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A Modest Proposal Inspired by Aaron Swartz
July 28, 2011 - 4:30pm


I don’t know what Aaron Swartz planned to do with the four million or so articles that he downloaded from JSTOR in violation of their terms of use, but it has made me wonder something: what would it cost for academic institutions to band together to buy the most used portion of JSTOR and set it free?


Okay, it’s a crazy idea, but humor me for a minute. Most libraries that are in a position to pay the big down payment that libraries have to scrape up to join JSTOR have probably already done so. I am not sure there’s much of a market left to tap into, except perhaps libraries like mine that can only afford a few of the packages JSTOR offers. But let’s say we focused on the most commonly-held core journals that most academic libraries have already invested in. What would it take for a consortium of library to ransom its freedom?


Publishers, of course, would likely put the kibbosh on any such experiment. It was hard to get them on board with digitization in the first place, even with the ability to set the time limit for the “moving wall” – a delay that would protect their current subscription base. Now they are likely to see the archives as a financial asset that would immediately lose its value if it were free.


But how much more valuable would that research be if it were available to all? What do we lose by choosing obscurity over access? Would we be willing – faculty and librarians who have invested in JSTOR and enjoy access to it – to put some money toward a resource that our students could keep using even after they graduate?


It seems peculiar to me that we work so hard to persuade students that the kind of analysis scholars do is worthwhile, then cut off their access to it as soon as they complete their degree. In the days when libraries consisted of physical volumes that could only be in one place at once, it was inevitable that students had to leave the library behind, but now that we have to take steps to exclude them, it seems counterintuitive to cut them off.

If it mean your library had to reallocate some funds and forgo a couple of pricey journal subscriptions to to pay for non-affiliated people to have access to JSTOR, would you consider it worth doing? Or to put it another way - just how serious are we about this "lifelong learning" thing that tends to sneak into our mission statements?


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