April 23, 2018

Times Revises Free Access Offer After Librarians Raise Questions

By LJ Staff

After librarians raised questions, the New York Times recently revised its offer to give students free access to archived articles in TimesSelect, instead limiting it to those institutions that already subscribe to databases that carry the Times, such as ProQuest or Lexis-Nexis. "The issue is that we have limited resources," explains Barbara Fister, librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, MN. "We can’t afford to buy a boutique version of something that’s available in a clunky-but-free version when there are so many other things we should buy that aren’t available except through purchase or subscription."

Fister said she called ProQuest after the deal was announced and found their representatives were surprised to learn of the Times offer. "All I wanted from ProQuest was to find out what they planned to do, if anything, for libraries that had paid a lot for something that we frankly wouldn’t have bought if the contents were going to be free," said Fister. The Times response to rescind the offer was unfortunate, she conceded, as some critics – even some fellow librarians – blamed librarians for spoiling a deal that would benefit students at colleges that "can’t afford" a database.

However, if librarians hadn’t raised the issue explicitly, the database companies likely would have done so sooner or later, with the same result, Fister suggested. She added that the Times response to revise the offer reminded her of the company’s handling of the Tasini case, in which the courts ruled that the Times must either pay freelance writers whose work they were selling online without contracts, or remove the articles from their database. The Times argued that pulling the articles would harm the digital historic record, she noted, "but did the Times [pay the writers]?" Fister asks. "No, they yanked tens of thousands of articles from online databases."

"I don’t blame people for being confused and even angry at me, though I’d rather they’d blame me and not librarians in general," she told LJ. "It did seem as if I was complaining the Times was making something free, and that I wanted an exclusive for my money. That isn’t what I meant at all. I would love for it to be free for your students, my students, and, in fact, for everyone."