Giving Harvard a run for its money

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Rafael Ball is director of the ETH Library in Zurich, Switzerland

Tell us a bit about your background

I have a PhD in biology and studied philosophy and Slavonic languages. I’ve held various positions in the library ecosystem for more than 20 years. I’m currently head of ETH-Library in Zurich, Switzerland. My main research interests are the future and development of the digital society, the future of libraries and the book, and the development of academic communication.  

What should our readers know about ETH Zurich and its library?

ETH Zurich is one of the leading technical universities in the world and can give MIT, Harvard and Princeton University a run for their money. The Swiss university is highly successful in research and education. ETH-Library doesn’t just serve ETH Zurich’s researchers and students; it also acts as a national centre of information for the Swiss public in the fields of science, technology and history of science, with a wealth of diverse and specialised scientific collections, including minerals and biological specimens. 

Which recent developments in academic publishing have affected ETH Zurich the most, and how?

The digital transformation and development of electronic media and electronic journals and literature is one of the biggest challenges for us at ETH-Library. We especially serve our scientists, who are accustomed to high-quality electronic media across all disciplines. On academic publishing, we recently suffer from the high prices of the oligopoly-like structure of academic publishing houses. But the biggest developments we expect and see as our challenge are the change of text and data mining in big data in library collections, and the use of big data technology to solve scientific problems and answer information questions. 

How have usage statistics affected the way you operate?

Naturally, usage statistics affect the way we manage the library. We have a lot of benchmarking numbers that influence our strategic planning in our daily work, as well. But of course we scrutinise what all the numbers mean and where they come from. 

If you could make one plea to academic publishers, what would it be?

Please don’t charge unrealistically high prices; give us good value for money – and be open for new models in scholarly communication!