Liberation Bibliography

(This article was originally published in Library Journal, April 1, 2010. Since it is no longer available on the LJ website, I have reprinted it here.)

Trumping ownership with open access: a manifesto

I’ve been thinking about the kind of freedoms embodied in the idea of the library and the plight of the book that cannot find its reader. What can librarians do to help readers and books find one another in a world where our money is going toward temporary access to corporate-controlled intellectual property? How can we intervene to repair an outdated scholarly system of authority control that doesn’t recognize our inability to spread knowledge if it’s packaged in locked containers? How can we liberate knowledge and culture to support lifelong liberal learning?

What we need is a movement: liberation bibliography.

A manifesto for the movement

If I were to write a manifesto for a liberation bibliography movement, it would probably be inspired by an article by my colleague Mary Soldberg. She is a theologian who includes liberation theology in her introductory course on Christian thought because she finds it’s a way of “doing theology” that links core theological beliefs to the day-to-day ways people choose to live their lives. It would include these points:

  • Liberation bibliography would arise out of “outrage and protest against injustice,” not out of a desire to get more for less, or a sense that things just aren’t organized as efficiently as they might be. It’s not about saving money, it’s about the empowering nature of knowledge and the belief that it shouldn’t be a luxury good for the few.
  • It would emerge through the struggles of communities that are seeking and deserve liberation, not just from the perspective of a few academics and librarians tinkering under the hood of the scholarly communication system to improve conditions for scholars.
  • It would recognize that the world can’t be divided cleanly between the scholarly and the ordinary. If knowledge matters, it must matter beyond the boundaries of our campuses. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it actually doesn’t matter and we could do something else with our time and resources.
  • It would acknowledge that we are implicated in systems that often benefit us, even if we think they are unjust. (What other excuse is there for librarians to publish in journals that are not open access, or accede to nondisclosure agreements with vendors that are contrary to the transparency we supposedly espouse?)
  • It would take seriously the slogan, so often inscribed on academic buildings of a certain age, that the truth shall set us free–and that should mean freedom for all of us, not just a select class of academics and currently enrolled tuition-paying students.
  • It would recognize that the liberal learning we promote must be beneficial to all people; that our libraries don’t merely serve our institutions’ immediate needs but their higher ideals.

But…can we do that?

I have been told often that this is sheer silliness, that our focus should be on the students we have in front of us, not on abstract lifelong needs or on the needs of anyone who isn’t at our institution. After all, our students want degrees, not platitudes, and they paid good money; why should anyone else be given what should be treated as exclusive member benefits?

If we only concentrate on serving the members of our institution while they are members, and are willing collaborators in locking out everyone else, we’ve betrayed our role in society and our cultural purpose. We may not like it that subscriptions to overpriced electronic content are consuming our financial resources, but let’s be clear about this: we willingly serve as the corrections officers for corporate information prisons.

Welcome to Absurdistan

We all have anecdotes to illustrate the bizarre contradictions of 21st-century librarianship. Here’s an example:

One of our faculty members had used the Patrologia Latina database for her research before she took a position at our Little College on the Prairie. Now she has no access to this useful electronic compendium of works originally written between 200 and 1216 C.E., which increase access to texts that are fundamental to the history of Christian thought. This database is too expensive for us. I can’t tell you what “too expensive” means, because that’s proprietary information, and besides the offer expired shortly after we asked.

I’m sure it cost the vendor a lot of money to put this public domain material into a useful electronic form. But why is that product only available to libraries? This faculty member understands that it would be folly for the library to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a work that only she needs for her research, but the company that digitized it doesn’t allow individuals to subscribe at any price. Perhaps it fears it would erode the more lucrative library market, or it just don’t want to be bothered with being gatekeepers when libraries are so willing to do the job.

In another example, I recently got word that, if I acted right now, I could download a free copy of what sounds like a very interesting book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns. I downloaded the thing to take a look, but after 15 minutes of wrestling with the DRM (digital rights management), I gave up. Perhaps it’s a metaphysical message: I must illegally circumvent the shrink wrap to become a cogwheel in the engine of change. But, in fact, I had no more time to devote to opening the “free” book, legally or illegally, so if it exists somewhere on my computer, it’s going unread. Still, it’s a clever way to get some buzz going.

Then, on a recent Friday night, Amazon made all the “buy” buttons disappear from all books, print and electronic, published by the Macmillan conglomerate, one of the “big six” book publishers. (Full disclosure: I am a Macmillan author; that doesn’t mean any of this makes sense to me.) Apparently, Amazon also removed sample chapters from customers’ Kindles and crossed books off people’s wish lists. It seems not to realize how deeply this creeps its customers out. Macmillan had objected to the way Amazon set its ebook prices, and Amazon objected to Macmillan’s objection. By Sunday night, Amazon grudgingly conceded to Macmillan’s demands that it have control over its prices, and now other large publishers are following Macmillan’s lead. The buy buttons are back, but the battle is far from over.

