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JSTOR: A History

JSTOR: A History

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by Roger C. Schonfeld

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Ten years ago, most scholars and students relied on bulky card catalogs, printed bibliographic indices, and hardcopy books and journals. Today, much content is available electronically or online. This book examines the history of one of the first, and most successful, digital resources for scholarly communication, JSTOR. Beginning as a grant-funded project of the


Ten years ago, most scholars and students relied on bulky card catalogs, printed bibliographic indices, and hardcopy books and journals. Today, much content is available electronically or online. This book examines the history of one of the first, and most successful, digital resources for scholarly communication, JSTOR. Beginning as a grant-funded project of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the University of Michigan, JSTOR has grown to become a major archive of the backfiles of academic journals, and its own nonprofit organization.

Roger Schonfeld begins this history by looking at JSTOR's original mission of saving storage space and thereby storage costs, a mission that expanded immediately to improving access to the literature. What role did the University play? Could JSTOR have been built without the active involvement of a foundation? Why was it seen as necessary to "spin off" the project? This case study proceeds as an organizational history of the birth and maturation of this nonprofit, which had to emerge from the original university partnership to carve its own identity. How did the grant project evolve into a successful marketplace enterprise? How was JSTOR able to serve its twofold mission of archiving its journals while also providing access to them? What has accounted for its growth? Finally, Schonfeld considers implications of the economic and organizational aspects of archiving as well as the system-wide savings that JSTOR ensures by broadly distributing costs.

Editorial Reviews

Electronic Library
Schonfeld's scholarship makes JSTOR: A History a valuable analysis of the mistakes and successes of a digital archive and scholarly resource, while his clear writing almost makes it a page-turner.
— Ross MacDonald
Times Higher Education Supplement
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.
— Anthony Smith
Electronic Library - Ross MacDonald
Schonfeld's scholarship makes JSTOR: A History a valuable analysis of the mistakes and successes of a digital archive and scholarly resource, while his clear writing almost makes it a page-turner.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Anthony Smith
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.
From the Publisher
"Schonfeld's scholarship makes JSTOR: A History a valuable analysis of the mistakes and successes of a digital archive and scholarly resource, while his clear writing almost makes it a page-turner."—Ross MacDonald, Electronic Library

"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."—Anthony Smith, Times Higher Education Supplement

Product Details

Princeton University Press
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A History
By Roger C. Schonfeld

Princeton University Press

Roger C. Schonfeld
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691115311

Chapter One

Chapter 1



WE BEGIN in late 1993, when a discussion before the Board of Trustees of Denison University alerted one trustee, William G. Bowen, to the possible demand for a digital library of scholarly journals. Shared with colleagues at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, of which he was president, and beyond, the initial idea matured rapidly into the basis for a major project. This chapter summarizes the influences that led Bowen to his idea, and it illustrates both how much thought went into the development of the proposed project and how rapidly the project began to congeal.

Denison University is an academically selective liberal arts college in Ohio, and Doane Library is one of the key landmarks on its beautiful campus. By the early 1990s, Doane's overcrowded and often-inaccessible stacks were no longer adequate. Denison's books, journals, and other library collections had filled all of the available space. There was no room to store new materials acquired for the collection. Responding to this need, the administration added the expansion of Doane Library to a list of capital projects on the horizon that it presented to the board of trustees in late 1993. President MicheleTolela Myers had to ask the board to find funds for a substantial and expensive library expansion.

The problems facing Denison's library had particular resonance with one of the trustees. In addition to being president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, William G. Bowen was president emeritus of Princeton University and an economist specializing in nonprofit organizations. With William Baumol, he had written the definitive study of the economics of the arts, and even before becoming a university provost and president he had written on the economics of higher education. The 1966 Baumol-Bowen study had identified "cost-disease" as the core problem of nonprofit service-intensive organizations.1 In most industries, new technology brings increases in productivity, allowing the same number of workers to produce more goods (or fewer workers to produce the same amount). A classic example is the assembly line, which transformed industrial productivity. Baumol and Bowen showed that, because the service-intensive nonprofits are so reliant on labor, they are less able to take advantage of technology and thus they grow ever more expensive relative to the output of the economy as a whole. Indeed in some instances the amount of labor is irreducible: it will always take four musicians to perform a string quartet. Even though these socially beneficial organizations grow ever more expensive, we want them to flourish, and so a solution must be found to prevent them from becoming economically nonviable. The next year, Baumol would demonstrate that precisely the same phenomenon holds for academic libraries.2


By the 1970s, with inflation rampant in the United States, the cost-disease was beginning to translate in to real problems for libraries, which began to take up some suggestions for savings. But although many libraries began to automate operations, such as circulation, the early evidence of the savings that should have resulted was uncertain at best.3 Much technology, such as databases like Dialog, brought increased scholarly utility, but also increased costs.4 One prior success was in cataloging, where various subscription services allowed libraries to do without scores of redundant catalog staff around the country.5 The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) instituted a cooperative cataloging program, allowing electronic catalogs to be developed without local cataloging.6 The success of automation and cooperative cataloging notwithstanding, they did nothing to reduce academic libraries' voracious demand for books and journals.

