The Age of Big Access

This month marks the second in our new series of guest posts from academic librarians around the biblioblogosphere. October’s post is from Iris Jastram, the Reference & Instruction Librarian for Languages and Literature at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She also blogs at Pegasus Librarian.

While we were all busy wondering what it means to be a librarian in the Age of Google, we got flanked. This is not the Age of Google after all. That was just a distraction — a clever and dazzling light show. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, a totally different age was gathering itself: The Age of Big Access.

We saw and were outraged by Elsevier’s extortionist tactics. You know the story: our scholarly communities can’t function without these journals. We needed to provide access, Elsevier knows we needed to provide access, and so we have no leverage. The part of our librarianly DNA that is hardwired to provide access and further scholarly pursuits kicks in and overrides everything else.

We saw and were outraged by OCLC’s revised Use and Transfer guidelines. Sure, we could decide not to hand the record over to OCLC, but then the other systems that we really do need (such as ILL) wouldn’t work as well. We couldn’t lend our items, which means we couldn’t build up credits, which means that we couldn’t afford to borrow as much. Our scholarly community would suffer. We need to provide access, OCLC knows we need to provide access, and so we have no leverage. That librarianly DNA kicks in again.

We saw and were outraged by EBSCO’s increasing holdings of exclusive rights to periodicals, often offered through increasingly obscure EBSCO aggregators. But we need to provide access, the journals know it, they contract with EBSCO to get as much out of EBSCO as they can, we have no leverage. That blasted librarianly DNA keeps kicking in.

We saw and were outraged by Nature Publishing Group’s price hikes, made public by the University of California system when that system announced a boycott (PDF) of all of Nature’s periodicals and Nature-related activities. How dare Nature sell our own work back to us at such a price, we asked. Because we need to provide access to these things, Nature knows it, and so we have no leverage. Is there any way to amputate DNA?

We saw and were outraged by OCLC yet again when a lawsuit reminded us just how often we have no choice of vendor now that OCLC controls our cataloging, ILL, and to a lesser but growing extent, our catalogs. Apparently librarianly DNA loves these parasitic relationships around providing access.

And weren’t we just talking about how we’re no longer gatekeepers now that there’s so much free information out there? What about information overload and result fatigue? Have we wondered and worried about our futures so long that the future got written by big corporations in the business of selling us access, and selling it to us again, and then selling it to us again?

As usual, Barbara Fister is way ahead of me with her Liberation Bibliography manifesto. But what about me? I don’t have an activist bone in my body, but surely recognizing that I’m living the wrong future must have some effect. Surely there’s a place for instruction librarians in this alternate future.

I was pretty comfortable with my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Google. I’m totally at sea trying to figure out my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Big Access.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

12 thoughts on “The Age of Big Access”

  1. I totally love this post (even though it links to my article so I should maybe hold back on saying how much I LOVE it. This is a huge question for our teaching programs. One reason we’re in this predicament is that we only teach grad students how the system works, not how it’s broken, so they graduate and get angry when they lose database access. What to do? We want them to succeed, and we want them to use our resources, and that sometimes makes us all enablers of an unsustainable situation.

  2. I, too, love this piece because it so clearly articulates how all of us librarians — notwithstanding our unimpeachable motives — are complicit in the mess we find ourselves in right now.

    I’ll repeat (and expand a little) here what I’ve said elsewhere: As an instruction librarian in the Age of Google, I pretty much figured that if I could get (undergraduate) students to view the librarians as helpful and approachable, and convince them to come to us when they run into roadblocks in their research (because we know they don’t), then that’s an accomplishment. Anything beyond that — which essentially encompasses the entire ACRL Standards — is gravy.

    As an instruction librarian in the Age of Big Access, I figure that if I can get (undergraduate) students to realize that, hey, money changes hands here, and not always in ways that benefit them or the Advancement of Scholarship, then that’s an accomplishment. Anything beyond that — including the entire edifice of scholarly publication, the tenure rat-race, the Big Deal, open access, and the rest of it — is gravy.

    Now, what graduate students should be expected to know (and, more importantly, do) is a whole separate issue, but thankfully that’s one I don’t have to deal with directly on a day-to-day basis.

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