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It’s open access week, and this always is a week when I feel inadequate. I didn’t plan ahead. I didn’t get that project off the ground, or bring in a speaker. We coulda invited a contender! I tell myself it’s a busy time of year, and my cynical self says “yeah? When isn’t it?” and that shuts me right up.

But because I believe in open access, I thought I’d think about the ways small institutions, ones that are understaffed and overworked and underfunded (does this sound familiar?) can make change on a small scale. Here are some things we’ve been working on at the Little College on the Prairie:

Selecting and cataloging open access books. We don’t have a huge demand for ebooks from our community members, and that’s good, because it matches perfectly with our lack of money for them. But I’ve been keeping an eye on the development of open access books. I have personally pitched some spare change at books up for ungluing at Unglue It. It sure felt good when Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa was set free. Now five more are up for liberation, and I made my small contribution toward Lauren Pressley’s So You Want to Be a Librarian, because a lot of our students are thinking about this profession of mine. I have been looking at OAPEN and the Directory of Open Access Books and projects such as the Australian National University Press and Digital Culture Books and have been selecting books for our collection, which our cataloger has patiently added. Where a print version is available, we have included a note inviting library users to request that we add a print copy; if that’s what they prefer, we’re happy to make that purchase, and if it adds some change in the pockets of these public-spirited publishing efforts, it’s all good.

You might wonder why we bother cataloging something that’s free online. Isn’t that as benighted as cataloging websites? I think open monographs are different. They can be hard to find among the search clutter. We still go to the trouble of choosing books, one at a time, that we feel are a good match for our curriculum. Why not do that for ebooks, too? For some libraries, that hand-crafting of a collection is too fussy and inefficient, and they feel their community is better served by letting users choose what they want from a vast sales catalog. We suspect our students actually appreciate having fewer choices to make and value this bit of curation we do. If that’s the case, I want to help them discover books that are open to all using the very same curatorial instincts I use when buying a book. (And now Pew tells us they actually read books! I knew that, but it’s good to have it confirmed.)

Trying out new publishing platforms. There are so many new ways to publish, it’s worth our time to investigate what’s out there, even if we can’t afford really nice hosting solutions offered by companies such as BePress or don’t have the staff to work with open source platforms like the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journals System. I’ve scouted out Anthologize and Annotum and PressBooks, all tools that seem to have potential local application. This summer I worked on an anthology drawn from the tenure and promotion statements of fifteen of our faculty, the greyest of grey literature, amazingly articulate statements about what faculty do and why they do it, but usually read by a small handful of their peers. With their permission I put them together with a very light bit of editing (such as taking out minor things that only another faculty member would recognize and making some of the organizational layout standard) using PressBooks and have made it available through the web, as a PDF, and for ereaders. All of the contributors also agreed with alacrity to a creative commons license, a sign that they understand the benefits of being open. For my part, it was proof that we can do some interesting things without spending anything other than a little of our time.

Finally! Our very own institutional repository. Our archivist is an entrepreneur by nature, and he jumped all over the chance to finally get ContentDM as a platform for digital archives when a grant opportunity came along. He set aside a corner of it to create a place for faculty to share publications. We’re just getting started populating it (and figuring out both the best ways to encourage sharing and make the process as streamlined as possible), but we’ll develop that practical knowledge as we go. The good news is that the faculty who we’ve approached as test pilots were all completely on board and eager to join in. Since I’ve always heard getting buy-in is the biggest challenge, I’m feeling good about scaling this up.

What we talk about when we talk about knowledge. One important way that open access can be unintentionally undermined is if we tell our students “be sure to use the library’s databases. You’ll find better sources, because we spend a lot on that content, and you get what you pay for.” Time for a fact check! We do pay a lot, but we get a lot of junk along with the good stuff. Even good journals publish rubbish from time to time. What we pay for it has absolutely nothing to do with quality. When we teach students that the library is a terrific shopping platform that they get free access to as a member benefit, we aren’t preparing them for life-long learning. We’re reinforcing a number of false premises: that knowledge is stuff somebody out there created, stuff you can acquire if you are among the privileged few, that answers are things you go shopping for, that what anyone can read without paying for it must be, by definition, inferior to our designer goods. We’re trying hard to help students see knowledge as a social act, that when they do research they are joining a conversation, that the point of research isn’t to find the answer, it’s to build a new understanding that involves the student and the people who are speaking to them through the sources they encounter. Apart from these intangibles, I don’t want to build an artificial wall between what we pay for and what is available to all. I want to make it as easy as possible for students to find good sources, whether they are paid for by the library or not - because the future is open. 

Most undergraduates know instinctively that knowledge that isn’t shared is much less useful to the world than knowledge that is. They think the way we subsidize limited-access publishing is nuts. I don’t want to accidentally extinguish their common sense, their sense of the common good, by using careless metaphors.

What are you doing? I would love to hear from other librarians and faculty about how they support open access, even if they are at smallish insitutions. 





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