14 September 2006

Roger Schonfeld, JSTOR: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Elizabeth Yakel, Starting an Archives. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

Disclaimer: I have a personal connection to each of these books. I worked at JSTOR for a time, doing quality control, and Dr. Yakel was one of my instructors at the School of Information. Being so close to them, I forget that JSTOR requires an introduction to explain this pairing.

JSTOR is an online archive of scholarly journals. Now, in the age of Google Books and Google Scholar, this seems pretty passé. Everything is supposed to be online, right? But it isn’t, and what is certainly wasn’t always there; JSTOR was one of the pioneers, with work on these collections beginning in 1994.

Schonfeld makes use of complete access to papers and people in this authorized biography of a new-born business. We see everything from the Mellon Foundation board meeting at which it is conceived to an initial, successful release and subsequent growth, through the actors’ eyes. It is a fascinating look at how a group dedicated to saving shelf space in academic libraries crafted a clientele, a collection, and a new kind of company—the profitable non-profit.

Profit, however, is the wrong word. JSTOR is building an archives; the plan is to insure the survival of knowledge, as well as speed its dissemination. Great care is taken to acquire and safely store multiple physical copies of all digitized titles, protecting them in perpetuity. This takes money, which JSTOR raises. No one gets rich (trust me, no one is getting rich on this), the journals are cared for even if JSTOR goes under or the electronic world goes kaplouie, and we get a wonderful access tool for some of our most important periodic literature: titles like Science, Philosophical Transactions, English Journal, or Child Development. This electronic access, available to many libraries which could never otherwise afford subscriptions to all of the titles or acquire complete backruns, is worth much more than JSTOR charges.

Yakel’s book, then, is an obvious companion. Published for the Society of American Archivists, it is an introduction to the process for those “thinking about beginning a historical records program in their organization[s]”. Using case studies to illustrate each step and providing a bibliographic essay, list of archival associations, and sample documents, it presents enough background for an administrator to understand both what should be happening and why an expert is needed. Watching JSTOR develop against this view of the idealized process makes clear what a remarkable job they have done in balancing a responsibility to their archival mission with the competing interest of the publishers, librarians, and end users who are their constituents.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home