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

Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

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Information is that part of an individual’s knowledge which s/he choses to share with certain other persons at certain times for certain reasons.  Information must be represented in language of some kind – and by ‘language’, I mean any form of symbol or code or gesture that enjoys a culturally derived meaning: there does not appear to be universally understood meaning that can be attached to any sound, gesture, image, colour or shape, as far as I am aware.  Information is best considered as a rather loose form of the concept of ‘ideas’.  A document, it has already been noted, can be considered as a container of information: that is, when information is recorded in order to overcome spatio-temporal constraints, it is recorded in a document.  The document, as a physicality, has its own particular characteristics.

‘Ideas’ are also perhaps culturally derived, or have cultural origins.  While, as individuals, we certainly enjoy individual personalities, capabilities and competencies, we also, fairly early on, start forming a knowledge framework, or scaffolding, onto which we can position other thoughts and ideas and insights and experiences, as they are encountered.  But while our individualism makes us selective, our individualism is, in turn, shaped by our context – our cultural context, specifically.  As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, ‘First we shape our tools (or houses) and then they shape us’ – we have a similar structurated relationship with knowledge, culture and ideas.  Eventually, what we know – our knowledge – is a product of our being and of our experiences – physical and cultural – of the world.

What is ‘culture’?  I will not attempt any definition of that word here, except perhaps to say that it does not necessarily mean the grand artefacts of high culture, nor the most popular of contemporary creative expression.  As T.S Eliot said, ‘Culture is the smell of cabbage soup’; slight sensations (like the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea) can give rise to great visions and deep understandings.

What does this have to do with digital libraries, archives and museums?  We do know that these are highly specialised and expensive projects.  We also know that the technology is still at a primitive stage, comparatively speaking, compared to where it might go: digital preservation is an area that, in particular, needs some significant development.  Because of these reasons, at least, digitisation efforts have, for the most part, been focused on digitisation of documents (used here to include any information-containing artefact) that  are perceived to have some cultural value.  In other words, these documents are considered to contain information which is considered to be important to transmit, to preserve, to communicate.

In making such decisions, however, are we not making choices which may change or even skew the understanding that future generations may have of the very ‘culture’ we are attempting to preserve and make available?  Do we run the risk of relaying or supporting only one particular view of what is important (however broadly that may be conceived)?  Archives tend to deal with those documents which provide evidence of business transactions – and which are considered worthy of conservation and preservation for possible later use (whatever that might be).  Museums will collect objects, sometimes defined by subject area (‘art’, ‘natural history’) determined to a certain extent by what is discovered or found, as well as what is unusual or scarce.  Libraries are known to be particularly selective in the documents that they collect and manage, depending on subject area and user community profile.

But what about all the other textures and flavours of everyday life?  What should we be doing about social media?  Should we continue to rely on Google to locate all the born-digital documents that are available less formally than those that are formally published and distributed?  Should we, could we, ignore more transient or ephemeral documents?  Where does ‘quality control’ begin and end?  Who will the digital ‘user’ be in years and generations to come?  Will focusing only on the past or present in a selective way make sense in the future?  How should we as information professionals be associated with open access materials?

What’s the point?

Center for Information and Communication Techn...

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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



It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

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Now here’s something easy that could be fun and productive!  I have started a Wallwisher at  If you visit this site, you will have the opportunity to add your ‘post-it’ idea, and comment on those that are already there. Enjoy! Sue