Saving money by making expensive staff redundant was the only way to combat the cost disease directly-by increasing labor productivity-but it was hardly the only way to restructure libraries to save money. Thinking more radically, some librarians began to wonder if "library growth [can] be curbed or halted," moving toward a zero-growth model.7 The "steady-state" collection model made the most sense within an efficient system of interlibrary lending (ILL) of nonlocal resources, which OCLC's national catalog helped to provide. Substantial efforts were undertaken to research the optimal balance between local and remote collections, given a variety of ILL arrangements.8

Other proposals, which were at least vaguely related, called for some sort of central lending library for periodicals. Two of the reasons for focusing on periodicals were the facts that their rising costs functioned as a "permanent prior lien" on the budget and that there were often local bibliographic entrance points in the form of A&I resources.9 By the late 1970s, these ideas had coalesced into a proposal for a National Periodical Center (NPC), a central warehouse to store materials. It was predicted that the NPC would "reduce the number of back issues that each library must keep, thus relieving the pressure for expansion of library buildings"-and the vigor of one supporter's protestations to the contrary may indicate that it was intended to encourage massive subscription cancellations.10 Indeed, some proponents were explicit about this, with one writing that such a library would offer "constructive encouragement to a participating institution to reduce its own acquisitions, with the knowledge that the unpurchased materials will, in fact, be available."11 The idea was appealing because it allowed for "remote" collections while fairly apportioning the costs (and not forcing research libraries to become the "remote" collections for smaller libraries).12 But among the librarians supporting this proposal, there is no evidence of any examination of how the cancellations engendered by the NPC might raise the costs of, or put altogether out of business, scholarly periodicals.13

Others thought that the remote storage of library materials in less expensive off-campus facilities would be more realistic than altogether static local collections or the ambitious but unrealized NPC. Beginning in the late 1980s, a number of libraries began to develop such remote facilities, which were in essence closed-stack warehouses for books.14 Indeed, the consortia movement really started with libraries uniting to facilitate resource-sharing via ILL and off-campus facilities; OhioLINK, a statewide organization of academic libraries, was a prime example.15

Even before Bowen's arrival as president, the Mellon Foundation had also sought to find ways to offset the cost-disease for colleges and universities, and not least their libraries. In 1975, with the assistance of Mellon funds, the libraries of Columbia, Harvard, and Yale universities and the New York Public Library united to form the Research Libraries Group (RLG), a membership organization that would eventually deploy an online union catalog, that is, a collective catalog including the holdings of multiple libraries. One important aim of RLG was to find efficiencies in collections development, perhaps by coordinating the subject strengths of its constituent libraries to avoid unnecessary duplication of research materials.16 With the savings that would result, the libraries would be better able to maintain their core mission of building robust research collections in the face of rising costs. Although RLG has provided many useful services for academic libraries, efforts to coordinate collections development required too many compromises to be effectively implemented.17

Despite the best efforts of so many, the 1980s brought only retrenchment to academic libraries. By the end of the decade, observers feared that academic libraries had reached a point of crisis.18 The culprit was believed to be scholarly journals.

The economics of scholarly journal publishing is very similar to the economics of the creation and distribution of all sorts of information, from scholarship to entertainment. Academic journals, like movies, music, and newspapers, involve high up-front costs for creation, but low marginal costs for providing an additional copy to an additional consumer. Consequently, when a journal is sold on a fee-per-copy basis, its profit or loss is largely dependent on the number of subscribers.19

Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating to shocking proportions in the 1980s, the price of scholarly journals skyrocketed, especially in the sciences. Several factors, including exchange rates, paper costs, publishers' profit margins, and postage, combined to damaging effect. At the same time, new journals were constantly spawned in response to ever-increasing scholarly specialization.20 Structural deficits at leading universities meant that library budgets were unable to keep pace with rising prices. Budget constraints forced cutbacks, first on duplicate subscriptions and then on primary ones.

As libraries canceled journal subscriptions in the face of rising prices, publishers experienced pressure on their profit margins. They were forced to raise prices even further.21 In turn, libraries were forced to cut back further.22 This spiral of price increases and journal cancellations plagued both libraries and publishers for many years.23 In the aftermath, it should be noted, academic libraries spend a far greater share of their materials budgets on journals, as opposed to monographs, and on the sciences, as opposed to the humanities, than they did before. The situation as it stood was unsustainable, for both scholarship and the bottom line. The higher-education community felt it was being priced out of adequate library resources, even as college and university budgets were experiencing ever more pressure.


The increasing pressure on academic libraries had, by the early 1990s, become a significant concern of the Mellon Foundation. Founded in 1969, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was always concerned with the health of higher education, the arts and humanities, and research libraries, making grants for specific projects and endowing programs in these areas.24 Although Mellon had supported some efforts to find savings for academic libraries for a number of years, the problems were getting worse. With a mission focused on the support of higher education and the humanities most specifically, Mellon leaders felt compelled to act as scholarly resources, especially in the humanities, became increasingly endangered.

