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Open to All: Preserving Library Values in a Digital World
October 21, 2010 - 10:01pm

As Open Access Week comes to a close, I thought I would share some ideas that bubbled up last year in a weekly column I write for Library Journal's Academic Newswire. I had been thinking about a host of issues: the difficulty that good academic monographs have finding their audience now that library budgets are tight, the implications of using most of our library funding to rent temporary access to journals that come in miscellaneous and constantly mutating bundles full of publications we don't particularly want or need, the ways that the arts of self-preservation and self-interest are inculcated in graduate training, but the fundamental value of openly sharing knowledge is not, the fact that leaving publishers in control of a digital environment undermines longstanding and philosophically crucial library values ... and it all came together in the form of a manifesto inspired by the concepts behind liberation theology.

I had to do a bit of research first, and found a handy brief guide to liberation theology in the form of an article that (as it happened) was written by a colleague in our religion department, Mary Solberg. She wanted to explain why she thinks it's effective to teach this approach to connecting religious principles to social justice in her courses. Since the article is intellectual property that belongs to a multinational corporation, I can't link to it here, so you'll have to take my word for it.

(Handing the copyright to a company seems an odd way to share good news about liberation, but it is standard academic practice to trade copyright for the privilege of being published. The unexamined assumption is that a library will subscribe and set it free--though that freedom extends only to individuals specified in a given license. If you lose your job at a subscribing institution, graduate, or have to drop out because you can't scrape up tuition for the next semester, you're out of luck. It never fails to amaze me that academic authors are content to publish their work under conditions that seem guaranteed to cast them into obscurity, but I digress.)

After translating these ideas into library terms, I came up with these principles for my Liberation Bibliography manifesto:

  • Liberation bibliography is not born of a desire to get more for less or out of frustration that things just aren’t organized as well as they might be. It’s not about saving money, it’s about honoring the empowering nature of knowledge. It's based on a belief that knowledge shouldn’t be a luxury good available only to the few. It is born out of outrage at the injustice built into the present system.
  • Liberation bibliography must be informed by the struggles of communities that are seeking liberation, not just geared toward satisfying the needs of a few academics and librarians who want to improve conditions for our already-privileged communities.
  • Liberation bibliography recognizes that the world can’t be divided cleanly between the scholarly and the ordinary. If knowledge matters, it should matter beyond the boundaries of our campuses and the enclaves of our scholarly societies. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance we could be doing something more meaningful with our time and resources.
  • As librarians and scholars, we must acknowledge that we are implicated in systems that often benefit us, even if we think they are unjust. When librarians agree to nondisclosure agreements, promising to keep the crazy costs we pay for databases secret because we're afraid we'll be punished with higher prices, we are implicated in the system. When we trade access for ownership as a cost saving measure, even when we know we are unable to offer privacy, a necessary condition for intellectual freedom, we are implicated in the system. We need to own up to our responsibility for the important things we have bartered away.
  • Liberation Bibliography takes seriously the slogan, so often inscribed over the doors of older academic buildings, that the truth shall set us free—and that should mean freedom for all of us, not just a select class of academics and currently-enrolled tuition-paying students.
  • Liberation Bibliography recognizes that our libraries don’t merely serve our institutions’ immediate needs, but their higher ideals, those values typically announced in mission statements but neglected in day-to-day practice. As important cultural institutions, we need to resist treating access to knowledge as an exclusive member benefit for our community only, but rather as a fundamental right.

I know this all sounds vague and unrealistic and perhaps a little out of touch with reality. But the growth of the open access movement, slow though it is, makes me hopeful. As Nobel prize-winning economist Eleanor Ostrom wrote, with her co-author Charlotte Hess, “collective action and new institutional design play as large a part in the shaping of scholarly information as do legal restrictions and market forces.”

Though we seem stymied at times by the insatiable economics of publishing and by ever-tightening copyright restrictions, I'm cheered to think we can make change through collective action.

I still have faith.

 

 

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