Unveiling the Deceptive Duo: Inclusive Access and Equitable Access – A Threat to Student Choice and Library Reserves

Academic libraries have a new battle on the horizon: inclusive access and equitable access. These two models are the newest ventures of bookstore vendors to get students to purchase costly textbooks and other course materials. Stealing library jargon to disguise the truth, bookstore vendors are advertising inclusive access and equitable access as being a positive move for universities. These models, however, are far from it.

Inclusive Access

Bookstore vendors market this option as being convenient for faculty and students as students are guaranteed access to course materials on the first day of class. Sounds great, doesn’t it? At first glance, it appears to be truly inclusive; however, this option is deceptive. When faculty choose to use inclusive access, they select their textbook and/or access codes for homework as they normally would. Then, instead of students purchasing these materials on their own, students are billed an additional charge for their tuition to include the cost of the course materials. This means students lose the ability to buy used versus new as well as shop around for their course materials (e.g., Amazon). According to these vendors, they do provide students with an “opt-out” option. The problem with this “opt-out” option is two-fold. One, the ability to “opt-out” is not communicated clearly to students. Bookstore vendors tend to use intimidating language that ultimately prevents students from opting out. Two, if students “opt-out” of an access code needed to complete their homework, they are unable to submit their homework; therefore, they will likely fail the class. How is that inclusive?

Equitable Access

While I had heard of inclusive access, the equitable access model was unbeknownst to me until recently. According to bookstore vendors, equitable access is a model that, like inclusive access, ensures that all students have access to their required course materials on the first day of class. Prior to classes beginning, students would receive a box of all of their needed materials. Again, this sounds great, doesn’t it? The catch is found in how students are billed for these materials. Once faculty make their textbook and course material selections, the university divides the total cost of all faculty-selected items amongst all students. Then, every student is charged the same “textbook cost” fee as part of their tuition and fees. While this may be beneficial to students majoring in subjects such as chemistry or accounting, majors notorious for high textbook costs, this is a huge disservice to majors with historically low textbook costs, such as English or history. This model also takes away the ability for students to shop around for cheaper alternatives to new textbooks and provides zero transparency in how much their materials actually cost. This means that a student who could purchase all of their textbooks used for a total of $30 could instead be charged $600. How is that equitable?

Contract Limitations for Academic Libraries

In addition to the effect inclusive and equitable access models have on students, the contracts to implement them can severely impact and even eliminate libraries’ efforts in providing course reserves and other textbook support to students. For instance, one bookstore vendor’s contract explicitly prohibits libraries from purchasing a copy of a course textbook to place on reserve in the library for students to check out. With the equitable access model, libraries would be completely written out of the textbook equation. If universities began shifting towards these models, my position as an Affordability and Digital Initiatives Librarian, as well as similar positions, would be eliminated, and the major strides made in providing true equitable access to textbooks through academic libraries would come to a halt.

Federal Intervention

The good news is that the Department of Education is aware of and currently discussing these misleading models. As the Biden-Harris administration works towards adopting more open policies, they have turned their focus towards higher education. More specifically, on January 2, 2024, the Department of Education released six issue papers with proposals for more student-friendly policies. One of these papers propose to “eliminate the provision allowing institutions to include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees.” If passed, this proposal would be a huge win for academic libraries.

You can find out more information about the Department of Education’s movement to restrict these models at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2023/program-integrity-and-institutional-quality-session-1-issue-paper-cash-management-final.pdf

Reflecting on Open Access Week as a First-Year Academic Librarian

As an Affordability & Digital Initiatives Librarian, planning, hosting, and executing events and workshops on campus for Open Access Week is an essential part of my position. For those unfamiliar with Open Access Week, Open Access Week is a designated week, typically towards the end of October, to celebrate and spread awareness of the open access movement. This year’s theme was “Community over Commercialization.” I did not incorporate the theme into the programming primarily because I want to center our events around the university’s Affordability Initiative.

Monday

We started the week off with a celebration of affordability and open access on our campus. The purpose of the event was to highlight accomplishments made throughout the past year, such as increased use of Open Educational Resources (OER) and submissions to our Institutional Repository (IR). Next, I hosted a workshop on OER adoption, adaptation, and creation with my new faculty cohort. During the workshop, we discussed the impact OER has on equity as well as resources for finding and creating OER. New faculty were intrigued by OER and expressed interest in exploring what is available in their field. I hosted the same workshop for all faculty in the afternoon. Interestingly, this workshop sparked more of a discussion regarding Creative Commons and self-publishing.

