February 16, 2018

Intellectual Freedom and Open Access | ALA Annual 2017

While intellectual freedom and open access (OA) are two ideals widely held and strongly advocated for across all disciplines of librarianship, each touches on different values. The panel “Intellectual Freedom and Open Access; Working Toward a Common Goal?” at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Chicago, sponsored by ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table, invited three librarians from different sectors to weigh in on where and how the two principles overlap, and how they can support each other. Marguerite Avery, senior acquisitions editor at Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX; April Hathcock, scholarly communications librarian at New York University; and James LaRue, director of Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation and former director of Douglas County Libraries, CO, offered a diversity of viewpoints and some common goals.

On the surface, intellectual freedom and open access feel similar—both advocate for increased access to information. Yet they are also distinct, LaRue pointed out: there is a difference between advocating for access and resisting systems of censorship.

Increasingly, however, widespread systems of economic barriers to content pose threats to both ideals. Particularly when it comes to electronic resources—from academia’s reliance on “Big Deal” bundling to inconsistent pricing models for public libraries offered by the “Big Five” publishers—the current system isn’t sustainable, stated LaRue. In both instances, libraries are tied to business models that can serve to restrict their ownership of—and access to—resources.


LaRue’s answer is a call to arms for libraries to manage their own content, build their own platforms, and shift the distribution system to a more equitable model. Under his leadership, Douglas County Libraries built its own ebook distribution platform in 2011, allowing it to work directly with authors and publishers, and he urged librarians to think in similarly outside-the-box ways. “We can rail against the censors, we can rail against the economic system,” he said, “or we can do something about it.”

As both an academic librarian and a lawyer, Hathcock is accustomed to discussing the ways that OA can help open up access to intellectual freedom. But it’s important to view OA as a potential solution rather than a panacea, she cautioned—and critical to take a close look at the systemic reasons that people don’t have access to information. Racism, sexism, class or ability discrimination all play a major role in the question of who has access and who doesn’t. “When I think of ways open access can enable intellectual freedom,” said Hathcock, “I think about who’s not at the table, and how we can enable them.”

Much of the conversation around intellectual freedom, she added, centers around those who are already well-represented, such as alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Rather, Hathcock said, we should be thinking about who’s missing, and why, “so we can have a more complete conversation.”

In order to frame issues of intellectual freedom through the lens of OA, said Avery—who served as executive editor at Amherst College Press from 2015–17 and senior acquisitions editor at MIT Press for ten years prior to that, and is a member of the Digital Public Library of America’s Content and Scope group—publishing models need to shift as well. The academic publishing system looks “remarkably similar” to the way it did when it was created more than 300 years ago, she noted.

At a time when users are inundated with ever more fake news and the unreliable products of predatory publishers, Avery asked, “How can we maintain a system of authority in publishing while opening it up?” Potential answers are complicated; journals should ideally be subsidized by universities as part of the academic enterprise, but the majority have been outsourced to for-profit companies—and now there are publishers making money off of OA journals as well. She sees a disconnect between stated and actual values in the industry when it comes to both OA and intellectual freedom, adding, “There are a lot of moving parts in this conversation.”

All panelists concurred that the current socioeconomics of publishing tend to reward those already in the system. “We can try to get more perspectives,” said Hathcock, “but when we have to look at it through the market, that makes emerging disciplines and voices really difficult to make a case for publishers to publish”—and, she says, those are the knowledge sources libraries need most.

And libraries can find themselves among the disenfranchised as well. “For long time we thought of librarians as those who fought for people on wrong side of digital divide,” noted LaRue. But when libraries cannot afford to purchase access to what their communities need and want, he said, “Now we’re on the wrong side.”


Platforms need to change, but modes of thinking about intellectual freedom and OA issues are also due for an overhaul, the speakers agreed. Ultimately “this is a human labor problem,” said Avery, “not a technological one.”

Libraries can influence publishers, said Hathcock. We are their customers, she noted, and can put pressure on them to begin to change their values. But librarians need to change their own values about what they want to see reflected in the industry—are the materials we hold and display reflective of our communities?

That kind of change is not sustainable from just one library at a time, added LaRue. Librarians need to join forces to help connect new streams of content—from organizations, such as ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services and Our Voices initiative as well as independent and self-publishers. “We are shifting from noisy customers to entrepreneurial librarians,” he said.

Hathcock pointed to a recent project out of Boston’s Northeastern University funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) called Design for Diversity. The project incorporates a series of public events inviting librarians, archivists, museum specialists, and other cultural heritage practitioners to contribute to a teaching and learning toolkit to support professional development and look at ways to make information systems more inclusive and representative.

The change is slow, but it can happen, all three said. As more librarians offer OA resources first when approached with reference questions, as more projects launch using OA models, as more information literacy specialists use open and equitable sources, and as more citizens are empowered to speak up for the information they want to see, both intellectual freedom and OA can slowly shift from the values libraries fight for to the cultural norm.

And how to accomplish that? “It’s so simple,” said LaRue.” You spend the rest of your life fighting for it.”



Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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