The Library of Forking Paths

As we move toward open access to research, libraries will still need to help our communities navigate a complicated world of printed material, electronic subscriptions, and openly accessible knowledge.

October 15, 2015

In the late 1990s, we had to produce a strategic plan for our library. At that time, the card catalog had been gone for about ten years, replaced by a command-based electronic one, and then by a web-based catalog. We had some databases and electronic journals, and we knew we’d have more and could tell that the costs were going to rise. We had a website, but there wasn’t much to it, and our resource guides were on paper. In our plan, we were contemplating how we would explain how information works to students as the landscape was in such a state of flux between two worlds: print and electronic.

In the late 2000s, we had to write another strategic plan for the library. While technology wasn’t the focus of the plan, because it was so ubiquitous, we were still figuring out changes in the landscape. We wanted to acquire a platform for digital archives and start an institutional repository. We needed to think ahead to how we would support the creation, preservation, and use of new kinds of information: digital humanities projects, GIS, data sets, and so forth. We needed to get organized to support open access to the record of knowledge.

So we went from two worlds – print and electronic – to three: print, subscription-based electronic resources, and open access scholarship. We wanted to help our community think about why scholarship should be available to all, even though it meant figuring out new publication models and processes for faculty as well as rethinking how we could help students navigate a world of scholarship that would be even more complex than we imagined in the late 1990s.

The good news is that the world has seen enormous progress made on open access to scholarship since we wrote our 2009 plan. Locally, we've made some progress, too. We have a fund to help our faculty publish in journals that rely on author fees as their business model, thanks to the generous support of our faculty development program. Our archivist has digitized a great deal of unique local material and we’ve started an institutional repository to showcase publicly-available research by our faculty; we’ll soon be adding student work. We’ve selected and cataloged open access books and made sure journal content from the Directory of Open Access Journals appears alongside subscription content and, with other liberal arts colleges, we’ve explored the feasibility of starting an open access liberal arts press (about which some news may be forthcoming yet this year). Though we haven’t pushed for a campus-wide open access mandate, library faculty adopted one of our own in May 2009, as we were wrapping up yet another big round of cuts to subscriptions. It seemed appropriate, given the price increases we were seeing.

I’m thinking about these changes since our first strategic plan, realizing that no matter how much progress we make on open access to scholarly research, we are always going to have multiple paths to follow as we trace ideas in the scholarly record. We still buy books, because at this point our community finds printed ones useful and we find the cost and the rights we would have to give up to shift to ebooks unacceptable. We still get some periodicals in print because we can’t afford the higher price of getting them electronically. This is true of Nature and Science, for example – we pay plenty, but we’d pay far more to subscribe electronically. We’re always going to have to pay for the electronic content that is currently owned by corporations. Those copyrights were given away and authors aren’t getting them back. We can hope some scholars will exercise whatever rights they have to self-archive versions of their work, but a lot of it will not be available to the world at large in my lifetime, or in my children's. We’re looking at how we can support new methods of open access publication. Though these are free to readers, they’re not without cost. It makes sense, it seems to me, for libraries to start devoting some of their budget and staff time to supporting these new, more equitable forms of publication even as we will continue to have to pay for content that is behind paywalls. We’ll have to keep paying for that paywalled content for generations because copyright lasts that long.

All of which is to say open access is vital for carrying out the mission of libraries and the institutions they serve. We believe that knowledge is for the public good, not for private gain. It’s time to act on those beliefs and do more to make scholarship accessible to all from here on out. But librarians will have to keep balancing the demands on our budgets and will for the foreseeable future be serving a guides to this garden of forking paths, some of them with tolls and some without.

Next week we’ll celebrate Open Access Week. We also will check in periodicals, catalog books, pay for subscriptions, explore new publishing models, add thing to our institutional repository, and try to explain this complicated world to our students and to each other. Happy trails. 


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