to them in Publishing Research Quarterly [ 9]). In a striking example of "Big Lie" mythology, the ARL report declared, "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, library budgets have tended to increase less rapidly than other university expenditures ... " [ 10]. Former Princeton economist, provost and president William G. Bowen confirmed the mythic astonishment a few years later. He wrote, "One surprising finding was that, starting in about the mid-1970s, the share of total university expenditures going to their libraries began to decline rather sharply" [11].

As if retarding library growth were not enough, higher education institutions suddenly decreased their library spending by $110 million in 1987, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics published years after the fact. (The increase of unspent revenues by that amount suggests to me that operating considerations did not require the cut.) Publishers were taken by surprise. Most raised prices to make up for lost sales. Two years later, ARL launched its "serials prices crisis" propaganda campaign [ 12]. Using "The Big Lie" as a platform, it accused authors of excessive publishing and journal publishers of profiteering. Its members attacked tenure and the practice of using publications to credential tenure candidates. It also snared aid from The New York Times, The Scientist, 60 Minutes, and Science, who broadcasted "The Big Lie" mythology [ 13, 14, 15, 16, 17]. According to "The Big Lie" in the mass media, the decimation of library collections was the fault of publishers, authors, and the 'publish or perish' tenure system. Librarians appeared to advocate on behalf of scholars, as if they acted independently of their bosses and the financial goals of administrators and trustees did not exist.

Essential to "The Big Lie" is the tradition of separating revenues and expenditures in university reports and statistics. This obscures the "profits" of nonprofit and publicly financed institutions - the residue of unspent income. Last year, I easily established that the top research universities retain an average of 20 percent of their revenues [ 18]. This level of profit is to be envied by publishers and most other industries.

With arcane profits cloaked by administrative practice, academic managers have unblushingly choked their libraries and cast stones at commercial publishers. A meeting of the ARL even criticized association publishers for not losing money [ 19]. Meanwhile dissemination of authorship has plummeted since 1970. Publisher's print runs have dropped by more than half. Library patrons rely on 'just-too-late, not just in case' photocopy services as the performance of collections declines. "The Big Lie" undermines the influence of authorship, faculty and disciplinary association who complete with administrators over academic governance. Bolstering the power of the bureaucracy is what Cary Nelson called the war against faculty [ 20]. "The Big Lie" also reflects the disinterest of trustees in research, education, and preservation of our culture, described by Thorsten Veblen in 1918 [21].

British economist David J. Brown observed the gap between financial support of libraries and their financial requirements to do their job - to effectively conserve and disseminate knowledge [ 22]. He felt the gap (A) could be measured and (B) it was very likely the expression of differing goals by agencies responsible for library spending and by research sponsors responsible for the generation of publications. I was able to update Brown's projections considerably [ 23]. As long as this fundamental conflict remains below the radar, I believe that "The Big Lie" will survive, the gap will grow, the performance of libraries will continue to decline, and the interest of our society in knowledge and culture will suffer.

The 30-year dry spell in library spending has had another effect. Academic librarianship has lost the luster that it had in the 1960s. Its leadership in defense of knowledge in the library world appears to have vanished. Standards, for instance, were vandalized by the librarians in charge of them. The Association of College and Research Libraries ( ACRL) abandoned the objective finite measures by which institutions could easily be judged [ 24]. As I see it, too many of the librarians who have become the economic captives of their institutions - rather than escape to industry or some other occupation - seem stricken by the Stockholm syndrome: hostages who identify with their captors. They have been recognized as enemies of the library and its patrons [25].

To borrow a notion from C. P. Snow, two cultures exist today. One is of scholars and scientists who have upheld the priority of knowledge for thousands of years. The other is of parvenu administrations, including former scholars and scientists, who see research as income and knowledge as cost. From this conflict in cultures we have not only the destruction of archives, wasting of catalog cards, and the decimation of collections. In 1996, Booz-Allen Hamilton, management consultants contracted by the U.S. General Accounting Office, shocked listeners when they recommended that the Library of Congress farm out its collections. They envisioned that, "the Library's collections would be selectively retained and/or transferred to other institutions for appropriate preservation ..." They "identified the following Library products and services as possible candidates for reduction: selected special collections acquisitions, foreign acquisitions, selected English language acquisitions, original cataloging" [ 26]. Not surprisingly, "cataloging" was specifically targeted. No doubt newspapers would fit several of these categories. Clearly, the administrative culture - including some librarians and managers with advanced degrees - has no idea what libraries mean to their users.

