Open Access – do you really think it’s a good idea?

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I seem to have developed the habit of starting off with questions, but I think that only reflects – or perhaps even highlights – the areas about which I need to know more, or that I have not yet formed a view or understanding that is satisfactory or complete.

Open Access.  This is increasingly a phrase that is associated with ‘digital libraries‘, as much as it is with ‘Google ebooks’ and ‘scholarly communication’.  One understanding is that the results of all publicly funded – i.e. tax-funded – research should be made available freely to all.  This is considered to be a more equitable model than relying on for-profit scholarly journals to publish such materials, where neither the author, nor reviewers, nor author’s employer, nor research funder, receive any portion of the monies that are made by selling subscriptions to such journals.  Is this truly fair?  Doesn’t this mean that wealthier research institutions or nations are supporting those less privileged?  Possibly.  But what’s wrong with that?  Let us never forget that ideas or information cannot change hands like entities: they are more like phenomena in which sharing or exchanging enriches both giver and receiver.  Ideas multiply as they spread, not only proliferating but stimulating new conversations and insights.

There are more serious problems, however.  Now that we are aware that much research is culturally mediated, this would suggest that what is chosen for study, and how entities and phenomena are studied and reported, and how these results are disseminated, may all be governed by some or other hegemonic cultural code.  We would be foolish to think that ‘scientific research’ is, or can ever be, free of such biases.  Thus it would follow that the cultural expressions of scientific knowledge which are created and produced by specific cultural communities would differ, and those which are most prolific would dominate.  Ironically, as has been well documented, these communities would most commonly be found in Minority World (‘developed’) countries, who publish predominantly in English.  The knowledges of the Majority World remain, to all intents and purposes, more or less invisible, particularly in the formal research arenas.  In order to succeed, scholars from the Majority World follow Minority World traditions and mores in order to receive appropriate recognition and respect.

Another problem has come to light with the possibility that ‘Open Access’ may be a snare and a delusion.  There have now been several court cases regarding copyright issues and Google’s proposed digitisation of the library collections of many major academic libraries.  As this constitutes new legal territory which changes as the technologies change, I daresay we have not seen the end of this saga.  But there are three problems that must be resolved in such a case: firstly, will a company or companies (any company, not specifically Google or its relations and descendants) ‘own’ access to all such intellectual properties (even when they are out of copyright) simply through the access mechanisms – the digitisation protocols employed when digitising these works?  Secondly, if access is not dependent on Google’s goodwill (or payment to Google), much existing access to GoogleBooks is only possible if you are a member of the holding library’s community.  So, for example, if you are not a student or staff member of, say, Yale, you cannot digitally read in full all of the works held by the Yale University Library which Google may have already digitised.  Lastly, what will happen to such digitised collections over time?  Will Google continue to update and migrate the data as technologies change?  What if Google, as a company, ceases to exist?  I must say, at this stage it does appear rather unlikely – Google is apparently now entering the travel industry as well – but we know that empires come and empires go, and Google will probably not last nearly as long as the Roman Empire.

Another point that must be made is this: ‘Open Access’ is, to all intents and purposes, a term that can only be used in the digital environment, partly because it is so extraordinarily cheap and easy to transmit and store digital data.  In other words, if you do not have a computer, an internet connection, and a robust download allowance, you remain even more on the back foot.

Many of the decisions regarding Open Access seem to be being taken by people other than librarians (in particular), who have long wrestled with precisely the problems that Open Access once again raises.  Publishers, scholars, tertiary educational establishments, charities, technologists – all of these and more are interested in the phenomenon, but I would like to know to what extent libraries have been consulted (rather than the comments that we make to each other).  Robert Darnton recently suggested a ‘Digital Public Library‘ for the United States of America, and the discussion list on this topic has made it abundantly clear that all of these concepts are unclear and up for grabs:  What exactly do we mean when we say ‘digital’ or ‘public’ or library’ – or ‘document’ or ‘access’ or, indeed, anything else that we thought we had known?

