Missed opportunities in open access: who should be providing guidance for the public?

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.







The CUP censorship controversy: a role for open access?

The recent controversy about Cambridge University Press and the Chinese attempts to censor their content on China has raised questions about the potential for open access publishing to bypass this kind of censorship. This story took off first in the academic community and then in the press, indicating the level of public concern about censorship of the Internet more generally and the compromises made by those who publish content. For the area studies community it is of particular relevance for researchers who expect to be able to engage with and be read by scholars and others in the countries they are writing about. The singling out of the area studies journal China Quarterly on this occasion left its authors and editors fighting for the principles of academic freedom against both the commercial interests of CUP and the political interests of the Chinese government. In the end it was the principle of academic freedom that won the argument, although there is no victory yet for students in China, who remain cut off from this content.

How far is open access the answer for those who want to bypass censorship by repressive regimes? The answer seems to be complex and to depend on the particular type of censorship in place in each country, and the model of open access publishing allowed by the publisher. In this particular case the Chinese asked CUP to remove content from their site. The original press statement from CUP says that it was the Chinese importer who asked for the restrictions, which seems to be in line with stories that the Chinese authorities enforce censorship by the threat of sanctions on local ISPs and content providers. CUP initially agreed and then were persuaded by the public outcry to refuse, in a  follow up statement, joining the likes of the Economist in being blocked entirely in China. The onus was put on the publisher to make their content acceptable, something which they were eventually persuaded not to do. Whether the articles in question were only accessible on subscription or were available via gold open access on the CUP site would be unlikely to make any difference, if the site as a whole were blocked. Gold open access therefore seems to offer little in the way of a solution to state censorship.

Green open access is a different matter. The fact that the publishers were asked to remove their content indicates that the filters in place would not automatically block the offending articles on the basis of keywords. Had they done so, there would have been no reason to ask in the first place. That seems to give the potential for articles in institutional or subject repositories to be more easily accessible in countries that do not simply block all external sites, such as North Korea. Presumably as CUP does allow green open access for the journal articles it publishes there is a possibility that the articles in question might remain accessible in China via this route. There is one potential barrier to the success of this approach, and that is the digital object identifier, or DOI, which is designed specifically to bring together scattered examples of the same article. Implemented with good intent, it is potentially as helpful to repressive regimes in identifying troublesome material wherever it is as it is to academics checking their references, although censorship would have to operate at the level of the individual item rather than the service provider. If the DOI does prove to be an inadvertent obstacle to true open access across the world, then the only way to bypass it would seem to be for academics to retain their copyright and post multiple copies of their articles in web services which do not use a DOI, and to move them as often as necessary. That would make tracking individual publications much harder for all parties, wherever they are located.

It would be interesting to see an analysis of how far scholars in countries which censor use of the Internet are able to access articles in OA repositories, and how this changes with different types of censorship regime. That would be a telling indicator of the impact of the open access movement worldwide.

A few thoughts on neutrality and our international collections

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the RLUK Conference at the British Library. The programme was varied and interesting, but underpinning many of the presentations was a common concern about recent political events and the role of the library in countering the rise of so called alternative facts. On the last morning there was an excellent presentation from Dr Darren E. Lund, who spoke compellingly about the award winning work he had done with schools in Canada to promote equality and diversity. Although he never mentioned libraries, it was perhaps pointed that he shared with an audience of librarians the quote from Desmond Tutu that I have seen many times over the last few months: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

That loaded word “neutral” pursues librarians and has been much analysed and debunked in the professional literature over the last few years. Since the EU referendum in the UK and the rise of Trump in the US there have been movements of politically engaged librarians working to encourage public libraries in particular to reach out to disadvantaged or disaffected sectors of their communities and help develop their critical information skills.  As an area studies librarian I have been interested for a while in a different aspect of our so called neutrality: how libraries supporting research and teaching on the rest of the world engage with some of the more difficult and controversial issues that we encounter. This has nothing to do with the regular and normal back and forth of party politics, but is concerned with our core values at a time when they seem to be under particular threat worldwide.

