What Would An Open Access Academic Library Look Like, and What Would an Open Access Academic Librarian Do?

In the context of something else, I mooted whether a particular project required an “open access academic library” as a throwaway comment, but it’s a phrase that’s been niggling at me, along with the associated “open access academic librarian”, so I’ll let my fingers do the talking and see what words come out…

Traditional academic libraries provide a range a services: they’re a home to physical content, and an access point to online subscription content; they provide managed collections that support discovery and retrieval of “quality” content; they promote skills development that allow folk to discover and retrieve content, and rate its quality, as well as providing expert levels of support for discovery and retrieval. They support teaching by forcing reading lists out of academics and making sure corresponding items are available to students. They have a role to play in managing a university’s research knowledge outputs, maintaining repositories of published papers and, in previous years, operating university presses. They are looking to support the data management needs of researchers, particularly with respect to the data publication requirements being placed on researchers by their funders. If they were IT empire builders, they’d insist that all academics can only engage with publishers through a library system that would act as an intermediary with the academic publishers and could automate the capture of pre-prints and supporting data; but they’re too gentle for that, preferring to ask politely for a copy, if we may… And they do cake – at least, they do if you go to meetings with the librarians on a regular basis.

To a certain extent, libraries are already wide-open access institutions, subject to attack, offering few barriers to entry, at least to their members, though unlikely to turn anyone with a good reason away, providing free-at-the-point of use access to materials held, or subscribed to, and often a peaceful physical location conducive to exploring ideas.

But what if the library needed to support an fully open-access student body, such as students engaged in an open education course of study, or an open research project, for a strict, rather than openwashed, definition of open? Or perhaps the library serves a wider community of people with problems that access to appropriate “academic” knowledge might help them solve? What would – could – the role of the library be, and what of the role of the librarian?

First, the library would have to be open to everyone. An open course has soft boundaries. A truly open course has no boundaries.

Secondly, the library would need to ensure that all the resources it provided a gateway to were openly licensed. So collections would be built from items listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), perhaps? Indeed, open access academic librarians could go further and curate “meta-journal” readers of interest to their patrons (for example, I seem to remember Martin Weller experimenting with just such a thing a few years ago: Launching Meta EdTech Journal).

Thirdly, the open access academic library should also offer a gateway to good quality open textbook shelves and other open educational resources. As I found to my cost only recently, searching for useful OERs is not a trivial matter. Many OERs come in the form of lecture or tutorial notes, and as such are decontextualised, piecemeal trinkets. If you’re already at that part of the learning journey, another take on the “Mech Eng Structures, week 7” lecture might help. If you want to know out of nowhere how to work out the deflection of a shaped beam, finding some basic lecture notes – and trying to make sense of them – only gets you so far; other pieces (such as the method of superposition) seem to be required. Which is to say, you also need the backstory and a sensible trail that can walk you up to that resource so that you can start to make sense of it. And you might also need other bits of knowledge to answer the question you have to hand. (Which is where textbooks come in again – they embed separate resources in a coherent knowledge structure.)

Fourthly, to mitigate against commercial constraints on its activities, the open access library should explore open sustainability. Such as being built on, and contributing to, the development of open infrastructure (see also Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures; I don’t know whether things like Public Knowledge Project (PKP) would count as legitimate technology parts of such an infrastructure? Presumably things like CKAN and EPrints would?).

Fifthly, the open access librarian should offer open access librarian support, perhaps along the lines of invisible support or being an influential friend?

Sixthly, the open access digital library could provide access to online applications or online digital workbenches (of which, more in another post). For example, I noticed the other day that Bryn Mawr College provide student access to Jupyter (IPython) notebooks. Several years ago, the OU’s KMI made RStudio available online to researchers as part of KMI Crunch, and so on. You might argue that this is not really the role of the library – but physical academic libraries often provide computer access points to digital services and applications subscribed to by the university on behalf of the students, student desktops replete the software tools and applications the student needs for their courses. If I’m an open access learner with a netbook or a tablet, I couldn’t install desktop software on my computer even if I wanted to.

Seventhly, there probably is a seventh, and eigth, and maybe even a ninth and tenth, but my time’s up for this post.. (If only there were room in the margin of my time to write this post properly…;-)


  1. Paul Lefrere

    I like the vision of open access academic libraries “providing free-at-the-point of use access to materials held, or subscribed to.” Great for broadening access to cultural heritage, to counter the growing privatisation of public knowledge. Pre-austerity, similar places were known by such terms as public libraries or Carnegie libraries. Many are at risk of closing because of decreasing public funding. In my personal view, to ensure that free and open access lasts, there need to be new and sustainable ways to support physical libraries and also digital libraries. In the transition to sustained open access, it would be nice to reinstate free access to past generations of public knowledge and also provide free access to important ‘paywalled’ knowledge. Figuring out how to fund or engineer those system-level changes takes us into the brave new world of ‘public-private business models’, taking into account commercial and accounting considerations. To illustrate: donating open access content removes some costs, but does not cover other costs such as connectivity and building maintenance. Would such libraries be run by volunteer users rather than by dedicated and salaried librarians? Or would professional librarians be retained as local managers, but made responsible for finding sponsors of the running costs?

  2. Tony Hirst

    @Paul Thanks for the comment – I’m a great fan of the public library system, but my point (perhaps not clearly enough made) was more to do with providing an academic library service built around openly licensed materials.

    I keep avoiding thinking about public libraries (head in sand:-( – though now is an opportune time for me to do so: my local council is currently consulting around this – https://www.iwight.com/Council/OtherServices/Using-the-Library/Library-Consultation

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  4. stranack

    Great post, Tony. Yes, the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) definitely fits within this model. Many libraries around the world are using the free/open source Open Journal Systems software to host independent, open access journals. Of equal importance is the energy PKP is putting into providing free training to build the publishing expertise within its community — many of whom are getting into publishing for the first time. Attention to the issues of open infrastructure and capacity building are critical, so thanks for kicking off such an important discussion.

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