See also: Digital Koans:

Implementing time travel for the Web

Dipping a toe in digital librarianship

Everybody’s libraries

Study queries open access benefits

Collaboration can be fun

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If we knew what it was, why it was necessary and how it could work.

I have long contended that recognition of what is similar amongst the information professionals is more useful – and perhaps more logical – than focusing on what is different.  At the same time, I recognise that clarifying and protecting professional territory is important for a number of reasons, and I also realise that there are differences in approaches to information problems and in the ways in which these may be dealt with.  But these differences, to my mind, provide as strong a motivation for collaboration as the similarities, as they form the basis for synergestic relationships.

Boyd Rayward mentioned in 1994 that , “Over the past 20 or 30 years… there has been growing awareness that what has been accepted as separating these professions may no longer be relevant and may have become dysfunctional” (Rayward, 1994, p. 163).  The areas of commonality exceed those that separate.  For example, we can all recognise that all kinds of information professionals are engaged with users, organisations, information technologies, products and services.  They are all concerned with the origination, collection, organisation, storage, retrieval, interpretation, transmission, transformation and utilisation of information, as contained in documents of some kind.  Moreover, they are all concerned with the information contained by the documents, whatever this might be.  These similarities exist even though one community (for example, records managers) may privilege certain attributes or characteristics of a document (e.g. its potential for complying with evidentiality requirements) over others (such as popularity).

A cross-sectoral competency analysis undertaken by Gendron (1998) provided a clear picture of the work elements involved in information work in archives, libraries and records management, which exposed a common profile.  However dissimilar they may superficially appear to be, they still perform many similar functions, although the emphasis on one or the other might vary: identifying information needs; understanding how individuals search for and use information identified as being valuable to them; identifying and making accessible the documents which provide such information, by describing the documents; protecting information, both physically and virtually, and preserving the documents (and their information) that are believed to have long-term historical or social value.

Some time ago (2005), I drew up this list of the tasks of information work.  You may be aware of some that have been inadvertently omitted: if so, please feel free to add them.

1. Alignment of provision of information with the goals and objectives of the organisation or community or wider society;

2. Identification of information and documents that might be used and must be managed (this might even involve asking people who have knowledge to record some of this, as information, in documents in order to transcend spatio-temporal constraints – for example in knowledge management projects);

3. Collecting the documents – whether physically or virtually (through links or databases);

4. Ensuring the integrity and ‘value’ (whatever that may mean within a particular context) of documents;

5. Describing the documents in order to organise them whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

6. Providing access to documents – whether physically or virtually – classification and coding, subject indexing, construction and use of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and indexing by names, places, and events, documentation of artefacts, both for management purposes and as a resource for scholarship, database design and data structures;

7. Preventing access to documents – whether physically or virtually;

8. Storing and preserving documents – whether physically or virtually;

9. Information audits and reviews of document and artefact collections, discarding those that have no continuing value, and discerning, describing, arranging and protecting documents and artefacts that have exceptional qualities and perceived long-term value;

10.  Management of all these activities.

The information professions, therefore, whether they are aware of it or not, share a number of issues of concern, such as uniform metadata, information retrieval, intellectual property, and intellectual capital, ethics, digital document management and preservation, the nature of information, organisational management, database structure and use, systems analysis, user needs and behaviour, legal influences, information resources, evaluating information and professional education.  The boundaries between the subdisciplines are shown to be quite permeable, as themes, issues, topics and research run across all the major professional journals in each field, in spite of the apparently different discourses and methodologies shown by each.

Unfortunately for all of us, instead of collaboration, and spaces in which we can share our different ‘takes’ on these issues, we have diversified and become increasingly fragmented, instead.  This fragmentation is expressed in various ways: in nomenclature (knowledge engineers, strategic information managers, digital adventurers, information analysts, literacy enablers – just about anything is possible); it is expressed in the diversity of professional associations that an information professional can join (and I will leave you to fill in the missing words here); it is also expressed in the variety of terminology that is used to describe the same entity or phenomenon, in different fields.  For example, ‘information’ is ‘data’ for some, but ‘knowledge’ for others; the ‘user’ is the user of a library, a facility, a machine, a document or perhaps even a piece of evidence; ‘literacy’ may mean the ability to read and write, or to navigate through multi- and transmedia.  In some information work practices, the document itself is more important than the information it might contain; in other areas, the ‘document’ as such barely exists, except as a string of bits and bytes.

