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Questions of Free Access to Information

February 15, 2013

On Feb. 11, in a post to the ACRL- TechConnect Blog, Kim Bohyun asked a serious question of academic libraries.  Should we be working actively to promote truly free access to information or should we be content with a status quo that limits access to those who can afford it?

This is also the uncomfortable question posed by open access champion, the late Aaron Swartz. Musing on the suicide of Swartz earlier this year, Bohyun speculates on the passing of the Internet as a model of free access to and free exchange of information and wonders if academic librarians have become “too comfortable” with the encroaching Internet censorship and particularly with the licensing e-journals and other resources, especially since this model contradicts the tradition of free access to physical library resources regardless of the user’s affiliation or lack thereof. Granted, Bohyun’s informal survey found that many libraries do provide at least some access to e-resources to walk-ins; but there is no doubting that others do not and that even some Federal Depository Libraries make it difficult for the public to read the free government information placed in their trust.

Bohyun notes the role of tax-supported public libraries in serving the information needs of the general public and the value of digital library initiatives; but I do not think many would contend that either of these gives our society much to cheer about . As long as access to critical information is limited to “authorized users” by licensing agreements, there will be information “haves” and “have nots.” By virtual of our employment, we, of course, will be comfortably in the former category.

Aaron Swartz was clearly not comfortable with this state of affairs. He advocated and committed civil disobedience in pursuit of open access to information. His suicide at age twenty-six came while awaiting trial for the mass downloading of resources from JSTOR. Some of our colleagues have already resorted to the guerilla tactics advocated by Swartz, and many libraries could do more in terms of expanding guest access to their computers and e-resources. There are problems with both approaches. Civil disobedience raises ethical issues, at least if one chooses to take the ALA Code of Ethics seriously. Expanding guest access seems little more than a palliative. Bohyun asserts that we can—somehow—go beyond these alternatives and provide free access to all library resources while accepting that authors and others in the information chain deserve compensation. This brings us back to the issue of “how,” to which I will add another, “how long.” What are your thoughts?

Post By—>James T. Maccaferri

Image Credit: Burton, Gideon. “Open Access: Dawning of a New Day.” 01 Jan 2009. Flickr.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jane Lawless permalink
    March 8, 2013 7:38 pm

    Thank you for this post. I think the phrase that raises the most unanswered question, for me at least, is this one: “…provide free access to all library resources while accepting that authors and others in the information chain deserve compensation”. I wonder: are authors now being compensated for the use of their research/writing? It’s my understanding, in the case of scholarly publishing, that authors are not compensated, but that publishers are; and that the rate at which publishers are compensated has grown quickly ( I don’t have figures for increases in journal prices over the past 10 years, but have seen them). What’s a fair price, and to whom should compensation go? These questions are woven into the open access debate IMO. Along with questions about how we get research into the hands of practitioners who can use it.

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