Not just an Academic question: Why Open Access matters for public libraries

16 January 2013

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on Open Access for a while. The recent tragic death of Aaron Swartz seems like an appropriate time to do so.

I didn’t know a lot about Aaron Swartz before his death. I’d read about him ‘stealing’ millions of JSTOR articles, but hadn’t remembered his name. Now that I’ve read more about him, one thing has become clear: whilst Aaron Swartz will be remembered as a hacker, he should be considered a librarian hero.

Swartz was one of the developers of RSS when he was only 14 years old. He was on the original team that developed the Creative Commons system, and helped develop the Open Library project. In his 26 years he probably did more to help the spread of information than any librarian alive.

The Open Access culture that Swartz championed can all too easily be seen by public librarians as something that doesn’t concern them. Academic journals? That’s for academic libraries, right? Wrong. Every public library I know of is paying for access to some kind of academic journal content. Every public library I know of wants more access to that content. We serve a wide variety of members with a diverse range of needs. Many of them are independent adult learners, who desire access to scientific or other journal articles for any number of reasons. Why should they not have access to them?

For the uninitiated, check out this quick synopsis of how academic publishing works. In essence, publicly funded universities pay academics to perform research and write up the results, then give the resulting research papers to publishers for no charge, and then pay them to access it again. How such an insane system even came to exist remains an intriguing mystery to me.


Open Access matters because it frees up the spread of ideas and knowledge. When a person looking for answers can’t access the information they need because they don’t have a university student card, don’t work in a university and don’t have thousands of dollars to spend, humanity is poorer for it. Public libraries paying for access to publishers and aggregators like EBSCO, Proquest and Elsevier might seem like a reasonable solution - after all, if public libraries pay on behalf of their communities, where’s the problem? The problem is staring you in the face - what happens when your library can’t afford to pay? Do you really believe in the free flow of information? Do you really believe that everyone deserves access to the world’s knowledge? Or is that only for people who live in the right suburb, in the right state, or in the right country? When you decide that it is acceptable that libraries have to pay for access to academic papers, you are deciding that some people simply don’t deserve access. You are deciding to do this to your members:

This problem is so well recognised in academic library circles it has a name - the “Serials Crisis”. Yet public librarians don’t seem to have grasped the gravity of the problem for the wider community. Librarians are fond of defiantly declaring that there is far more information out there than just what you can find on Google. Access to paid journal databases is often touted as one of the great services libraries provide. Is this really the best we can do? We’re relevant because we spend your taxes to give you access (some) scientific papers your taxes paid for in the first place?


Everything you spend money on has two costs - the cost in hard currency, and the opportunity cost. Every dollar you give to an academic publisher or aggregation company is a dollar you can’t spend on something else. So when you pay to give your community access to something that they already paid for to be created, they’re being screwed three times.

When Aaron Swartz set up a server at MIT and downloaded 4 million articles from JSTOR he was accused of theft and threatened with over 35 years in prison. When a person with a terminal illness can’t access the scientific papers outlining new promising research into treatment, they are potentially having years of life stolen from them. When high school students can’t follow the references in a book they are reading, the opportunity of a potential career path is snatched away. When an amateur historian can’t access important historical research papers, their opportunity to recognise new historical evidence in their local area is removed. When companies can’t access the latest renewable energy research, the opportunity to tackle dangerous climate change before it becomes catastrophic is stolen from the whole of humanity. It is academic publishers who are the thieves.

A giant Magic Pudding

Electronic files stored on the Internet are like a giant Magic Pudding. No matter how many slices are eaten, the pudding is still there, whole. The fight to which Aaron Swartz devoted his life, and to which librarians must devote theirs, is about who gets to eat this pudding. Will it be the publishers, a class of organisation whose contribution is often simply deadweight loss? Or will it be the rest of society? Will it be those who desperately cling to an economic model based on scarcity, or those who celebrate the opportunities of abundance?

Open Access means that librarians can finally forget about selection and concentrate on discovery. Imagine what will happen to the those discovery layers you’re excited about when none of them are tied to particular content. Instead of choosing the one that is merely satisfactory but gives access to particular journals, you can choose the one that is excellent at allowing discovery. All that money you’re spending on authentication systems and all those rules about registration are out the window. So it’s not just an Academic question. Open Access matters.

It’s not enough just to wish it to be so. Librarians, including public librarians, must act. We must move from thinking It would be cool if someone made... and start thinking It will be cool when I make... A good place to start would be our own professional organisations. the Australian Library and Information Association, for example, publishes a peer reviewed journal that isn’t even available to its own members without a paid subscription until a whole year after publication, and only becomes open access after a full two years. Meanwhile, the American Library Association’s publishing arm makes chapter authors sign agreements handing over their copyright, including electronic rights, but doesn't include that information on their website. For organisations supposedly championing information access this is a disgraceful and embarrassing situation. While we’re dealing with those situations as Association members, why not check your library’s own publication policies? Are you producing instructional pamphlets or videos? Local history publications? Study guides? If you’re not giving them CC-BY licenses by default, you’re doing it wrong. Once we've got our own house in order, we can stop bitching about commercial publishers screwing us over when it comes to ebooks, and simply take the lead of academic libraries - why not act as a repository for community publications? Sure, some of them will be awful, but server space is very cheap. When you're publishing online you can publish, then filter.

If you’re worried that all of this might mean people don’t need to come to the library, it’s worth considering what librarians are for. The internet abhors a useless middle-man. Collections are there to be used, and your job is to make sure they can be used. That means making information easy to access. It means helping to make it visible. It means assisting people not just to access the information that is available, but to find connections. The future is an exciting place. Let’s go there, but let’s make sure it really is open to everyone.

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