The increasing sophistication of information users (and that, really, means everybody on the planet to a greater or lesser extent) and of information and communication technologies seem to indicate, however, that a cooperative, multiparty assembly of information professionals, who can share and participate using their assorted and unique skills to tackle society’s information problems, may be the most successful way to go, in the long run.  Val Turchin has suggested such a model, which he calls the ‘metasystem transition‘ model (or MST).  In this model, various ‘parts’ or ‘components’ or ‘subsystems’ recognise their similarities – in both processes and goals – and identify as belonging to the same conceptual territory.  MST can be thought of as the reverse of the ‘general to specific’ processes that we engage in when constructing hierarchies.  Instead of thinking ‘trees’ – ‘evergreen trees’ – ‘citrus trees’ – ‘orange trees‘ – ‘blood orange trees’, the ‘orange trees’ are recognised as having something in common (or, indeed, several things in common) and eventually end up recognising the ‘meta’ or general or holistic group to which they belong.

Increasing fragmentation seems to me to be the way to disintergration and final destruction, which means that the work that we undertake,  the ways in which we do it, the purposes for which this work is performed, will be destroyed.

Society needs to teach digital systems how to forget, author says – Technology & Science – CBC News

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A slightly different approach

What’s the point?

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There is no question that there is a surging urge to digitise. But what inspires this? What is the point of all this activity? There are a number of conversation strands to this topic, and I look at some of them here.  It is likely there are more, and others.  What does emerge is that there are professional, philosophical, economic and possibly even cultural differences in approach to digitisation, and these are by no means consistent or consensual. In fact, some of the drivers for digitisation seem to be using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

1. The first and perhaps most obvious inspiration for the digitisation of the world’s documents and cultural artefacts finds its origin in the zeitgeist of the so-called information society: a zeitgeist, may it be said, which by now is surely rather old and tawdry, and exposed for the misconceived delusion that it is. We now know that all societies have always been ‘information societies’; that we by and large agree with Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells that the concept of the ‘information society’ is in fact but another stage of the capitalist industrial society, which encourages consumerism. We are aware that the notion of ‘globalisation’, in the way it is enacted by multinationals to exploit the poor and disadvantaged in favour of the rich, has some serious ethical questions to answer. We can also, quite quickly, dismiss the idea that technologies, in and of themselves, can create change or increase social development: it is the USE of them, and the PURPOSES for which they are used that will make the desired differences in the lives of individuals, communities and societies. This purpose, from the point of view of information professionals, is to assist in the communication of information (or ideas) between people. Alas: at the same time, there seems to be a parallel desire to keep populations ignorant or misinformed, at least by certain regimes: information flows are suppressed.

2. A second driver for digitisation is certainly economic. This has two aspects: firstly, digitisation and increasing use of information and communication techologies (ICTs) seems to be understood to be the way to create new jobs, new possibilities to make money and perhaps even fortunes. This aspiration was dashed at least once, with the bust in the 1990s: the only people who seem to be making money now are those who are selling the equipment – which needs to be constantly updated and replaced – and the software – although possibilities here seem to be limited with the increased availability of free software and, more importantly, Open Source coding systems. Some online endeavours are financially valued in strange ways, too, which are perhaps difficult to understand. The billions of dollars that Facebook is allegedly worth is, to my mind, a strange phenomenon. But there are still seemingly unlimited opportunities for online merchandising, marketing and retailing, and consultants in social networking marketing seem to be thriving.

The other side of the economic or financial aspect is the possibility for saving money and cost-cutting. This applies not only to the vending of virtual objects such as ebooks or online services (website hosting, for example), which cost little to store and maintain. The replacement of libraries by the internet seems to be a very real possibility for many governments dealing with the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC – which always, for some reason, reminds me of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – BFG). David Cameron‘s present regime in the UK is a good example of this: it extends to replacing large numbers of public servants whose work can, apparently, also be done by citizens using the internet. ICTs continue to be deified as saviours of the world, if one is to believe the rhetoric that is expressed in many government documents, particularly perhaps some of those emanating for the iEurope European Union’s digital economy initiatives.

