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September 2009

Value and Librarian Decision-Making

I was on the phone with  my Elsevier rep last year.  He was giving me the standard spiel about the tremendous value that ScienceDirect was bringing to my institution, in an attempt to talk me out of stepping away from the big deal.  Finally, I interrupted.  "It's not that you're wrong," I said.  "It's just that this isn't relevant to the situation I'm in."

"Look," I continued.  "If  Lynn and I go down to Jim & Nick's for dinner, we might spend $50 and have a really good meal.  If we go to Hot n' Hot, I might spend $200 for an exceptional experience.  I might feel that the $200 actually represents a better value overall, but if all I've got to spend on dinner is $20, the comparison is irrelevant.   The point is, I'm just not willing to spend what you're asking, no matter how valuable you tell me the content is."

He still seemed pretty surprised some weeks later when he finally got our order and we'd done exactly what we said we were going to do. 

Librarians in general have not been terribly good negotiators.  Too often, what passes for negotiating is to plead poverty and beg for the percentage increase to come down a couple of points.  A good sales rep knows this, and past evidence demonstrates that, with very few exceptions,  librarians will always plead that they can't afford it,  but somehow they always come up with the money. 

This year, in the face of an economic downturn more severe than working librarians have ever known, the pleas of poverty have gotten louder.  And some publishers have responded by announcing price freezes.  Whether or not those publishers hope to be able to recoup in future years by instituting compensating price increases remains unknown.

Librarians have expressed gratitude to those publishers, but an exchange on liblicense-l this week highlights the question of the degree to which that gratitude will be translated into action.  Will librarians "reward" publishers that freeze their prices and "punish" those that come up with price increases, even if those increases stay within the normal ranges that we've come to expect?  Or will librarians do what they've always done and eventually make their decisions based on what they believe they can't do without, regardless of the pricing structure?  Joe Esposito speculates that if the latter is true,

it may be in the interests of a publisher of the higher quality publications to raise prices even in desperate economic times, as such a publisher is protected by the armor of outstanding editorial content and can stand by and watch as the weaker editorial products get cancelled, despite the generous trading practices of those unfortunate publishers.


So if I'm a gutsy publisher, who believes that my content is the stuff that libraries can't do without, this may be a golden opportunity to further weaken the competition.

Whether that turns out to be a good gamble or not depends on what librarians do over the next couple of months as they make decisions for 2010.  The major commercial publishers have done a very good job of betting that when push comes to shove, librarians will always come around, no matter how much they fuss.

As far back as my first AAHSL meeting in 1987, I've been listening to librarians say that publishers have got to change their pricing practices because the current system is simply not sustainable.  And yet, librarians have done a very good job of sustaining it.

I wonder if that will turn out to be the case again this year.


The myth of time-saving

When I was at my Mom's earlier this summer, we had dinner at home one evening.  She broiled steaks and baked potatoes and asked me to fix the frozen brussels sprouts.    The sprouts were done in a butter sauce, and designed to be fixed in the microwave.  They were very tasty.  But it occurred to me that I could have fixed fresh sprouts in just about the same amount of time and had more fun with it.   There was nothing creative about microwaving the package, except, perhaps, the challenge of figuring out how to finally get the plastic top off so I could get them into a serving bowl without burning my fingers on the hot sauce.   If I'd had fresh, I would've trimmed them in a minute or two, and even if all I'd done was boil them and add butter and maybe some lightly sauteed garlic, it wouldn't have taken much more than the ten or twelve minutes that the frozen microwaveable ones took.  Or, I could have sliced them in half, lightly browned them on top of the stove in olive oil and then sprinkled them with parmesan cheese.  That would've taken even less time.  Or, I could've roasted them in the oven (I'm getting hungry now).  I would've melted butter & olive oil in a hot oven and then rolled the sprouts in with some garlic salt and lemon pepper and maybe some paprika (my favorite spice) and let them go for forty minutes or so.  Sure, that would've required me to get started much sooner, but the actual prep time would still have been only a few minutes.

The point being that I cook just about every night that I'm in town and spend very little time at it.  Last night I made fried rice.  I've been making it the same way for years and it takes fifteen minutes from the time I take the eggs out of the fridge to the time I put the dishes on the table.   I had the leftover rice from Friday night when we had a batch of Lynn's black beans from the freezer, a meal that also took just minutes to pull together.  On Saturday I made a beef stir fry with mushrooms, onions and jalapenos.  I took my time slicing the beef and I let it sit in a marinade for half an hour, but I still didn't spend more than twenty minutes altogether in the kitchen.

So I get impatient with the notion that in our helter-skelter society people don't have time to cook.  Lynn points out the flaw in my reasoning -- people don't have time to plan.  They don't have time to shop.  I can't argue with that.  I can cook simply every night because it's part of my normal rhythm to stop at the grocery store three or four times a week for the fresh vegetables or whatever other ingredient I need.  And that's never much because Lynn loads up on the staples once a month in a marathon three-hour shopping spree so we always have a fully stocked pantry.  And while I do the simple, fast, stovetop cooking, she spends time on the weekends with soups and stocks and breads and things that cook long and slow and that make lots of leftovers, which is why I could pull out a package of wonderfully cooked black beans from the freezer on Friday night.

I can't imagine a life without cooking.  My mom got us all started very early.  I don't even remember what I started with, but I do remember being very puzzled when I was old enough to hear that many men never learned how to cook.  How could you not know how to cook?  I could understand not knowing how to cook particular things -- there was always more to learn, and some of the preparations seemed completely mysterious.  But not know how to cook at all?  I couldn't even figure out what that meant.

Nonetheless, according to Michael Pollan's excellent essay in last Sunday's NY Times magazine, only 58% of american evening meals qualify as "cooking" even when you define cooking so loosely that putting lettuce in a bowl and pouring bottled dressing over it qualifies.    The most popular meal in America is a sandwich.

I don't think I've ever watched a full episode of a cooking show.  Pollan's essay helps me understand why, at the same time that it elucidates the fabulous success of the Food Network.  I've got a kitchen full of cookbooks that I rely on for advice, and whenever I'm thinking of trying something new, I'll see what I can find on the web that uses similar ingredients, just to spark my imagination.  But watch a cooking show?  It never occurs to me.

There seems to be little doubt that we would be healthier if we did more cooking -- real cooking, not just "dump-and-stir" (to use the obnoxious phrase that Pollan says characterizes the Food Network's daytime cooking shows).  Lynn and I are apparently two of the very few Americans these days who are not on any kind of maintenance medications, and I'm convinced that it has something to do with the fact that we eat so little processed food.

The irony here is that we don't eat the way that we do in order to be healthy.  We're dedicated carnivores (although we often fix meatless meals).   I make liberal use of butter and eggs, and turn up my nose at low-fat anything (well, except for 2% milk).  We eat the way that we do because we love to cook, we've learned how to do it efficiently, and the meals that we eat simply taste better than if we stuck with "time-saving" manufactured food.  

At the end of his article, Pollan quotes Harry Balzer, a food researcher and marketer, who is convinced that the trend toward less cooking is irreversible.  Pollan asks him about the impact of industrial prepared food on the nation's health and Balzer says, “Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Not to mention that roasting brussels sprouts is so much easier than figuring out how to get that damned plastic wrap off the top of the plastic microwaveable container.