February 17, 2018

Library Privileges (Fees May Apply) | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

There have been many published reactions to the Google Book Search settlement and to Robert Darnton’s intelligent critique of it in the New York Review of Books—so many, it’s hard to find the way out once you head down that rabbit hole. 

But one thing that has struck me isn’t about Google at all. It’s the undercurrent of frustration and hostility toward higher education, academic libraries, and private research libraries like Harvard’s in particular. What right do libraries have, the critics ask, to disapprove of a project that liberates books from the gloomy stacks and provides access to the people, not just the elite who can afford obscenely high tuition and run the gauntlet of highly selective admission?

I started thinking about this as I read a Huffington Post column that was linked from an Academic Newswire article. Dan Agin, who had a few misperceptions about how various players (libraries, rights-holders, publishers, Google) had influenced the settlement, nevertheless posed a valid challenge:

Let’s cut to the chase: The principle [sic] difference between the proposed Google paradigm and the present paradigm is that in the Google paradigm Google will make their digitized library, which will be the largest library in existence, available free to the public via a computer terminal in all public libraries in America, while in the present paradigm, access to private university libraries is restricted to university insiders and outsiders who can pay for it.

Whoa, Dan, what are you saying? Google’s not really free; there are all these strings attached. Libraries, on the other hand, are all about free access and privacy protections; don’t you know that? Still, it’s obvious that we haven’t made this clear to a lot of the citizenry, in words or in actions. And some of the invective I’ve come across in comments at blogs and newspapers is startlingly vitriolic, a populist backlash against academia’s claims.

Practice, meet promise
Perhaps they have reason to be skeptical. Harvard’s site says the Widener library is "open to all individuals who possess a current Harvard ID. Visiting researchers may apply for access at the Privileges Office. Fees may apply." 

In other words, not open to most of us. You can borrow a book from Harvard via interlibrary loan, but be ready to pay: our ILL office uses them as a last resort because they charge far more for the privilege than most of our ILL partners. (Maybe Darnton should have a word with whomever sets those fees.)

So while we can proclaim the virtues of our values, as I do at the drop of a hat, our practices don’t always carry out our promise. Of course, there are reasons for this. We only have so much money, and we have to think of our students and faculty first. There are security issues involved. And why would the library be considered an asset for prospective students if just anybody could use it? I mean, if a community college student starts using a private institution’s library, aren’t they getting a free ride?

Er, but…we’re all about the public good, right? At least that’s the claim we make when we criticize a private corporation for monetizing library collections. We’re superior because we’re not in it for the money. Our materials are there to support research—just not yours. We’re here for our immediate community, and you’re not part of it. Go home to your local library (if you have one—and lots of U.S. citizens live in places that don’t have them) and request our stuff by interlibrary loan (if it’s available; fees may apply).

Libraries as a luxury?
There are exciting exceptions, of course. The HathiTrust is a coalition of libraries pooling digital collections, including books scanned in their libraries by Google, to make access free and available to all. The University of Michigan, a Hathi partner and supporter of the Google settlement, has already digitized a trove of 19th century books and journals and made them freely available. 

The HathiTrust Libraries have also been activists in the Open Access movement. And the libraries at the University of Pennsylvania have teamed up with Kirtas Technologies to scan public domain books on demand, building the university’s open digital collection while patrons have the option of purchasing a print-on-demand copy. The list could go on and on.

Still, you can’t get around the fact that for many people, academic libraries are perceived as a luxury accessory for those who can afford to go to college. Shaking our fingers at those who don’t recognize the dangers of Google’s commodification of culture (something I confess I do regularly) had better take into account the ways our library practices are a product of a similar commodification of American higher education. If we seriously think we serve the common good, we need to examine exactly how we do that in practical ways.

The Academic Newswire article I mentioned above concluded with the very good advice that librarians may "be missing a prime opportunity to engage and educate the public about their libraries." We may also be missing a chance to align our nuts-and-bolts practices with our principles—or at least come clean about our reasons when we can’t pull it off.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

Read more Newswire stories:

In Challenge to ILS Industry, OCLC Extends WorldCat Local To Launch New Library System

Internet Archive Seeks Orphan Works Protection in Google Book Search Settlement

NELINET Merging into Lyrasis, Nebraska Libraries Joining BCR Consortium in Colorado

From the Bell Tower: Waiting for Word on Admissions

Editor’s Note: Never a dull moment for libraries; new columnist weighs in

Academics Shine in LJ‘s 2009 Movers & Shakers

Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want

Ex Libris and BCR join on training; VTLS workshop at repositories conference; Serials Solutions enhances full-text and peer review filters

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