March 18, 2018

The Plight of the Independent Scholar | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne-Bivens-TatumIn 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.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Joshua Beatty says:

    Do private university libraries also have an obligation to open their resources to the wider public?

  2. Sure, ask the one question I was trying to avoid!

    I stuck with public universities and colleges because they’re the ones that receive public funding from their states, although I know that funding is always shrinking. For private IHEs, the case would have to be different. I would argue that they should, and many do. I worked at a private liberal arts college library that allowed community users to come in and use materials. Where I work now, it’s a little different. For a fee, anyone can access the main library. For an even greater fee, people can get borrower’s cards. The argument for access would have to be based more on the mission to promote scholarship or serve the public or something like that, rather than based on public funding, though.

    • Joshua Beatty says:

      Wow, quick response!

      I agree that private university libraries should also open their resources. But I don’t think the case is really all that different. Private universities receive plenty of public money, whether in the form of tax breaks, research grants, or student loans.

      And private universities are embedded in a larger community that includes those who provide essential services that allow the college’s own workers to live nearby — the supermarket workers, the trash collectors, etc. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of any university, private or public, not acknowledging that dependence.

    • I work at a private college in a small town without a public college or university, and we offer public use of our resources. Community members can get a borrower’s card for a small fee, which allows them to borrow not only our books but through OhioLINK as well, which does receive state funding. Additionally, anyone can get on a computer in the library and access the databases and other electronic resources, many of which we get as part of OhioLINK, though we do give students priority use.

    • I worked for many years in a large research university in Canada – where all universities are publicly funded. I frequently got the statement “My tax dollars pay for this place and your salary” argument from members of the community who wanted access to resources that were specifically restricted, by license, to certain users – several legal databases that were available only to law students, some financial databases. There is absolutely no way that the university could have afforded to buy access for everyone. My response was more diplomatically phrased than what I’m going to say now, but basically, I told them (truthfully) that just because they paid taxes did not mean they got unfettered access to all the services or resources offered to students, who paid tuition as well. If they wanted to try that argument, then perhaps they should walk into Revenue Canada’s offices (Canadian tax authority) and demand help filing their taxes, or maybe they could walk to the railroad and demand free travel. People think libraries are so different – but academic libraries are not public libraries. They are established for the use of the students, faculty, and staff. You pay taxes? Great – you get the benefit of an educated populace. You get doctors, not access to the scientific databases. I’m not a complete contrarian on this – my current institution, a large public one in the US, does indeed offer walk-in access to users, and a Friends of the Library membership at a very small cost that allows borrowing of up to 5 books at a time and on-site access to all resources except the one that is prohibited by license. But just because something is tax-supported definitely does not mean everything it offers is free – or should be free – to the public.

  3. Two points that you left out:

    First, off-campus access to library resources is often restricted by university IT, not necessarily the library.

    Second, and more importantly, I think the problem of access is far more often the result of licensing agreements than any concerted effort by library staff. I’d love to make our databases available to any and all community members, but almost every license is either tied to the University IP range or requires a proxy, pushing the access issue back to campus IT. I’m not saying libraries aren’t partially complicit in this; I suppose we could attempt to negotiate for unrestricted community access. But, realistically, it’s hard enough getting access for our own faculty, staff, and students.

    Still, a library that offers not a single reasonable work-around? That’s a serious problem. Here at UTC we have several computers offering full access to our digital collections to any community member. Community members can also purchase guest cards for $50/year which allows them to check-out materials, use our laptops, and more. Yes, these solutions are restricted to the physical space, but, like I said, outside of our walls campus IT has their own reasons.

  4. Joshua, I had to respond quickly. I’d finally gotten my inbox down to zero when your comment came through. That thing had to be dealt with! And I agree that private universities are dependent upon a public context, which is one reason a lot of the libraries provide some sort of access. Although my library doesn’t receive much public funding that I’m aware of, my university receives a lot of federal grant money, for example. I’d also forgotten that actual community members can check out access passes from the public library, which is about 4 blocks from the university library, so they can get free access pretty easily.

    And Lane, IT can be an issue. IT people always want things as locked down as possible. I understand why, but their ethic often conflicts with the library emphasis on openness. I can’t imagine any database providers for universities negotiating for offsite access for community members, although since public library consortia often manage to do that, I wonder if partnerships would be possible that would allow more research access. Since I don’t work at a public university, I don’t know how that would possibly work.

  5. Dennis Warren says:

    Our university library (in Australia) allows guests/walk in users to access ejournals but not ebooks. Apparently it is a licence thing.
    Dennis Warren

    • As academic libraries migrate towards ebooks, if they have such policies they don’t just cut off independent scholars, but because ebooks usually can’t be leant through ILL they also cut themselves off from the larger network of libraries that support their own scholars.

  6. I think licensing has a big part of why eBooks cannot be lent. It’s frustrating as i think it’s just a matter of the vendors learning to let go…they should all see Frozen.

    There are ways to prevent unlimited sharing but denying a loan because vendors/publishers think we will never buy the book is’s being lent and used….yay!

    Especially with more online learning eBooks are the NOW and students should be able to request an ILL eBook for research and there should be some sort of DRM to prevent unlimited sharing once it reaches the patron in the manner that kindle protects it’s book or something like that to integrate the commercial side of the house. There are always those who will try to strip the DRM but that is a smaller number than most.

    Why is this taking so long is the real question.

  7. Catherine Michael says:

    Some indy scholars — and the general public — may be unaware of state funded access to basic online resources. Here is our NOVEny for example that provides access to a broad base of resources: No e-book collections yet, however.