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JSTOR: A History

Author(s):Schonfield, Roger C.
Reviewer(s):Kurtz, Royce

Published by EH.Net (October 2003)

Roger C. Schonfield, JSTOR: A History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. xxxiv + 412 pp. $29.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-691-11531-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Royce Kurtz, Head of Reference, J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi.

JSTOR: A History is not a modest book. Few nonprofit enterprises warrant a history when they are less than ten years old. Even fewer infant organizations dare to declare themselves successful when their mission is to store knowledge in perpetuity. JSTOR is the story of an excellent idea with even better unintended consequences that succeeded because its sponsor was a powerful man with monetary resources and well-placed friends. While the very antithesis of the Cinderella tale, JSTOR is still a fascinating read as one is given an inside look in how the educational elite can bring money and skill together to create a successful electronic business in the midst of the .com crash.

William G. Bowen, the book’s hero, is a man of distinction. When the story of JSTOR begins in 1993, Bowen was president of the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a nonprofit that had already given millions in grant money to higher education. He was a nationally recognized economist specializing in nonprofits, an emeritus president of Princeton University, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Denison College, a selective, small liberal arts college in Ohio. Denison needed to build a new library, the old one having reached capacity. Upon surveying the library, Bowen realized that by digitizing the long runs of old journals much space could be freed up and the need to build a new library postponed. As college and university libraries all held virtually the same set of core journals, the aggregate space savings, and hence financial savings, of delaying library construction by means of digital collections would ripple across higher education. Bowen took his idea back to the board of trustees at Mellon, and they immediately funded a pilot project.

Roger C. Schonfeld, the author, is a research associate at the Mellon foundation. He has access to the Foundation’s files and interviewed high level participants in order to give readers the feel of being in the know as events unfolded. While Schonfeld occasionally points out the naivete of Bowen and his colleagues when approaching technological and legal hurdles, the Mellon Foundation and its leaders never come in for harsh criticism. Theirs is a story of sound judgement, wise use of resources, and impeccable timing with a dash of good luck. In order to succeed, adept administrators were needed as well as large and timely cash flows. Bowen supplied both. While maintaining close ties with his project, Bowen also lined up Kevin Guthrie to officially head up the operation and pilot JSTOR (the name of Bowen’s computer file for the project) to the status of an independent nonprofit. Guthrie had worked on Mellon Foundation projects before and was well known to Bowen. In the end it was Guthrie’s managerial skills and Bowen’s strategic appeals to the Mellon Board for money that kept the young project moving forward.

Two huge problems had to be overcome for the project to begin. First were the technological problems of scanning millions of pages, providing hardware and software sufficient to store, search, and quickly deliver the product to thousands of locations worldwide. Second were the legal problems of gaining copyright permission from dozens of journal publishers in order to digitize their back files. While few journal publishers make money from their back files, all were cautious about signing away the rights. Technology issues were resolved as Bowen contacted his good friend, the president of the University of Michigan, who found a home for the fledgling program in the university’s major and innovative digitization efforts. Michigan engineers and computer scientists worked on perfecting software for JSTOR, and Michigan staff organized the journals for scanning by a private company. Many of the journals that JSTOR wished to scan were published by either university presses or scholarly associations. Bowen’s friendships among university presidents got JSTOR’s lawyers a favorable hearing from these publishers.

When it came time to market JSTOR to university libraries, Bowen again called on University presidents, not library directors, in order to sell the product. It is not surprising that virtually all of JSTOR’s first customers were large university research libraries. The journal titles that JSTOR had digitized would make virtually no impact on these libraries’ storage problems. Indeed JSTOR’s success came, not primarily from solving storage concerns, but by providing easy access to the long back files of a bundle of essential scholarly journals.

Schonfeld provides lengthy descriptions of the ins and outs of setting up a nonprofit enterprise. Librarians and academic administrators, who are struggling with how to pay for electronic products, will find the details of how JSTOR arrived at its value pricing model fascinating. As a nonprofit associated with the Mellon Foundation, JSTOR developed different marketing and pricing models for unique customers, such as the Appalachian Colleges Association. Libraries outside the United States and library buying consortia also proved to be challenging markets. Schonfeld also provides details on production operations, establishing business models for nonprofits, and the politics of the nonprofit world of higher education. Schonfeld is a great story teller; his book skillfully intertwines the specifics of setting up a scholarly nonprofit enterprise with the larger intellectual issues of scholarly communications and the economics of the nonprofit sector. JSTOR: A History is a must read for economists interested in nonprofits and for librarians (or anyone else) interested in where college and university library collections are headed.

Royce Kurtz received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in anthropology, specializing in frontier interactions between Euro-Americans and native Americans. He is currently the bibliographer for history and the social sciences at the University of Mississippi libraries. He has published in both the fields of history and library science.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII