The Great Disconnect: Scholars Without Libraries

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

I am composing this Babel post without an internet connection, trying to put it together as I airport-hop my way to a conference. It’s a curiously disorienting sensation, trying to write without reference to web content, because these posts tend to be a woven from things I’ve been reading and it feels as wrong to write without linking as it would be write a paper without references. But I’ll give it a try and try to add the links in later, when I return to the connected world. Meanwhile, it’s remarkably apt to be so disconnected as I write about the disconnected scholar.

The Scientist has an article on how journal cancelations are threatening research and that, as libraries everywhere retrench, the crumbling of the network of shared knowledge provided through research libraries poses a serious risk for the progress of science. I’m happy that scientists are noticing, but what seems like a sudden crisis is more easily likened to the Thirty Years’ War, and it has been pretty bleak here in the trenches for a long, long time. Those in the humanities felt the cuts a long time ago, when book purchases shriveled as the cost of science journals soared. (Bitter, me?)

This naming of a threat seemed interesting when read in connection with Steven Bell’s recent ACRLog post, “Underground Resource Sharing,” in which he related the outrage over Netflixgate to a blog post by a scholar who was horrified to discover that once he finished his degree, the library cut him off from JSTOR. (Apparently he thought an alumni association deal would keep the connection open to everything; anyone who has had to negotiate a license agreement to spend over ten thousand dollars to share two seats across the total population of three institutions, each kicking in over 10K for the privilege is now rolling around on the floor laughing so hard it hurts. Or … well, it hurts, anyway.) How was he supposed to get any work done? He reported feeling a “fresh surge of hatred” for his alma mater. (Excuse me, but does this mean everything you publish in future will be open access? Whose fault is it that research findings have to be paid for and fenced off? You’ll find a hint if you look in the mirror.) Comments on his post pointed out that, duh, you just get a friend to send articles to you, or you join a Facebook or FriendFeed group dedicated to swapping articles or just get somebody’s login. Too bad we spent so much on EEBO – apparently everyone has a bootleg login.

The fact is that for many researchers, the marketplace of ideas is essentially a black market, because it’s not feasible to pay up front for every article one might need to examine, not when the articles cost thirty bucks a pop. Doing responsible research means consulting the literature. Consulting the literature used to require having access to a top tier research library, either through employment there or through a library that could facilitate interlibrary loan (and pay for permissions once fair use was used up). Now that research universities are making cuts – whoa, what the hell? This is a crisis.

No. We had a crisis thirty years ago. We told you about it, because we were really worried. Most of you didn’t listen.

You continue to equate prestige with the traditional way of publishing things, and even when you have the option of self-archiving your work to make it accessible to those poor suckers who lost library access, you can’t be arsed (as my English friends would say). This is not a library problem. This is your problem, and throwing more money at it, gratifying though that may be for libraries, won’t fix anything.

Talk about a disconnect. Libraries have tried six ways from Sunday to buy our way out of your indifference to the commodification of your work. It seems the only way you’ll get the message is if you are literally disconnected. When database fees go up for the few remaining libraries that can afford them, sooner or later even the black market will fail.

It’s something to think about during Banned Books Week. That campaign tends to be about threats to intellectual freedom caused by deliberate and targeted challenges against specific books, but it turns out that indifference works pretty well, too.

Originally published on September 30, 2010, in Inside Higher Ed.

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