access means more than abundance

pile of metal wasteWhen I made an informal survey of academic library mission statements a few years ago, access and service were the two values most commonly mentioned. Now that we’re practically drowning in information, why is access still so commonly named as a library’s primary purpose?

On average, over 6,000 scientific articles are published daily. Over 6,000 books are published, not counting those that are self-published. That’s just the tip of the content iceberg. Every day, according to various estimates, 1.45 billion people log into Facebook to share photos and links. Half a billion Tweets are sent. A billion hours of video content are watched on YouTube. Google responds to over 3 billion search requests using the 130 trillion webpages it has indexed. Meanwhile libraries have steeply reduced their acquisition of books and are beginning to let go of journal bundles. (Sweden just told Elsevier where to get off, and others here and abroad are deciding Big Deals are bad deals.) With all this abundance, combined with austerity in library budgets and expanding productivity demands made on everyone, what does information access even mean?

I remember when the web seemed vaguely threatening to some librarians and a great many faculty. Early on it was all about trust – was the information you found online any good? How could you tell? Then it got competitive. How could librarians make their systems simpler to use? What were we going to do about the fact that most people no longer started their search at the library but on Google? How could libraries argue for their relevance given the ubiquity of one of the most world’s most powerful corporations?

In the 19th century access was a value that drove the founding of public libraries – making books and newspapers available to all in hopes of improving individuals and society. Early on it was called “the library faith” – that broad exposure to knowledge would lead to better lives and a stronger society. What does that faith mean when we’re so saturated with information?

When I started working with undergraduates three decades ago it was understood that we had a limited collection, and for most purposes it would do. That’s no longer the case. Students are doing more research at a more advanced level, faculty research expectations have soared, the amount published is dizzying, and while we have systems to get you pretty much anything you desire it feels a bit as if we’re concierges arranging rentals, most often from five profitable multinationals. Of course some folks are in such a hurry they turn to shadow libraries* like SciHub, which have vast stores of articles and don’t ask for credentials. And that, too, feels threatening to librarians who have heard too often “why do we even need libraries when you can just Google it?”

Librarians are caught in that strange in-between place of wanting to take seriously “free to all” by fighting for open access to scholarship while in reality spending most of their time and money in rental transactions. What if we become wildly successful with open access and funding models evolved so sharing scholarship was frictionless and free? Would we all just Google it? Would that be the ultimate access?

Well . . . there are some issues with that scenario. Google is in the advertising business, and to increase their revenue, they need to hold our attention and tailor ads to our profiles. They call it “improving the customer experience.” I call bullshit. When we rely on monopolistic tech corporations for our access, we’re letting them decide who gets to see what. Increasingly, we’re allowing them to answer our questions – not showing us a range of options, but telling us via a voice assistant or highlighting in a box the answer, usually a bit of text from Wikipedia or some other high-traffic source, giving it great authority. Even if we ignore that singular answer, it’s unlikely we’ll go past the first page of results, and the algorithm for choosing what shows up first is a trade secret, constantly changing to outfox the optimization industry that has sprung up to push pages higher. Library systems for cataloging and shelving books are far from perfect, but at least they are transparent, and they don’t assume the point is to find one simple answer.

When we search, we have a variety of self-directed goals that will influence our path. We might be looking for a data set or a particular book or we’ve heard about or there’s a theory we want to explore in the context of some idea we’re testing. In a Google search everything – a news story, a hobby site, stuff for sale, an opinion piece, a bit of fabricated rage – is jumbled together with the idea that you’ll find an answer, just like going to a big box store to find a product. Knowledge doesn’t lend itself to that kind of get-in-and-get-out search style. Without context, without being able to discern connections and relationships, we have abundance, but that’s not the same as access.

Another thing to bear in mind is that these systems are vast and global but have no sense of local culture and how meaning is made.** They are forced to make some legal concessions because content that crosses international borders runs into national laws, but that’s about all the accommodation made to cope with the fact that it’s a very big world after all. A lot of folks access information through Facebook these days. The global implications are massive. Facebook is deploying walled-garden internet access in developing countries, providing “free” access to Facebook and a few other platforms chosen by Facebook, all watched over by local bureaucrats protecting their power. Facebook’s leadership has a highly unsophisticated understanding of what happens when you provide people with tools that allow communication but are designed to amplify the most attention-seeking material to sell attention to advertisers. You encourage genocide and apologize after it’s too late. You take payment for US political ads in rubles and only later admit that could be problematic. You get ignorant technological “fixes” that can’t tell the difference between a political campaign ad and a news story.

Then there’s the fact that this abundance is unevenly distributed. We’re all familiar with the unaffiliated researcher lacking access to articles unless they can pay quite a lot for each one they want to examine, but internet access itself is costly. Nearly half of Americans who are low income, minority, or live in rural areas lack broadband internet service at their homes even as it becomes more vital for education and nearly everything else. The percentage of Americans who rely on phones as their connection to the internet is significantly higher among African-Americans and still higher among Latinos than among whites. If you’re poor, there’s a good chance you’ll run short on your data plans before the end of the month, and at times you’ll have to cancel service altogether because it’s access or food. This is reality for many of our students. When we assume putting information online makes it accessible, we’re not giving it enough thought.

Libraries lately have been reflecting on how they can confront their own limits. Our classification systems reflect a vision of the world that favors Western, Christian culture; our purported inclusiveness is problematic when the profession is as white as it is. We’re struggling to make more information free to the world, but often without adequate reflection about how our advocacy for openness might strengthen the grip of the very companies that got is into this dilemma of unaffordable but profitable abundance.

What should “free to all” look like today? Is there a way to make knowledge public without it being channeled through a handful of profit-making companies from the US and Europe? I’ve said before that if we tried to invent free publicly-supported libraries today it would seem outlandish. Yet we did, and we got started during the first Gilded Age. During this one, we should expand “free to all” to shape the information systems that dominate our lives.

Not easy, I know, but important.

*This new book looks like an extremely valuable contribution to understanding scholarship from a global perspective. Bonus points: it’s open access.

**I just started reading Whose Global Villageby Ramesh Srinivasan and look forward to being a good deal smarter by the time I finish.

Reposted from Inside Higher Ed; photo by Les Chatfield

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