Tuesday

On Tuesday, my colleague and I hosted two launch parties for our new sponsored affordability development opportunities, one in-person and one virtual.  We were promoting the launch of the textbook affordability self-paced course we created on D2L Brightspace (our LMS).  The course was designed for faculty to strengthen their knowledge about the open movement, pathways to open authoring, and research related to textbook affordability and OER.  Additionally, we were promoting our new program in which faculty could apply and receive sponsorship to adopt, adapt, or create OER.

Wednesday

Wednesday was dedicated to the Institutional Repository.  My colleague hosted an event regarding the role of the IR on campus.  He also encouraged faculty to bring their CVs to see how they could contribute to the IR.

Thursday

On Thursday, I hosted a small panel event about the power of self-publishing your expertise.  The panelists were faculty with experience creating OER and had all authored at least one textbook.  The panelist offered great insight into the process of self-publishing in varying disciplines.

Friday

To conclude the week, I hosted affordability and faculty collaboration hours.  These hours give faculty a chance to meet with me directly and discuss where to search for OER, how to navigate Creative Commons, how to make textbook selections for the bookstore, etc.


Reflection

Unfortunately, attendance for almost every event was lower than I had hoped.  Most of the events were held in-person in the library.  Next year, I would try doing more virtual events that could be recorded and sent to those interested.  I also wondered if the time of day was a factor in the low attendance.  We varied the times in hopes of reaching as many people as possible, but the inconsistency in time might have been a deterrent. 

An idea for next year would be to incorporate events or activities for students.  Our library’s student advisory board did hand out snacks to students on Wednesday and told them about our Textbooks on Reserve program and textbook donation drive; however, I think we could do more.  An opportunity to connect with students and amplify their voice on the topic of textbook affordability and open access would be beneficial to our Affordability Initiative.

Lastly, not having experience coordinating a week full of campus events, I was thankful to have the support of the University Library’s Dean’s Office.  They scheduled rooms, ordered refreshments, organized swag (pens, stickers, water bottles, keychains, etc.), and coordinated social media posts throughout the week advertising events, highlighting campus affordability champions, and listing resources to adopt, adapt, and create OER.  I could not have survived the week without their help.

Committing and Recommitting to Open

This semester I’ve had a few opportunities to think and talk through my librarian and pre-librarian work, and especially my commitment to open scholarship and teaching. First I was delighted to welcome the graduate students from across the disciplines who are working with my smart library colleagues to develop OER in our open knowledge fellowship this semester. And a few weeks later I was a guest in the Foundations of Information course which is required for Masters students in Pratt Institute’s School of Information. Funnily enough, I wrote about open access publishing in my very first post on ACRLog back in 2008. Revisiting that post was clarifying — it’s easy to forget what our thinking was and how it might have changed, and I’m retroactively grateful to my past self for documenting my thoughts then.

In talking with the students about my disciplinary background and journey to open I started with an introduction: I’m Chief Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center, and before that was Chief Librarian at NYC College of Technology (City Tech), and before that Head of Instruction at City Tech. Prior to getting my MLIS I worked in digital publishing, in project management and web production jobs. And before that I was an archaeologist and anthropologist, in graduate school and doing fieldwork and contract work in Ireland, New Jersey, and New York City.

In graduate school at New York University in the early 1990s, very little of the research and scholarship I needed access to was digital. I remember spending lots of time subwaying around to other academic libraries in the city and the New York Public Library’s research libraries for journals and books, and lots of time and dimes photocopying (and inhaling copier fumes). While time-consuming, being in NYC meant that I was usually lucky to be able to get access to all of the resources I needed for my coursework and research, and of course the textbooks and coursepacks we were assigned were much less expensive than they are now. Then as now, interlibrary loan was a lifesaver; I’m probably not the only academic to confess to having interlibrary loaned a few out-of-print books that I then photocopied in their entirety, completely oblivious to the copyright implications.

I started working in online media in the latter half of my doctoral program, and my time in publishing made it clear that digital materials were going to be critical to research and scholarship, and also that the transition would be challenging. Thinking back on those positions I’m struck now by how much work, at that time in the late 1990s, it took to figure out how to get the content in our print media published online to our websites as well. And because I was working in commercial publishing there was a lot of concern about how to retain subscribers once our magazine articles were available online.

