A few months ago I became, for the purposes of accessing scholarly content, a member of the public. Early retirement has brought many pleasures, one of which is more time and leisure to pursue some research interests, albeit in a desultory sort of way. I was now in an ideal position. I had time on my hands, and as an experienced academic librarian I knew that I should have access to an enormous amount of scholarly content available on open access. This should be easy, I thought. You might not be surprised to know that wasn’t quite the case. Once I started to scan library websites for help I realised with rather a shock that the drive to market distinctive content and services that so many libraries have embraced over the last few years has not been accompanied by more general guidance on using content that is freely available. What has disappointed me most is not that some content is not accessible to the public, but that there seems to be no library service taking the lead to guide users to the large amount of open access content that is available. Instead each library publicises its own collections and services, almost as though they were in competition for users instead of forming part of a complex information landscape that everyone needs help to navigate. Based on my recent experience using a variety of libraries I would argue that university libraries could be using their expertise in open access publishing to provide a package of information for public libraries to make available to their users. It would be a relatively small piece of work, but could be truly transformational, and there is no sign that anyone else is fulfilling this role.
In my quest for help my first port of call was my local public library. It is run by a social enterprise called GLL, rather than directly by my local council, and has the strapline “Better: the feel good place” but I tried not to let that put me off. There is very little guidance for users available on their website, and what is there is restricted to the mechanics of access and borrowing. It was only with difficulty that I found a list of a few electronic resources, most of which are subscription reference services such as the OED, but among them was Access to Research, a recent initiative to improve public access to research articles. This does not qualify as open access content, although it is perfectly possible that there is open access content within it available through publishers’ websites, but to some extent it should serve the same purpose. Launched with much fanfare by David Willets when it became available in 2014 and claiming to be transformational for the public, it provides access to the output of 21 scholarly journal publishers. Perfect, you might think. Not quite. Although searchable from home the only way to access the full text was to visit my local public library, and there it was only possible to read online or to print, at a cost per page. With every computer taken and queues building up at all times of day that was simply impractical, and saving to a memory stick was forbidden by the licence. Beyond that, the library staff wanted to be helpful but were clearly not fully trained in how it works. I asked about licence restrictions, but ended up researching the answer myself and reporting back the answer to the assistant on duty. For that reason I didn’t feel able to ask any more about resources which were not their direct responsibility. I could not be more aware of the pressure that public libraries are under in the UK at the moment, so it is hard to imagine how they could be in any position to develop from scratch another area of responsibility outside their expertise.
How about the British Library then? I am privileged in having membership, and I am sure if I asked a member of staff I would get a high level of help. Most members of the public would not get that far, and if I simply look at their website I have a similar problem to the one that I have with the public library service, in that they publicise their own collections. Wonderful though their collections are, this doesn’t help the public access scholarly content online from their own homes. It is clear that the British Library does not feel that this is their role, any more than public libraries do.
What about any of the university libraries I am used to using? When I use their catalogues from home my access to online content on commercial websites is blocked at the authentication stage before I can access a publisher’s website and establish whether the content I want is open access or not. The university library catalogue would always have been my first port of call, but now it is the last, as it is simply not designed for the public. Most university libraries do provide access to their institutional repositories of open access content, often through their catalogues, but those are by definition limited to their own institutional output. University library staff are the best qualified of any library staff to provide information about access to a wider range of resources, and they do so for their own students, but that guidance is also usually hidden behind an institutional login.
In reality I am much more privileged than I am pretending to be. As a retired member of university staff I can visit my university library and access almost all resources there. But like most people, I prefer to follow up on leads as I find them, from the comfort of my own home. After some trial and error I have succeeded in accessing most of what I need and this is how I have done it.
- I have changed my browser to Chrome and installed the Unpaywall extension, which points out open access articles once I am on a publisher’s website, but it is not useful from a university library catalogue because I can’t get that far. It also doesn’t work on my beloved iPad, which is frustrating. Unpaywall provides access to legal sources of open access content such as institutional repositories, and gold open access articles on publishers’ websites. I know about it because this kind of information circulates through the academic community, but tends not to cross over to the wider public.
- I have signed up to my university’s very useful alumni offering of eresources from Sage, Project Muse, and JSTOR, and let Chrome register the institutional proxy for the deal, so that when I find an article I want I am automatically prompted to login as an alumna.
- I search social media, institutional repositories and personal webpages for scholars I am interested in, and often find public versions of their work that way.
- Most important of all, and the answer is obvious, I use Google Scholar as my primary search tool. In many cases that will connect me directly to open access content in repositories, and when it doesn’t Unpaywall might get me there. It does also link to Researchgate and Academia, which Unpaywall does not, so I know that some of the content might not be legitimately available, but I wouldn’t expect the public to know that. It also occasionally leads me on a false trail, but it is still by far the easiest way to find what I need, supplemented by a university library visit for the remainder.
I would have loved to find the information above on my public library’s website, but it simply is not there, or anywhere else, in one place that is easily accessible by the public. The most obvious solution must be, surely, that university libraries, with all their expertise in this area, should be able to collaborate on some simple guidance which could be freely reproduced by public libraries. If they do not take on this role, they really are missing an opportunity to help bridge the digital divide.
This blogpost was revised on 22nd June 2018, following a helpful discussion with Jacquie Widdowson, Vice Chair of the CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Group.