In response to my column a few months ago on ebooks and the demise of ILL, I received a depressing email from an independent scholar noting the numerous obstacles he faces because of the increasing restrictions on access to e-journals and now ebooks. He wrote that he lives near a major public university in the Southeast and has been using the university library for years. Despite being publicly funded (at least as much as any state university is publicly funded these days), the library has restricted access to all the databases only to university affiliates with IDs, which means most of the journals are inaccessible to guests. And with the increasing licensing of ebooks, more and more books are inaccessible as well.
Some might dismiss this complaint. Indeed, the library in question and every library like it must ignore the complaint. I can’t, for several reasons. First, empathy. Between leaving my first graduate program and returning to teach as an adjunct—thus regaining university library access—I spent a year out in the cold as a scholarly type with restricted access to academic libraries. Back then, in the mid-1990s, access to electronic resources was much less important for me than access to physical books. The University of Illinois Main Library allowed state residents to borrow books, but the stacks were closed to all but faculty and grad students (and are still mostly closed to community members). Everyone else had to page books, up to six at a time, which took about a half hour to retrieve. When a lot of study involves reading a bit in one book and following up leads in others, what might be a task of a couple of hours could take all day. One of the reasons I ended up in library school was so that I would always have access to good academic libraries for my own research purposes.
A second reason, and one that the scholar who wrote me argues for, is that if the public is paying money for the universities to purchase this material, then the public should be able to access it somehow. His own solution, that the digital resources should be available via the Internet for the public, is unusual for an academic library but common for public libraries, which often have regional or statewide arrangements for access to various databases. At the very least, access when in the physical space of the library should be available.
I don’t know how common such severe restrictions are, but at least they are not universal. I checked the Rutgers University Library, the closest public research university library to me, and its website specifically mentions publicly available computers for community users. The College of New Jersey, the closest public college to my house, also has several computers available in its library for community members to search databases. I called the library of my alma mater, the University of Alabama, since the Southeast was specifically mentioned in the email, and its library has computers for such purposes. For that matter, so does the University of Illinois Library. All of these restrict access to on-campus users, which increases the opportunity costs of research significantly, but at least there’s something available. Thus, if public university libraries are being so restrictive as to block all community access to their e-journals and databases, it’s not because they absolutely must.
My third reason is more philosophical. The original purpose of the research university is to promote the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, but there’s no reason that the knowledge has to be created just within the confines of the university. A goal of higher education should be to create lifelong learners, but there’s little point in creating lifelong learners if they find the tools of learning inaccessible to them, and academic libraries are the only providers of many of those tools.
I’ll make a comparison with the Boston Public Library, which was intentionally founded as an extension of the public school system. The Trustee’s Report from 1854 states that the school system “imparts, with a noble equality of privilege, a knowledge of the elements of learning to all its children, but it affords them no aid in going beyond the elements. It awakens a taste for reading, but it furnishes to the public nothing to be read. It conducts our young men and women to that point, where they are qualified to acquire from books the various knowledge in the arts and sciences which books contain; but it does nothing to put those books within their reach.”
The same is true of higher education, and plenty of students realize the wealth of information available to them only after they graduate and lose that access. The current trend of some publishers offering alumni access subscription packages recognizes this lack. However, instead of trying to make scholarly information as widely accessible as possible, at least some university libraries are restricting that access as much as possible.
One of the many reasons I support open access scholarship is because scholars aren’t just people in the “ivory tower” devoted to scholarly pursuits. Every thinking and curious person engages in research in some way. Sometimes the research involves topics well covered by freely available information sources, or of just enough interest that minimal information is acceptable. For others, they just want what academics take for granted unless we’ve been out in the scholarly cold ourselves. Access to research-level collections is already restricted if people must physically visit libraries and are excluded from services like ILL. By eliminating access to the ever-growing range of digital content completely, public university libraries are failing the public and failing their mission.