Over the last few years in monitoring events in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe there have been a few images that have stayed with me and will probably do so for ever: a glorious field of sunflowers in eastern Ukraine, strewn with the debris of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 and the remains of its passengers and crew; the Russian ambassador to Turkey being shot in the back and falling forward to his death again and again in rolling video on twitter; the sight of 2000 desperate and abandoned refugees in a warehouse in Belgrade; hundreds of thousands of women marching in Poland against greater restrictions on abortion, and succeeding in getting those restrictions lifted. These evoke many emotions but neutrality is never one of them. We might be shocked or angry or sometimes traumatised (and that can be an issue for library staff dealing with distressing material), but we are not neutral, although as librarians we have an unfortunate tendency to say that we are without actually thinking about what that means.

If we need to stop trying to be neutral what are the positive things that we could be doing? Here are just a few thoughts about how we might develop a framework to allow us to think more constructively about the way we develop our international collections and services in the current unusually difficult circumstances. Such a process has to involve recognising and addressing our implicit values and prejudices and those of the institutions and people surrounding us, and understanding how they influence our professional decisions.

1.      We should recognise that our professional values are not neutral. All our professional organisations talk about supporting equal access to information and opposing censorship, not just in theory but in practice. That can mean making sure that minority voices are properly represented in our collections and that we develop those collections taking into account the need to have the widest possible range of voices from the countries we study, whether they are political parties, social movements or cultural trends. As all libraries face increasing restrictions on budgets it is easy to fall into the trap of being passive and simply supplying those resources that are going to be most used, but that will never help scholars understand complex international events and will lead to collections being skewed. We are seeing that happen with Google and with Facebook, where the power of the algorithm can be and is being manipulated. It should be our responsibility to make sure that does not happen with our collections. As there are relatively few libraries that collect extensively on other countries that can be hard to achieve alone when budgets are tight, but it should be one of the primary goals of a coherent national collection of overseas materials.

2.      We should recognise that we work for organisations that are not neutral. Universities are increasingly making explicit their respect for scholarship, for rigour in research, and for evidence. Equality and diversity have never been more important issues, and in her keynote at RLUK Professor Kalwant Bhopal made a convincing case for embedding the social justice agenda in all aspects of UK higher education. That has to include our work in libraries. We can support these agendas by promoting relevant content in our libraries and on social media, including it in guides for students, and displaying it in exhibitions. Whether it is LGBT rights or women’s rights or the rights of minority ethnic communities across the world, they are all causes we can be active in supporting through our collections and our expertise.

3.      We should recognise that we live and work in countries that are not neutral.  In the UK we are part of that rather malleable construct that is the “international community”. It is the international community that condemns crimes against the accepted international order, wherever in in the world they are committed. At various times different countries can find themselves suddenly outside the international community, being criticised for acts of terrorism or crimes against humanity. Librarians have traditionally gone out of their way to collect and make available the work of international agencies, charities and the testimonies of individuals caught up in dreadful events across the world. With the rise of social media there is much more that librarians who have expertise on particular countries can do to participate in this effort.

When looked at like this neutrality as a concept simply dissolves and has no utility for us. It is a negative which encourages passivity and a lack of serious thought about our role, and which potentially could get in the way of high quality evidence based scholarship. We have been warned about the danger of neutrality often enough, and those of us who promote greater international understanding through our collections have a special responsibility to ensure that we never end up on the side of the oppressor by default.




On going digital for my newspaper: two steps forward and one step back.

Nobody who knows me will be surprised to hear that I am a Guardian reader, and have been for forty years, ever since I have had enough cash to buy my own paper. I have taken in my stride various changes in format, editor, and columnist, but this summer everything changed when I downloaded the app and subscribed to the digital version. As a librarian working with electronic publications all the time I should have been perfectly able to cope, but I have found myself drowning in the digital version. I am curious to understand why, and what my experience tells me about how readers approach digital publications. The app is attractive, functions well on my iPad, and is considerably cheaper than the paper version – so what’s the problem?