3.  Digitisation of documents does, however, open doors that were previously firmly shut. The Open Educational Resources University  ( campaign being led, to all intents and purposes, by Wayne Mackintosh, is a prime example of this. It uses the best characteristics of the ‘information society’ , such as globalisation, to reach scholars and teachers all over the world, in order to create and distribute university learning materials to those who live all over the world – not just in the rich parts – so that they will have access to tertiary education. Surely this is the only way forward, in this dimension? I have mentioned Open Source software; there is also an increased movement towards access to ideas that is possible in a digitised, virtual, networked, information environment: Open Access. This is particularly useful for the dissemination of scholarly information, as well as those documents that are required to support other roles in society, not forgetting entertainment. All of these possibilities, combined with the increasing mobility of ICT devices (smaller and cheaper) and wireless access, may perhaps lead to significant improvements in people’s lives. Some even say that ICTs facilitated the recent political changes we have seen in North Africa.

4. We cannot rule out the possibility that digitisation is also being stimulated by technological determinism. “Oooh! I want to build a twaddler! It’s new! It’s big! It’s shiny!” But what can it be used for? Does it help me? Will it last for ever? Do we need one?  Rather cynically, there does appear to be some of this in a few digitisation initiatives, which have lasted for only as long as the funding has been around – and there doesn’t appear to have been enough reason or purpose to continue the funding. While, for many reasons, I endorse and support – and am enthusiastic about – the purposes to which the digitisation of cultural resources and documents can be put, I am still more than a bit concerned about the long-term prognosis. ‘Digital preservation’ still appears, to me, to be an oxymoron. As well as this, as I have been saying for about two decades, the technology is still very primitive: I don’t think that our clever colleagues in computer science and technologies have come anywhere near to where their work might still take them. Regarding existing technologies as the ‘last word’, or even suggesting that things may stay more or less the same (simply because our imaginations fail us), could mean making a very big mistake indeed.

5. The last aspect of the enthusiasm for digitisation may be motivated by a desire for control (above and beyond any economic or financial considerations). Access to information (or ideas, which I find to be the most useful synonym) has always, and will always be, regarded politically, as ideas may be – and indeed often are – dangerous: at least to the status quo, and especially to those who would be upset or lose out if the status quo were to be disturbed. Paradoxically, digitisation simultaneously provides the possibility for loss of centralised control: the use of Twitter and Facebook in Egypt, for example, or perhaps as a slightly more exaggerated example, WikiLeaks and now UniLeaks (, which could be seen as serving as the conscience of contemporary society. Citizen journalism – and indeed all social media – are other expressions of this facility. Information, or ideas, no longer have to be sanctioned by those in power or positions of authority: anybody (even me) can say what they like and have the possibility of being heard all over the world. UKUncut (—invite-your-friends) provides  but one example of this.  This may possibly be an unexpected outcome of (4) above: “We invented the twaddler but we didn’t realise it could be used like THIS!”.

Looking forward to hearing from you – and please post comment here and on the Wallwisher!

All the best as ever, wherever you are


A little cross-fertilization

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Today I decided to do a little cross-pollination from the FaceBook group of the same name (Digital Collaboration) which, of course, you are welcome to join.

There, I asked if you could list the issues that you think you should know something about in order to be a successful 21st century information professional. So far, the suggestions have been:


Australian Policy Online ( Briefing paper on impact of open access outside European universities.

Legal aspects of Open Access in Australia:

Fitzgerald, Anne (2009).  Open access policies, practices and licensing: a review of the literature in Australia and selected jursidictions.  (pdf available here).

Academic publishing in Europe.

Open access: Europe’s secret weapon?

Directory of Open Access Journals (courtesy of Lund University).