What I didn’t realize then was what was happening with academic publishing, especially scholarly journals. It wasn’t until I went back to graduate school for my MLIS that I learned about the serials crisis, now a sort of old-fashioned term to describe the continuous price increases by commercial academic journal publishers. And of course commercial textbook publishers have also raised their prices enormously and out of step with inflation. When I look back now, I see that there are a few things that insulated me from this realization during my archaeology degree. One was that NYU (a private institution) and New York City have robust research libraries, for which I’m grateful. But another was the disciplinary conventions of archaeology. I did a lot of citation tracking in my research, and also relied heavily on my advisors’ networks. And realistically there weren’t that many scholars working in medieval Irish zooarchaeology (for example) — if I needed an article by one of them I would ask my advisor or the scholar themselves.

Learning about open access publishing in my MLIS program certainly opened my eyes to the unsustainability and fundamental inequity of scholarly communications. When I started working at City Tech and learned more about our students and CUNY’s public mission to educate “the whole people” of New York City, the imperative for open access publishing (and, a bit later, open educational resources) felt even more urgent to me. I’ve published all of my own scholarship open access, even before I got tenure, and I was vocal about the benefits and quality of open access publishing inside and outside the library at City Tech. My experience as a practitioner and researcher working with CUNY students, including work with my colleague Mariana Regalado of Brooklyn College on how, where, when, and with what tools undergraduates do their academic work, has only strengthened my commitment to open: our scholarship relies on CUNY students’ lived experiences, and should not be locked behind a paywall.

Disciplinary and institutional differences remain a challenge for librarians committed to shifting researchers and educators to open scholarship and curricular materials, though there’s been so much work before and since I’ve been in librarianship. I’m grateful to be joining smart folx at and beyond my institution in this work, and for the chance to speak with students in LIS and other graduate programs about its importance.

“Wait a minute Honey, I’m gonna add it up:” Kanopies, DRM, and the Permanence of the Collection

In my new position at the University of Washington I have a long commute, as one would expect, in a large city like Seattle. On this commute I listen to music and read and on the bus last week I reached for an old Midwestern standby, The Violent Femmes only to find that their first album, Violent Femmes (1983) had been removed from streaming platforms and, despite my purchase of the album electronically, had been removed from iTunes for me to listen to. (Reader, don’t worry many of the songs are available on their greatest hits record, aptly titled, Permanent Record.)

The Violent Femmes performing in 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the last few weeks librarians have been confronted in various ways with the difficulties surrounding streaming and licensed materials. Kanopy, one of the largest and most popular streaming services available for library users, was recently and publicly dropped by the New York Public Library (NYPL). How we found this news out, and how it became well known, was a result of Kanopy sending an email to NYPL users who had registered for the service prior to NYPL’s own statement on the issue. In part, their message explained “The New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Libraries have decided to discontinue Kanopy’s film streaming service to its patrons…Film as a public resource is a critical part of New York’s culture and communities. We have enjoyed furthering the New York City Libraries’ mission of providing open access to knowledge… [emphasis mine].” 

Kanopy's Letter to Patrons
The Kanopy Letter sent to New York Public Library Patrons

Setting aside for a moment the frankly gross overstep of a vendor directly reaching out to library patrons about library budgetary or mission changes, let’s focus in on the language that Kanopy uses to describe their service: public resource and open access. For those of us who work in academic libraries and have dealt with the ongoing difficulties with providing access to streaming media for our communities, and especially those who are aware of Kanopy’s expensive nature, these kinds of words might make us take a pause.

As a cinema librarian I can say that film is an important part of cultural legacy and should be a public resource and that access to film should be part of any library’s collection mission. Yet, for many of us the way we consume and purchase media has dramatically changed in the past decade, as streaming and licensing digital files have become the norm for the majority of consumers. Kanopy fits into this very nicely. It’s interface looks remarkably similar to any other streaming platform, and invites users to click through its offerings like they would for Netflix, Criterion Channel, and Amazon Prime. It’s hidden cost, as we know, only triggers when a user clicks on a film and watches a certain amount of it. For users it seems free; like the offerings from Netflix that despite the monthly cost allows users to peruse and sample any film in the catalog. For the most part this is how streaming platforms like Kanopy have advertised themselves to our users.


I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations.

