The still-advancing information revolution is notable for the way in which the quantity of literature predicting it so far outweighs the quantity of solid study of its actual achievement. Since the 1970s, there have been prophecies galore as to what informatisation was about to do to us. It is now here among us and has for the most part been conducted at such breakneck speed that few of those who are leading this great transformation have set aside time to describe in detail, as they go along, the day-to-day evolution and the behind-the-scenes activity that are bringing about these vast changes in the ways we live, work and study. Will future generations really know how Oracle came about, or Google, or any of the other now-major enterprises within the digital culture. This study is a sobering modulation of futurism into business facts.
This book describes in detail exactly how one important institution of the information revolution came into existence. JSTOR was and is one of the earliest and most effective academic resources of modern scholarship yet to have emerged. It began from an articulation of the frustrations of the Doane Library of Denison University, Ohio, as it wrestled with space problems and grew into a not-for-profit enterprise providing an international archive of the backfiles of countless academic journals, freely available on the internet (http://www.jstor.org).
During the inflation crisis of the 1970s, libraries started to look for ways to deal with the rapidly increasing volume of periodicals and books as staff numbers and subscriptions spiralled above available budgets. There was everywhere a search for the grail of the "steady-state" library, the shared deposit of periodicals, the off-campus stack and various other panic solutions to the problems of periodical and general library storage.
Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities and the New York Public Library clubbed together (with the help of the Mellon Foundation) to form the Research Libraries Group (RLG), which eventually led to a collective online catalogue.
But in the 1980s, university libraries faced a worse crisis in the sky-rocketing costs of academic journals as libraries cut down on duplicate subscriptions and publishers, without other means of covering their costs, responded by doubling and quadrupling the cover prices of vital publications. There was thus a cost as well as a storage crisis facing the maintenance of comprehensive and available research journals in academic collections, both in respect of subscriptions and the keeping of back numbers. This was before universities, on any scale, had installed networked computers around campuses.
It was at the Mellon Foundation, encouraged by a report from Denison University, that a plan emerged in 1994 to establish a pilot project for digitising and then widely distributing the content of many journals; wide distribution was crucial to reducing unit costs to the point at which the whole ambition became financially viable and solved, rather than intensified, the crisis confronting the publishers and the university libraries. But in the meantime, there were huge technical issues of scanning and software to be resolved. The push behind the project came from William G. Bowen, a Mellon trustee. A general plan for the project was complete by June 1994, with the resources of Mellon firmly behind it.
Fairly soon, the University of Michigan was selected as the formal grantee/client for running the project, though the foundation was to remain more deeply involved than would normally be the case.
Many matters remained unresolved as the founding team explored the new territory of mass scanning and dissemination of large quantities of text, and they identified crucial questions of quality control as they proceeded.
The foundation also had to deal with the issue of taking decisions about a project that could not fully define itself in advance.
It was not until the period between January 2000 and December 2001 that JSTOR made the shift from being a marginal and somewhat experimental enterprise providing digitised scholarly materials to a small group of organisations, to being a major resource serving hundreds of new participants and journals, linked to a variety of other such resources. At this point, it began to consider problems of serving a wider community through consulting services and thus becoming something new rather than merely a substitute means for carrying out a traditional function.
As the numbers of journals grew, fewer core journals were admitted for digitisation, with the result that a higher proportion of material would be in the system for which subscribing libraries would have little or no use.
More expansion - beyond the core journals - would attract an ever-smaller increment of subscribing libraries. For many of the libraries taking the service, JSTOR represented an additional expense rather than a cost saving because they kept hard copies of the journals anyway. The problem was to find a way to make JSTOR an additional boon to small libraries, for which the availability of a vast range of journals would be an innovation worth paying for.
The future is based on the proposition that libraries will experience ever-heightened resource constraints. JSTOR will be seen as a cost saving that allows libraries to add ranges of journals further away from those required for core research. The open question remains whether small academic libraries will regard a fully searchable and accessible service of journals for which they had no previous expressed requirement to be a service worth paying for. In the end, it is not the technology - nor the funding - that can drive the project, but the devising of an appropriately sophisticated business model. The grant-based enterprise has to evolve into a successful market enterprise.
This book is an account of a computer project but equally a thoughtful history of the managerial problems that confront a foundation intent on instigating a far-reaching innovation. Its lessons are clearly set out in an interesting epilogue, lessons that will be readily recognised by any institutional benefactor who wishes to help a dream into existence without itself taking on the day-to-day direction of the work. Many crucial but expensive elements had perforce to remain unspecified when the cheques were sent by the foundation. The book is thus the record of the management of a piece of the information revolution as well as an account of technological and organisational decisions.
Anthony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford.
JSTOR: A History
Author - Roger C. Schonfeld
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 412
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 691 11531 1