Hylén, Jan (2007)Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources. Paris, France: OECD 10.1787/9789264032125-en

“Open educational resources programme – phase 1” JISC 2009

“Open educational resources programme – phase 2. JISC. 2010.

WSIS Platform of Communities.

University of Geneva. CERN Workshop on innovations in Scholarly Communication.  22-24 June 2011.

People’s Open Access Education.

OECD. Giving knowledge for free.

OER Commons.

I HAVE EMPHASISED THIS SECTION I suppose because it serves to illustrate the extent to which we (the people) – knowledge users and creators – live in a virtual, digital, information environment.  My apologies if you think I have gone a bit overboard.  What is our role in such an environment?  Do we become guides and mentors? Comments?


National Library of Australia.

Digital preservation e-forum.

Digital Preservation Coalition.

Alliance for Permanent Access.

JISC Beginner’s guide to digital preservation. 2011.


Critical information literacy (Not only for library users – records managers and archivists would also know that their users may well need some assistance in this area).

Primary author here is James Elborg.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2006.

Information Literacy Thinking Group.

Swanson, Troy.  2004.  A radical step: implementing a critical information literacy model.

Archive fever: interations on identity and knowledge in an age of accelerated human information interaction. (interesting blog).

Viadhyanathan, Siva. Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto. (I really like this).  You could also take a look at

Pawley, Christine.  2003. Information literacy: a contradictory coupling. Library Quarterly, Vol. (4): pp. 422-452.


15th International Conference on Information Visualisation (in London).

Some examples

And some more

I love the way these guys transform data into something easily understandable:  Information is beautiful.

The state of information visualisation 2011.

AT &T Labs Research Information Visualisation. (And they’re looking for staff!!)

Bertini, Enrico.  I fell in love with data [blog].  Here he lists the most important papers to read on information visualisation. and more useful stuff at


There is a journal devoted to this topic:Marketing library services. as well as a track at the upcoming ‘Computers in Libraries‘ Conference (March, Washington DC):

Dempsey, Kathy. 2009.  The accidental library marketer.  Medford, NJ: Information Today Inc. is a recent book on this topic.  A book review of this item appears at, explaining why this is important for librarians.

Ideas for marketing can be found at the blog New marketing trends: marketing ideas for non-profits and libraries.

Marketing in 2011.

Many of you will be aware of the IFLA Marketing Award:


This is a useful and recent starting point: Digital library futures: user perspectives and institutional strategies.  2010.  Edited by Ingeborg Verheul, Anna Maria Tammaro & Steve Witt.  Berlin/Munich: De Gruyter Saur.

Enhancing user interactions in digital libraries is a useful blog, with plenty of examples as well.


‘Crowdsourcing’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘outsourcing’.  In the information world, it means getting a range of opinions and ideas from which to choose – hopefully this choice means you will discern the best possible information.

Interesting sites and software can be found at this blog: Readwriteweb.

Crowdsourcing in action can be experienced at this blog:

This leads naturally into the next topic:


The Semantic Web continues to develop. Some latest news:

There is, in fact, a semantic web association (there had to be, I suppose):

A guide to the top recent software for the semantic web: and

There are a couple of conferences coming up on the topic, too (aren’t there always?  In fact, who has the time and money to attend all of these conferences?????)

The 10th International Conference on the semantic web is being held in Germany this year:

There is, interestingly enough, a call for papers on the topic of semantic web and collaboration (through social networking).  Check it out:

Combining with information visualisation, there is a conference in Palo Alto on Visual interfaces to the social and semantic web, but as it’s this Sunday, I don’t suppose many of you will be able to go, even if you really wanted to!

In Europe – Crete, Greece, to be precise – the EU is holding a conference on the Extended Semantic Web.


Cloud computing predictions for 2011.;

ACM Symposium on Cloud computing

One other link that some of you may be interested in is the South African framework for digital resources, available at:

Underneath each of these topics, I have inserted linked to some of the seminal sites in the respective area.


What other topics are important to you and should be discussed here?

Would you like to contribute a paragraph or two on why you find this essential/intriguing/important or whatever?

This is long.  That’s what happens when information professionals get going.  We know there’s so much out there.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.