Over the last year and especially in the wake of NYPL’s decision, I have seen many articles touting and promoting the great new “free” hidden service provided by the library. This article from Entertainment Weekly https://ew.com/movies/2019/01/18/free-streaming-service-kanopy/ emphasizes the accessibility and the free cost as these pillars of why Kanopy is amazing for users. And Kanopy for their part makes a pretty compelling case for this kind of access  CEO Olivia Humphrey states “‘We have such a wide audience,’ says Humphrey. ‘We have people who can’t afford an internet connection that go down to the local public library to watch…. That’s a really important demographic for us, [as much as] cinephiles in L.A. and New York.’ Part of serving that audience is finding what Humphrey calls “content gaps” in other streaming platforms and trying to fill the void” This is something that I think is a really wonderful part of Kanopy, is that it allows access to art and indie film through public libraries but at what cost?

Well…we often don’t know what the cost is. The model is certainly different at Academic institutions but one of the cited figures for public libraries is $2 a watch for each film, and some libraries have limited how often users can watch films a month in order to keep these figures down (
https://www.indiewire.com/2019/06/new-york-public-library-drops-kanopy-netflix-alternative-too-expensive-1202153550/ ) . For Academic institutions, Kanopy, and other services like it, are fairly reminiscent of our licensing agreements with our ebooks, and costs can be astronomical. In a Film Quarterly article critiquing the “freeness” of Kanopy, Chris Cagel, a film historian at Temple University, writes “Instead, Kanopy’s platform drives “patron-driven acquisition” in which three viewings (defined as 30 seconds or more of a title) trigger a library license fee per title. (The figures I’ve seen are $150 for a year, $350 for a 3-year license, though the price might vary or change over time.) (see: https://filmquarterly.org/2019/05/03/kanopy-not-just-like-netflix-and-not-free/ )” These costs can quickly go out of control for many libraries, and the larger the population and the more articles about how this “free service” is provided by libraries, complicate this matter. It leads us to the moment where we are forced to cancel subscriptions because our patrons are using it, rather than how we often weed in our collections based on lack of use or usefulness in a general sense.


…the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations and how we tell that story to our users. Our users will start to feel the loss of licenses when materials start to leave our collections, just as they are starting to see their own digital materials lost in their personal collections. On the same day that Kanopy and NYPL parted ways it was reported that ebooks purchased through the Microsoft Store would be deleted this month from those who had purchased them. https://gizmodo.com/ebooks-purchased-from-microsoft-will-be-deleted-this-mo-1836005672

Digital items with DRM (digital rights management) are never fully owned, instead they are licensed. You can read more about DRM from the grassroots anti-DRM movement Defective By Design. They even wrote an open letter to libraries https://www.defectivebydesign.org/LetterToLibraries. These objects can be locked to prevent sharing of the material to other users and they can be taken away, like the ebooks or like my precious Violent Femmes album. My institution is well off enough to encourage our subject liaisons to purchase ebooks without DRM (which increases the costs substantially), but many public libraries or smaller academic libraries cannot afford to pay an extra $150 to make sure digital items are the community’s to keep. But the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

In my own life I have begun collecting materials for myself in non-digital form. This means that I have spent money buying twenty-year-old video games, hard to find DVDs, and vinyl because I am aware of the tenuous grip that we have on our digital files and media. It is essential that libraries work to make our communities aware of the restrictions and the fugitive nature of digital licensed materials and platforms and work with our users to ensure their needs are met in this changing time. NYPL for their part explained their decision to move away from Kanopy stating that “The Library made this decision after a careful and thorough examination of its streaming offerings and priorities. We believe the cost of Kanopy makes it unsustainable for the Library, and that our resources are better utilized purchasing more in-demand collections such as books and e-books (https://www.nypl.org/press/press-release/june-24-2019/statement-about-kanopy

For a city of 8 million people, Kanopy was perhaps unsustainable, but NYPL is also making a point about how they see their collections growing and that is in books and ebooks. For libraries providing for the public good means making these kinds of decisions, and we need helpful partnerships with our vendors to provide this access. While I do not know what was going on in the minds of the directors of NYPL, it sure does not seem like the library system was wanting to wage this battle in the open prior to Kanopy’s patron email. Yet, this has become a moment where librarians can have conversations with patrons about the costs and limitations of streaming and digital materials. I, for one, have received several messages from my faculty colleagues about how the NYPL decision impacts us at the University of Washington, and I tell them that while it won’t change the way we interact with Kanopy (that decision was made long before I came here) but that this is an important teaching moment in our current climate. While the vendor spurred this conversation, I believe that libraries can have an important voice to share in this new media age.

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.