Concerned that this cycle should be definitively documented before embarking on a grants program to alleviate it, the Mellon Foundation's research staff studied both the causes and the effects of this cost-escalating spiral. One alarming finding was that academic libraries were collecting a smaller and smaller percentage of scholarly output. Published in 1992 as University Libraries and Scholarly Communications, the study also contained an investigation of how developing technologies might ameliorate the problem, by "suggest[ing] a model for the library of the future that may differ sharply from the traditional one."25 Even if it was not then possible to say with any specificity what the model should be, it was clear that new technologies might permit (or force) the adoption of better methods of distribution that could stand up to evolving economic climates. Overall, Tony Cummings and his co-authors saw some possible stumbling blocks but much potential for innovative solutions.

With renewed confidence that its staff understood the environment, the foundation altered its grant making for academic libraries. In the foreword to University Libraries, Bowen indicated some likely impacts:

Specifically, we are examining the possibility of evaluating systematically some of the "natural experiments" in new modes of electronic publication and dissemination . . . and we might simultaneously encourage the development of some carefully structured experiments designed to address some of the open questions of quality, means of access to materials, convenience, and cost.26

Richard Ekman, the foundation's secretary (now at the Council of Independent Colleges), and Richard E. Quandt, a Princeton economist and one of the foundation's senior advisors, embarked on a systematic evaluation of preexisting natural experiments.27 Having surveyed the terrain, Ekman and Quandt presented their findings to the Mellon board of trustees.28 The trustees approved a program of grants, run by Ekman and Quandt, to encourage a series of "self-conscious natural experiments" on how technology could help the system of scholarly communications find efficiencies while, if possible, increasing scholarly utility. Although this program would encounter some measure of resistance,29 it would also foster a great deal of innovation. Under their leadership until 1999, this program made awards that totaled $19 million.30

When Bowen was mulling the proposed library expansion at Denison in late 1993, the economic problems of academic libraries-and possible cures for their ills-had been on his mind for years. At Princeton, Bowen had seen unceasing pressure to build additions and annexes to Firestone Library, and he knew that similar pressures affected academic libraries everywhere.31 In working on the study of academic libraries and preparing for the Ekman-Quandt program, Bowen and other staff at the foundation had been mulling the application of technology to academic libraries. As Louis Pasteur said several times, "chance only favors the prepared mind."32 But for the foundation's work at the time and Bowen's own interest in cost-disease, Bowen might not have thought twice about the need to expand Denison's Doane Library.

The cyclical pressures to construct or expand university and college libraries as collections grew continued steadily, but only rarely had librarians and administrators acted to alleviate them. Perhaps these pressures were largely ignored because, constituting capital costs, they were often viewed as inevitable. Certainly, academic communities perceived libraries to be at their very heart, and the size of a library was often perceived as a measure of academic quality. With his mind "prepared," however, Bowen saw a special opportunity.

New technologies of the sorts that Ekman and Quandt had been studying could be used to help libraries like Doane. Specifically, Bowen thought that some of the library resources could be effectively "miniaturized" using computer technology so that they would no longer have to be held in physical form.


Excerpted from JSTOR by Roger C. Schonfeld Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Hal Varian
This well-written book will be very useful to anyone contemplating such a digitalization effort. The history is interesting for its own sake, but the real payoff will be in helping others avoid some of the mistakes JSTOR made, and also to recognize opportunities when they arise.
Hal Varian, Dean of the School of Information and Management Systems, University of California, Berkeley
Deanna Marcum
A fascinating read, this book will be of great interest to the academic community. It is the first time I can think of that a library-related project has been documented in such detail. Schonfeld has done a remarkably evenhanded job of telling the story of how an idea becomes an operating organization. He tells an intriguing and compelling story with great ease, discussing the failures as well as the successes. I found myself anxious to find out what happened next. It is quite a talent that turns the history of a journal digitalization project into a page-turner!
Deanna Marcum, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources

Meet the Author

Roger C. Schonfeld is a research associate at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where his principal interests involve libraries and scholarly communications. He collaborated with James Shulman and William G. Bowen on "The Game of Life" (Princeton).

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JSTOR: A History 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Schonfeld tells a fascinating and no doubt important story. Equally intriguing are his intelligent considerations of the step-by-step construction of JSTOR and of the myriad historical factors which precipitated the database's inception and reazlization. Historian, librarian, project manager, economist, entrepreneur--Schonfeld wears all of these hats masterfully and seemingly without effort...to great success.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An amazing book--one that unfolds (in an entertaining way) the history of a crucial academic resource. Schonfeld is an admirable scholar who bids fair to become a leader in the rethinking of academic library resources.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I respect and admire a scholar who would attempt to write on such a deeply mind-numbing topic, it must be said straightaway that Mr. Schonfeld's understanding of even the most basic aspects of bird anatomy is elementary at best. Can he have failed to have read the ground-breaking 'Birds of North America,' or Pettingil's thrilling field guide to ornithology? And what exactly does the University of Michigan (or the Mellons, for that matter) have to do with these acute issues of bird ecology and anatomy?