Essentially, I need my life back. Reading the paper now seems to take all my spare time. I am probably better informed than I have ever been, but I am also overwhelmed. I have also chosen to buy the paper newspaper at the weekend, despite the fact that I have already paid for the online version, and it is becoming obvious that the experience of reading the digital version is quite different in a number of ways from reading it on paper.

First, the indicators of significance are not there. Every page in the digital version seems to be of equal status. When you scan a newspaper page by eye subtle distinctions in font and placement on the page make some items much more prominent than others. Without that editorial judgement everything in the digital version is potentially interesting and equally prominent- but I don’t have time in my life to be interested in everything. Even the centre spread of photographs, which was a matter of a moment to review in print, is now a dozen separate screens and takes significantly longer. They are often fascinating, but by the end of a busy day I haven’t finished that day’s paper, and tomorrow there will be another.

Then, the experience of reading a digital newspaper is oddly linear. If I don’t read the digital version from beginning to end I have no idea of what I have read and what I haven’t. In print it was easy to leave a section for later, by simply putting it aside on the growing pile of stuff still to be read. Online I don’t know how to do this, so I plough on, worried about missing something. It is also difficult to keep an article for later, and I have found myself going to the web version to find that recipe which I really want to cook, but not this week. Tearing it out is not an option.

Finally, there is a basic problem with the crossword, and there are few things more important to a Guardian reader than a problem with the crossword. It isn’t possible to scribble down the letters in an anagram without getting pen and paper and doing it manually. The print version has a blank area on the printed page where you can do precisely this, in a circle if you want to. Simple technology, but effective.

So, do I regret going digital for my newspaper? Not entirely. It is practical during the working week, and much easier to read on a busy train. The pile of recycling that has to be dealt with each week is significantly smaller. But at weekends when I want to read the magazine in the bath, and save the review for later, I really enjoy the print version much more. A print newspaper has become a luxury item for me, in the same way that print books are becoming luxury items for many people. And, more importantly, I understand instinctively how to relate to the content in the print version, and that still feels a long way away with the digital version.



Brexit, immigration and our libraries

On Monday in an open letter to British voters 103 Vice-Chancellors from UK universities wrote to express their “grave concern” about the impact of a possible UK exit from the EU on universities. I couldn’t agree more, but from my perspective as the Librarian of an academic library that specialises in Central and Eastern Europe I would like to highlight the contribution that librarians from across Europe and beyond have made and continue to make to the development of our academic libraries in the UK. If a vote for Brexit tomorrow is followed by the promised clamp down on immigration there is a real risk to our ability to recruit staff with the specialist knowledge and linguistic skills that we need to maintain and develop library collections that allow us to study the world beyond the UK’s borders. That is potentially very damaging to both research and teaching across the UK.

Every day in my own library I can see the enormous contribution that staff from outside the UK make to our work. As I do not wish to embarrass current colleagues I will go back in time a little, and focus on three of my predecessors as Librarian of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies.Between 1934 and 1972 the School had three librarians: Sergei Yakobson, from 1934 to 1940; Leo Loewenson, from 1940 to 1956; and Heinz Schürer, from 1956 to 1972. All three were refugees, and all three escaped Nazi Germany for London in the early 1930s. The most prominent of these was Yakobson. Born in Moscow in 1901 in a Jewish family, he emigrated first to Berlin in 1918 and earned a PhD in European history there, before leaving Berlin for London.  Helped by the then Director of SSEES, Sir Bernard Pares, and supported by the British Fund for German Jewry who provided £250 a year for his salary, he took on the role of Librarian at SSEES and went on to transform and professionalise the Library. The then Secretary of the School, Dorothy Galton, said of him “although his allowance for buying books was minute, Dr Yakobson classified the chaotic library and laid the foundation of an important collection which has continued to expand ever since.” By 1941 Yakobson was again in difficulties in London as an “enemy alien”, so he moved to the US, where he worked for thirty years at the Library of Congress, advancing by 1949 to become Head of their Slavic Division.

