When is the Library Open? How About Now?

An Open Access Week thought: Take that energy expended in fighting journal cancelations and put it somewhere useful - into open access to research.

October 26, 2016

There are two ways to think about the library’s purpose: it’s either there to make information from outside available to a local community or it’s a place where new ideas and understandings are incubated so that they can be shared. These are not mutually exclusive purposes, but they can sometimes be at odds.

An example of the first idea – the library exists to broker access to published information – can be seen in a Change.org petition asking the University of Ottawa libraries to continue to subscribe to over 4,000 journals that it is cutting because the library’s budget hasn’t kept up with increasing subscription costs and the decline in the Canadian dollar. The petition argues that journals are essential for research and that the cost to the university’s reputation is greater than the $1.5 million that will be saved. (Another $400,000 is being cut from the book budget, not included in the petition.) A CBC story on the cancelations quotes biologist and environmental scientist Jules Blais: “people don’t realize what they’re about to lose. They’re about to lose a high-quality library.” Well, to a largely rented library, anyway. To keep paying that rent on 4,000 journals, the cost will rise to more than $1.5 million next year, and the year after that, ad infinitum. Wouldn’t it be great if that money could go toward making this knowledge available to all? But that’s where prestige comes in. Is it exclusivity that makes the library prestigious?  

Blais has done important work on the spread of industrial pollutants in aquatic environments. A number of his articles, I'm pleased to see, are available freely online though it’s always a bit hard to tell from Google Scholar which copies are open access intentionally and which are bootleg copies surfacing online without permission of the copyright holder. But given this research has so much value to the world at large, wouldn’t it make sense for libraries to invest in making research open rather than spending it on local access to rented journal collections at great cost? Though Blais told the CBC “I felt it was very important for people to think about what they were doing before they made these irreversible cuts,” there are indications that the library has thought very carefully about these cuts and has been publicly sharing those thoughts since last July – but it has no choice because it simply doesn’t have the money. That’s part of the problem of the rented library. Every single year you have the potential to lose it – because it’s not yours in the first place.

Reading the petition and the article you would think there is no such thing as an open access movement. That’s a shame because it’s alive and well and that’s where our future lies.

A very different sort of library is sketched out in a new document from MIT, which has just issued a report on the work of an ad hoc committee on the future of research libraries. The library it envisions is so much more than information rented annually for the use of a single community. It’s a place that values its local community and provides a physical space in which to learn and ask questions and make mistakes without anxiety. It’s also a place that works toward creating a “radically open” global platform for the advancement of knowledge. This shift will require both an activist role in shaping the ways knowledge is produced and shared and the R&D work of building shareable tools to enable that work. (A side note: I am definitely going to investigate PubPub, the platform used for this report – thanks, MIT!) An introductory paragraph lays out the vision:

For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research. Enduring global access to knowledge requires sustainable models for ensuring that past and present knowledge is available long into the future. Moreover, access to knowledge must be fluid, interactive, contextualized, participatory, programmable, and comprehensive in order to fully enable citizens and scholars to integrate across disciplines, timescales, geographies, languages, and cultures. The Task Force asserts that the MIT Libraries should be leaders in developing those models, and in advancing more radically open systems for the discovery, use, and stewardship of information and knowledge.

It’s a little exhausting to think of how much work will be involved, but I’m here to tell you that deciding which journals to cut is exhausting, too, and all you have to show for it is a budget that balances for a year or two until the next round of cuts. Read the MIT report and think about the work we do – and whether we want to devote most of our time to shoring up an unsustainable system or creating something new that will benefit all. Or if you're impatient and want to start working on open access right now, check out this website for some practical action steps.

Happy Open Access Week – and here’s hoping that someday all of our weeks will be open.  


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