“At the heart of this and many other fights lies an attempt to limit the ways in which the network and the computers connected to it can be used and to do so in ways that serve the interests of corporations,” BBC Digital Planet commentator Bill Thompson wrote in the wake of MacAmazongate ( “These interests may sometimes be aligned with those of the wider public, but that alignment is conditional and contingent and cannot be relied upon, which is why it must always be challenged.”

What’s in it for the general public? Nothing. This is a struggle among corporations over who gets to control our networked future.

Liberating libraries

John Bushman has used Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the “public sphere” to challenge the current idea of libraries as a resource that should only be exploited by those who hold a direct economic relationship with them. He points to ways that library policy and practice have been driven by economic ideas that have nothing to do with liberal learning and everything to do with hoarding resources–often on behalf of private companies, not the public good.

“I’m not suggesting librarianship likes or wants this set of circumstances. But our responses, particularly at the national level and among our leadership, have been inadequate. Aping business rhetoric and models doesn’t save libraries, it transforms them into something else,” Bushman wrote in his article “On Libraries and the Public Sphere” ( in Library Philosophy and Practice. “We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

The free public library was created as a public good. Academic libraries supposedly exist to further knowledge–not just for their home institutions but for the benefit of the world.

Liberation bibliography rests on the idea that the role of libraries is not just to provide access to information but to provide access that is liberating. And to be liberating, information at some level must be free, whether it wants to be or not.

Aligning our values

Academic librarians want to reform scholarly communication processes, set up institutional repositories, and educate faculty about the fragility of our knowledge ecosystem so they can make informed choices. We want not only to show students how the library works but help them become information literate, able to use information critically for the rest of their lives. Our standards have recognized the importance of outcomes, not just inputs, when we assess our worth to institutions. We know what’s important, but we support those important things only insofar as they don’t interfere with business as usual.

Heaven forbid that we would reallocate significant amounts of time and money from acquiring and managing access to information toward practices that would actually liberate knowledge for all.

Our values say people should have access to information. Our practices support that access in ways that we know are dysfunctional and limiting. We try to do “everything plus,” but some things are sacrosanct, so the solutions are underfunded, regardless of what we believe are best practices and what practices are quite thoroughly broken. Such solutions are doomed to slow starvation from the moment they are born. We value access to information, but we only assign value to information that costs money. This is nuts!

Spending on what counts

What would it look like if we tried to align library values with library practices? What if we examined where our time and money go and used our values as a rubric? Along one axis we would have things like:

  • offer convenient access to a wide body of information
  • provide conditions and materials for high-impact learning
  • preserve culture and ideas
  • promote the creation of new knowledge

And we’d assign points according to how well we’re doing in all of these categories.

As things stand now, our total score would be lousy. Oh, we’d score pretty high on “information access,” but what percentage of our budget goes to access to materials that nobody uses? Surely, it’s much more than half of our acquisitions budgets. Most of the full text in our databases is unused, yet we pay for it all, year after year, because access is good.

What percentage of our instructional time is spent training first-year students on how to access what’s in the library when all they need are a few sources for a dress rehearsal paper? How much of our physical and virtual space is devoted to providing access points that are incredibly confusing no matter what we do while adding amenities to environments where students study for their tests? How much of the new knowledge created with our support is really new, and how much is merely product to be used as proof for tenure and promotion?

How much time and money do we spend on core values other than access? Not much.

We need to talk

In the past couple of decades we argued about access vs. ownership and voted for access. Now we’re in a pickle because we didn’t actually end ownership, we simply signed it over to publishers. We’re spending just as much or more for stuff we don’t need, and the pay-per-view solution is only a temporary fix for a problem that dwarfs mere access. We need to solve the ownership problem by doing away with ownership. We need open access.

It’s dawning on me that liberation bibliography does sound a little Marxist. That’s because the only way libraries and scholars can make access work, so that we can pay attention to the rest of our core values, is if we own the means of production. But we have other political models available that are more familiar and less threatening, such as a republic. In a republic each of its citizens participates equally in a common purpose. Authority is built through a network of trust. No one person or authority decides what is true; it’s decided by the shared expertise of the group, all of whom are working their particular part of a vast puzzle. The only way it works, though, is if they can share what they figure out.

We have a republic only if we can keep it. If we continue to pour our resources into renting access and into training students on how to pass courses using temporary access to information that will not be available to them when they graduate, we won’t keep our republic. We need to work with university presses, scholarly societies, and our faculty to change the system–and that takes more than spare time and petty cash.

As Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate in economics, wrote with coauthor Charlotte Hess, “collective action and new institutional design play as large a part in the shaping of scholarly information as do legal restrictions and market forces.”

A free future is in our hands. Let’s take a deep breath and act collectively to redesign the system.