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Back Talk — A Streetcar in Athens

by | May 9, 2022 | 0 comments

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Column Editor:  Jim O’Donnell  (University Librarian, Arizona State University) 

Against the Grain V34#2

Fiesole, the hilltop town overlooking Florence, first claimed the stage of world history when the Roman populist Catiline made it his headquarters.  For the library world, the town is famous rather as the home of Casalini Libri, the entrepreneurial bookselling enterprise founded after World War II by the memorable Mario Casalini (d. 1998) and now led with great energy by his children, Barbara and Michele.  Among their many accomplishments is the hosting for more than twenty years now of the annual Fiesole Retreats, organized in partnership with the Charleston Company and bringing together thought leaders and rising stars in the world of libraries and publishers to monitor the present and anticipate the future of our collections.

The retreats return to Fiesole itself regularly, but they also explore other venues of hosting on the principle that the conversations can be enriched by choosing different countries and cities to host and nurture ideas.  Thus, there was nothing truly remarkable when the 2020 retreat was scheduled to be hosted by the new National Library of Greece in its stunning facility in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a few yards from the Aegean coast in the traditional port of the city of Athens, whose historic core lies a handful of kilometers inland.  NLG Director Filippos Tsimpoglou managed the move four years ago from a stately facility in central Athens to the new location, and has led a radical rethinking of what a national Library can and should be.

Reality intervened.  COVID cancelled the 2020 retreat and, as plans kept adjusting, cancelled several rescheduling opportunities in 2021.  But the first week of April 2022 finally saw familiar and new faces gathering at the Niarchos Center, joined by a large group of Greek librarians, for three days of remarkable conversation.

Director Tsimpoglou set the keynote, in a wide-ranging and inspirational talk he made vivid by imagining a “Streetcar Named the Future” — the vehicle of innovation.  When a general strike took down Athenian public transit on the day of his talk, we could joke about this streetcar being the only one running in Athens.  In response to his vision, Martina Bagnoli (Chair, Supervisory Board of Europeana) spoke of a vision the retreatants shared of an “open, knowledgeable, and creative society,” a vision all the more necessary in time of burgeoning war, lingering COVID, and the struggle of everyone from journalists to librarians to find ways to counteract the fake news plagues of our time. 

When I review my notes from the presentations and discussions, I find always various things I learned and did not expect.  Who knew, for example, that open educational resources (OERs) have not only the power to provide better and more affordable learning materials to traditional students, but also reach as large an audience of what we would traditionally call the middle-aged.  We were jolted awake by Nikolas Sarris, a conservator at NLG showing us the power of linked data to make conserving print collections a genuinely collaborative and more effective enterprise than only the traditional handicraft approach of local facilities.  Maria Georgopolou (Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens) gave a riveting tour of the records of the origins of modern tourism — invented in Athens — when in the 17th to 19th centuries, travelers from the wealthy worlds of western Europe found they could travel to impoverished Ottoman Greece — a place well known to them from their classical educations, well stocked with astonishing monuments, and just in a traveler’s reach.  

The most dramatic and timely presentation came from Quinn Dombrowsky (Stanford University), one of the leads of the international SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online) project — a project that didn’t exist six weeks before we met, but was galvanized into action by the outbreak of the Russian assault on Ukraine.  An international team of dedicated supporters is working around the clock to archive Ukrainian cultural heritage from the web, to avert literal destruction and to make Ukrainian culture better known and accessible worldwide.  The interplay between material and digital archive in Museum of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a real museum in Novgorod-Siversky in northeastern Ukraine — very much in harm’s way — and a digital representation of the same museum on the web.  Now at least the latter is safe.  Dombrowsky spoke movingly of SUCHO’s mission of “digital repatriation”:  bringing Ukrainian heritage back to Ukraine and out to the wider world at the same time.

There were also themes and learnings that ran deeper still and brought about fascinating dialogue.  The tone was set in presentations by Wilhelm Widmark (Stockholm University Library) and Didier Torny (CNRS in Marseilles).  In different ways they reviewed the state of “transformative agreements” between libraries and publishers and found (Torny) a welter of imperfect information obstructing our understanding and (Widmark) a path to real transformation that is opening up much more slowly than innovators wish.

In my own closing remarks, I outlined an essential implicit theme.  Presentation after presentation, on a wide variety of issues, had returned again and again to the theme of finding a business model for innovation.  The National Library of Greece struggles to find one that will sustain its eBook reading room, intended to make eBook reading easier, freer, and more commonly practiced in a country with a relatively small publishing industry.  But the conversations on OERs also reverted to business model questions, as did a refreshingly frank and fascinating presentation on the future of open science in Greece by Natalia Manola (research center “Athena”), recognizing that broad support for the common project has so far run aground on changes in Greek governments — and the changes that will certainly happen again with regularity.  And of course every open access conversation — on diamond open access by Pierre Mounier (OPERAS), on Subscribe to Open (S2O) projects by Anne Ruimy (EDP Sciences), in Ros Pyne’s (Bloomsbury) exploration of OA books in the humanities and social sciences, and of course in Widmark’s and Torny’s discussions of the “transformative agreement” — focused on business models.  Pyne was insightful for acknowledging models that had seemed promising (e.g., the old freemium model pioneered by the US National Academy of Sciences Press, where free digital copies were made available side by side with print books for sale — a model that faded when the user preference shifted dramatically to the digital) and Ruimy astutely prudent in observing that S2O efforts to date have been remarkably successful against the risk of losing subscribers and gaining free riders — but acknowledging that we just have enough history to know how that can go in the future.  She explained the choice of S2O for her firm’s journals because they needed to respect mathematicians who hate APCs and astronomers who regularly practice green OA and would think it silly to pay again for OA through APCs.

The phrase “business model” is shorthand for a limited and inevitably ineffective (in itself) intervention in a larger social ecosystem, which requires economic intervention to motivate and manage cooperation and collaboration.  A good business model may be necessary but is rarely sufficient to effect change.  It is a hopeful description, a hypothesis about the future — not a magic pill.

One of the most provocative presentations was Toby Green’s (Coherent Digital) review of the flood of gray literature that carries the business of our world, an entirely new ecosystem in the wild.  We all looked at the postings of Kamil Guleev — the astute reporter and analyst of Russia in Ukraine, whose work is all and only and entirely on Twitter.  It reaches its audience now — but tomorrow?  Once upon a time, speaking to and for the community of scholars formed around libraries was both necessary and almost sufficient.  In a world plagued by the lies called fake news, reaching a broader audience immediately seems critical.  Toby and his colleagues are explorers in the ecosystem of current information, explorations that may give rise to a sustainable business model.  But understanding the ecosystem and what influences it is the first order of business.

I close with optimism.  The drive for OA is not 10 or 15 or 20 years old, but nearly 30.  For grizzled veterans, the progress made today in opening science and scholarship is astonishing.  Good business models, good technology, and even — dare I say it — smart and brave politicians can all be powerful instruments in advancing this cause, but we need to keep the focus on the overall ecosystem and not over-focus on specific interventions, specific exertions of effort.  These are large, heavy systems that take time to move, take time to change.  Streetcars aren’t renowned for their speed, but they can be a very good way to get where you’re going.  

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