Well, perhaps "culture" is the wrong word to describe the bureaucratic attitude. Maybe "dogma" would be more appropriate, as suggested by Robert A. Nisbet in The Degradation Of The Academic Dogma [ 27] or "ethos" as used by Edward Shils in his essay, "The academic ethos under strain" [ 28]. They saw administrative hormones raging even before "The Big Lie" was conceived. End of article


About the Author

Albert Henderson is the former Editor of Publishing Research Quarterly.



1. National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication. 1979. Scholarly Communication. The Report. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

2. Bernard M.. Fry and Herbert S. White, 1975. Economics and Interaction of the Publisher-Library Relationship in the Production and Use of Scholarly and Research Journals. Washington D.C.: National Science Foundation.

3. Richard Abel, 1999. "The National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication - twenty years after," Publishing Research Quarterly, volume 15, number 1, pp. 3-19.

4. Alan Kent and others, 1978. A Cost-Benefit Model of Some Critical Library Operations in Terms of Use of Materials. Springfield Va.: NTIS, PB 282 059.

5. Casimir Borkowski and M.J. N. MacLeod, 1979. "Report on the Kent study of library use: a University of Pittsburgh reply," Library Acquisitions: Practice and Theory, volume 3, pp. 125-151.

6. Robert N. Broadus, 1983. "The use of serial titles in libraries with special reference to the Pittsburgh study," Collection Management, volume 5, numbers 1/2, pp. 27-41.

7. Robert M. Hayes, 1981. "The distribution and use of library materials: analysis of data from the University of Pittsburgh," Library Research, volume 3, pp. 215-260.

8. Melvin J. Voigt, 1979. "Circulation studies cannot reflect research use," Journal of Academic Librarianship, volume 5 (May), p. 66.

9. Advisory Panel for Scientific Publications, 1992. "The cost effectiveness of science journals," Publishing Research Quarterly, volume 8, number 3, pp. 72-91.

10. Anthony Cummings et al. (editors), 1992. University Libraries and Scholarly Communication: a study prepared for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Washington D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, p. xvii.

11. William G. Bowen, 1996. "How libraries can help to pay their way in the future," Logos, volume 7, number 3, pp. 237-241.

12. Association of Research Libraries, 1989. Report of the ARL Serials Prices Project. Washington D.C.: ARL.

13. K. Kalfus, 1989. "Scientists balk at soaring journal prices," The Scientist, volume 3, number 15 (24 July), pp. 1,16.

14. J.A. Kingson, 1989. "Where information is all, pleas arise for less of it," New York Times (9 July), p. E9.

15. D. Koshland, 1989. "Combating high journal costs (Editorial)," Science, volume 244, p. 1125.

16. Science and Engineering Indicators (1989), Washington, D.C.: National Science Board, pp. 113-114.

17. Leslie Stahl, 1995. "On universities," aired on 26 February, 60 Minutes. Transcript was printed under the title Academia exposed! The 60 Minutes file, Lingua Franca, volume 5, number 3 (March/April), pp. 70-73.

18. Albert Henderson, 2000. "Information Science vs. Science Policy (guest editorial)," Science, volume 289 (14 July), p. 243.

19. David E. Shulenburger, 1998. "Moving with dispatch to resolve the scholarly communication crisis: from here to NEAR," In: ARL Proceedings of 133rd annual meeting (14-16 October), at

20. Cary Nelson, 1999, "The war against faculty," Chronicle of Higher Education, volume 45, number 32, (16 April), p. B4.

21. Thorsten Veblen, 1918. The Higher Learning In America: a memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

22. David J. Brown (compiler), 1996. Electronic Publishing and Libraries: Planning for the Impact and Growth to 2003. London: Bowker-Saur, pp. 41-43.

23. Albert Henderson, 1999. "Information science and information policy: The use of constant dollars and other indicators to manage research investments," Journal of the American Society For Information Science, volume 50, number 4, pp. 366-379.

24. Albert Henderson, 2000. "Dumbing down standards," American Libraries, volume 31, number 5, pp. 37-38.

25. Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman, 1995. Future Libraries. Chicago: American Library Association, chapter 7.

26. U.S. General Accounting Office. 1996. Library of Congress: Opportunities to improve General and Financial Management. GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-96-115.

27. by Robert A. Nisbet, 1971. The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. New York: Basic Books.

28. Edward Shils, 1975. "The academic ethos under strain," Minerva, volume 13, pp. 1-37.

Editorial history

Paper received 15 February 2001; accepted 1 March 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

"The Big Lie" and the Great Newspaper Caper by Albert Henderson
First Monday, volume 6, number 3 (March 2001),