Yakobson’s successor, Leo Loewenson, was from a German Jewish family but was brought up and educated in Moscow. Following the Russian Revolution he settled in Berlin where he was first a school teacher and then an academic. By 1934, like Yakobson, he too had left for London, and again it was the SSEES Director Sir Bernard Pares who helped him find work teaching Russian. When the Second World War broke out he too was an “enemy alien”, and he spent some time interned in a camp on the Isle of Man, where he taught Russian to fellow internees. Again it was Pares who finally arranged his release and appointed him to work in SSEES Library. While the School staff were moved out of London he stayed to look after the Library, then housed in the newly built Senate House alongside the Ministry for information. He is remembered for his devoted efforts to rescue the many books that were damaged in the air raids of May 1941. Following the war he concentrated on building the collection, so that by the time he retired in 1956 it numbered 50,000 volumes. His obituary, by George Bolsover, says of him:

“the Library of the School was the centre of his life, and he furthered its interests with a devotion usually reserved for one’s nearest and dearest. He had the true scholar’s passions for books coupled with extensive bibliographical knowledge, particularly in the Russian field, and he made full use of both to the library’s lasting advantage.”

SSEES Library’s holdings were to double again under Loewenson’s successor, Heinz Schürer. Born and brought up in Leipzig he was awarded a PhD and a qualification in librarianship before leaving for the UK. Once here he found work in a number of libraries, including the LSE. In his time as librarian at SSEES his priority was to expand the number of exchange arrangements with libraries across Eastern Europe and by that means he was able to expand the collection very significantly. By the time he retired SSEES Library had 12 staff and 110,000 volumes and was well on the way to being the best collection of Slavonic and East European material in the UK.

Schürer was the last of the so-called enemy aliens to manage SSEES Library, but throughout its 100 year history the Library has benefited incalculably from successive waves of migration, whether caused by war, or persecution, or simply by the freedom of movement and opportunities made possible by the EU. SSEES is an extreme example because of its specialist nature, but most academic libraries have benefited on a smaller scale whenever they have needed help with material from abroad. I am not aware that anybody has ever documented the impact of immigration on our libraries, but it must be a story worth telling, and something we should do our utmost to retain.

Why we need librarians in our public libraries

I hardly ever use my local public library. I am lucky enough to work for a university library that gives me access to almost anything I could want, and I earn enough to be able to buy my leisure reading, even if I rarely have the leisure to read it. If I need to I can use the British Library or one of the other specialist libraries in central London. I do not have young children. I have reasonable access to the Internet at home (could be better, BT), and I own a smartphone, a tablet, and an e-book reader. I am remarkably privileged, as, I suspect, are most of the people who make policy about public libraries. As the airwaves today  were full of people expressing views about the value of public libraries in the age of the Internet, I popped into mine, and found it, as usual, full of young families choosing books and people sitting quietly working at PCs or at study desks. The reading hour for small children was about to start, and a CV clinic was being advertised.

Today the BBC published some research showing that public libraries had lost 8000 jobs in 6 years and 15,500 volunteers had taken the place of public library staff. Actually they didn’t say public libraries, they just said libraries, but we must assume that they meant public libraries.  The sloppy reporting was symptomatic of a day in which the debate has often been at a level that does neither side any favours. As a librarian it is easy to get angry at the people we see as our opponents, but it was clear from today that the library profession has not yet managed to create a clear simple message about its value that can be understood and presented by the media. Instead the message is muddled. Librarians are invited on to the radio to talk about extra projects they are doing to engage the public rather than their core role, and volunteers are asked to explain the work of professional librarians. A few library campaigners do a great job (take a bow, Lauren Smith) but the questions are trivial and concerned only with the lending of books. There is no understanding of the professional skills of librarians.

