Publicly funded libraries and licensing

In European contexts, libraries are mostly publicly funded. It should follow that — in common with other publicly funded institutions — the public has a right as the funding body to access and use any works created by employees of the institution. Legally, this of course is not codified in any way most countries. Morally, however, I think that public institutions need to think hard about how they provide access to their information.

Providing open access to data and analysis is becoming more common; it has long been the norm in institutions that serve more directly the public interest (bureaus of statistics, governmental departments), whereas educational institutions have lagged behind.

Open access to scientific information still receives specious objection in claims of academic freedom — which, given a reality where areas of research and publishing channels are already dictated by other factors, doesn’t exist — as an employee you can be required to publish openly in addition to any relevant channel. In this connection, you might enjoy Björn Brembs’ How free are academics really?

Academic libraries have long had their own reasons for supporting open access to scientific literature. The price of access to research is a mystery to anyone outside the academic library domain; so much so, in fact, that I think it isn’t even worth entering into discussion with faculty because there is mostly no understanding from the their side that it isn’t actually possible to maintain portfolios that year-on-year increase prices in the way academic journals do.

Having met with faculty on many occasions, it has become particularly clear that “access to scientific literature” for most researchers extends no further than their field of vision, and that anything within that field of vision is “essential”, while anything outside is not. Reconciling this with the remit of libraries as a broad provider of access is difficult; in fact, it is impossible when you’re faced with budget cuts on the one hand and year-on-year increases of 5%.

Paradoxically, libraries themselves are not leaders in open access; most journals that are relevant for the field are not open access. This, of course, isn’t really a problem as day-to-day running of libraries seems to require scant literature reviews. This sounds a little offensive, but I don’t think that there are many within libraries that apply research in their day jobs.

There are also libraries that attempt to tap revenue streams by selling intellectual property; this includes publications (often bibliographies) of suspect quality and more perplexingly digitised documents and images. The former category is outside my area of expertise — I’m sure, since they are funded, that there is utility in self-publishing supposedly comprehensive reference lists in printed form while not creating a publicly accessible database of the same material following best practice for storage/access. On the other hand, I would not entertain this kind of project had I been a manager at an academic library — au contraire, you might find yourself faced with extra shelving duty for having submitted such a proposal.

Creating revenue streams from digitisation is nevertheless more perplexing; here we scan, hopefully out-of-copyright (although I have witnessed some hair-raisingly stupid mistakes made here too), materials and then provide low-resolution (or even worse…watermarked) access to these materials as a route into extorting monies from punters who want to use high-resolution images of the same materials.

This approach is particularly cretinous because a) the material is out of copyright, b) you have been paid once to scan the materials and c) the cost of collecting payment far outstrips the income. So, (a) should be a given and should mean anyone can scan your copy as they have access to it, while (b) meets arguments like “we need to fund the scanning” and “we own the copyright of the digitised images”. Both claims are untrue. If you can’t afford to digitally preserve collections independently, you should stop because you’re playing not doing work and your claim of ownership of copyright assumes that digitisation is a creative work. If your digitisation is a creative work — i.e. not something done in a wholly automated process by technicians paid to maintain the process, then you need to re-consider what the hell you are doing. The actual legality of this claim — it isn’t legally bound in many jurisdictions — should be irrelevant; you’re a publicly funded institution that is supposed to provide access not hinder it and your digitisation “project” should have been put into production as part of the main offering of the library or simply stopped.

I was long involved in putting digitisation into production, but the domain is characterised by an inability to accept that this isn’t art, it’s industry. One of the more bizarre claims I met was that we had to restrict access because we “needed to protect the integrity of the original creator”, where the creative work was in fact a donated archive of portrait photographs. This kind of misguided “professionalism” (not professional librarianship) ignores both the intention of the donation and the role a library has.

Collecting monies for digitisation implies that you’re going to police use (something professional photographers pay big money for) and have a financial system that facilitates small payments and have a revenue base large enough to cover these systems and the staff needed to operate them. The revenue base is never going to be that big, so stop pretending and make the digitised images freely available to the public that has already paid once for the access. Use a suitable open licence and stick to it.

As an aside, this rant was initiated by reading David Lee King’s Gentle reminder about Creative Commons licenses, which is also a reminder to not do things if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. This includes digitisation, which sounds like fun, but is actually hard work — especially as “digitisation” is only a small part of the process.

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