What with the Elsevier boycott (now closing in on 12,000 signatures) and this week’s White House “We the People” petition to make federally-funded research public (which, as I write this, has surged past the halfway point), it feels as if we’re making serious progress toward open access. What has changed is that many scientists and scholars are finally saying “this is a crazy way to do things; we can do better. We need scholarship to be more open, more shared, more public.” As Winston Hide wrote in the Guardian about his decision to resign as associate editor of the Elsevier journal Genomics, “I can no longer work for a system that puts profits over access to research.”
My first exposure to what was then called the “serials crisis” was in 1980 or 1981, when I did a library school project and ended up talking to the head of collection development at the University of Texas Libraries. At that time, oil money was filling the university’s coffers; it was so plentiful that tuition cost all of $8.50 per credit hour. Even so, the university library was realizing that journal price increases were unsustainable. Three decades and an Internet later, the fact that no library can provide access to all knowledge no matter how much money we spend is finally getting through to those who create the stuff.
This isn’t a serials crisis; it’s a knowledge crisis – and an opportunity for change.
Learning to join the conversation
This has been on my mind as our seniors prepare for graduation and we looked at the results of our student learning assessments for the year. To see how well we are preparing our graduates, we looked at surveys from upper-level courses that had library sessions, and also collected senior seminar papers that we scored with a rubric, examining not just what sources students listed in their bibliographies, but also how they used those sources. Were they able to weave others’ ideas together with their own? Did they seem to be participating in a conversation with other scholars, rather than merely hunting and gathering?
Our seniors, it seems, are pretty sophisticated about selecting high quality sources. They have picked up on how quality is defined in their major fields. Many of them showed they are able to trace the influence of a publication backward and forward through the citation network. But we still have work to do. They are more able to select solid scholarly sources than to choose the best popular sources for news or commentary. Evidently, we have done a better job of training them to be selective readers of scholarship than of the more mundane modes of communication that most of us encounter daily, which has some interesting information literacy implications.
There also appears to be an expectation among at least some of our seniors that sources are mostly used to prove something. They are frustrated when sources fail to provide definitive answers – though that, of course, is not at all how experienced scholars use sources. These students’ professors are much more interested in the questions that haven’t been answered yet.
Still, though we discovered there are areas we need to work on, we were pretty happy with the learning our seniors did by the time they were ready to leave campus and move on.
Does information literacy matter?
Though some of these seniors are heading off to graduate school, many are not, and I always wonder how those others will apply what they learned through four years of exposure to an academic library and the discipline of research. I believe that the kind of inquiry we encourage matters, that this aspect of a liberal education has the potential to be liberating. Our graduates should be able to seek information, think independently, question authority, and join the conversations through which we discover new things, settle disputes, and solve problems so that our weary, damaged world will be a little bit better.
Libraries were invented for the purpose of sharing knowledge. Knowledge no longer needs to be stored on shelve in libraries to be shared. Yet somewhere along the line, we agreed to curtail sharing and define access in a parochial, stingy way, access that leaves our graduates out.
But that may finally be changing. If we academic librarians think information literacy is important, we need to do whatever we can to make knowledge more universally shared, not something that we only share with our immediate community. Because that world out there is where our graduates live.
Which reminds me . . . have you signed the petition yet?