Most public librarians cannot speak up against the Councils who  are cutting their jobs, so it is vital that the profession speaks up for them. What is the difference between a professional librarian and a volunteer? A professional librarian has been trained to understand how information is created, disseminated, accessed, and sometimes blocked, and should be able to provide an individual user or a community of users with the right information for them. That skill was important when we only had print, but now that we have all the complexity of the Internet it is infinitely more valuable than it was. Everything else is a distraction.




On languages, libraries, and War and Peace.

Another winter Sunday evening has gone by and has been just a little greyer now that the BBC’s dramatisation of War and Peace has finished. Like most people who know and love the book, I watched through my fingers at times, and could go on at length about what was good and what was less good – why is Natasha so hard to get right, to take just one example. And also like anyone who knows and loves the book, I was reminded of when I first read it. In the long hot summer of 1976 I was about to go to university to read Russian, and sitting in the garden reading one of the best novels ever written was the perfect preparation. I still have the edition I read then. It was the Rosemary Edmonds translation  in an edition published to accompany the last BBC dramatisation from 1972, with Alan Dobie as Andrei in full military uniform on the cover. Now War and Peace is heading back up the best seller charts again, and this time the edition that everyone is buying is the much older Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, but with Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James on the cover.

What does this have to do with libraries? Well, like many specialist British librarians of my generation my career in libraries has been entirely driven by my knowledge of another language – in my case, Russian. There was nothing deliberate about this. The fact that I learned Russian at all was a matter of pure chance and the educational trends and cultural landscape of the time. I was not a naturally brilliant linguist who chose to add it to a portfolio of languages. Instead I had no choice but to learn it from my first year at my otherwise quite unexceptional local state grammar school. It was taught there, as at many schools in the 1960s and 1970s, because it was thought to be important to the national interest. In his book The Russian language in Britain: a historical survey of learners and teachers, (Bramcote Press, 2008) James Muckle describes this period thus:

“For ten years numbers of schools and higher education establishments where the subject was taught increased exponentially. Teaching materials burgeoned, exchanges with Russia became easier than they had ever been within living memory, scholarly activity increased in language, literature and area studies”

Muckle cites a 1963/64 survey which indicates that at least 454 schools were teaching Russian in the UK, and a few, like mine a few years later, were introducing it at the age of 11. This growth had followed the publication in 1962 of the Annan report on the teaching of Russian in schools, which had stressed the importance of education in the Russian language to meet the national need. Support for the teaching of language has always been subject to strategic priorities and political whim, but with Russian in particular popular engagement with the culture has also always been a factor. Literary authors such as H. G. Wells and Virgina Woolf in the early twentieth century were stressing the importance of reading the works of the great Russian writers in the original, following a wave of translations into English of the Russian classics. A later generation, intensively trained as part of their National Service by the Joint Services School for Linguists, carried over the influence of the language and culture to their work. They included major figures such as Michael Frayn, Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett.

We know that language learning in schools and universities in the UK has suffered a sad decline in the last few years, largely as a result of government policy. It is also a truism to say that we live in an increasingly global and interconnected world, and  a world dominated by an explosion of information. Academic research is becoming more international too, and new centres of excellence are being established in universities across the world. Without librarians in the UK skilled in languages other than English our libraries will become narrower and our academic communities potentially more cut off. Where is the next generation of area specialist librarians to come from? The old route of moving into the profession with a language degree is becoming less and less possible, and area librarianship is now hardly ever taught as part of professional training. Fortunately our libraries have always benefited from the successive waves of migration that have brought colleagues from other countries with professional and language skills into our libraries. They enhance our libraries – and our lives – but they also have their own career aspirations which might well take them away from a focus on their country of origin, even if they remain in libraries. It would take another enormous swing in educational policy in the UK to prioritise once again the teaching of a wide range of languages in schools, but that is the only way that language can once again be the foundation of a career in libraries. Maybe the sudden fascination with War and Peace will help kick start a revival in Russian language learning – we can but hope.