Column Editor: Jim O’Donnell (University Librarian, Arizona State University)
I’m used to writing ancient history, but not quite this way. I want to comment on the place of libraries in the age of coronavirus, very well aware that by the time you may read this in Against the Grain, whatever I say will seem to be so mid-March and ancient by comparison to what we will be living through then. You’ll have trouble remembering what it was like back in the day when we were cancelling St. Patrick’s Day.
But I won’t talk about the latest shutdowns or press conferences or the frightening or funny Facebook memes of the moment. Let’s think a little bit about libraries and their role in crisis and what we might learn.
First, of course, our buildings are very different from what they once were. We can shut them all down and our libraries don’t go away, because so much of what we offer is available 24/7/365 in every time zone on the planet — except, of course, to the 50% of the planet’s population that isn’t networked yet. (At ASU, we regularly count authenticated student/faculty/staff logins over the course of the year from more than 170 countries.) Our buildings are precious in many ways, but in a crisis, we have enough to offer that is not dependent on the buildings that we can keep right on doing business. That’s a good thing, with a real risk: that a pandemic will so reframe our attraction to public spaces that our buildings and our print collections will loom a little smaller in our patrons’ eyes than they do now.
But second, dependence on libraries’ digital presence and a distracted sense of urgency about getting access to the information we think we need right now will call attention to all the fences and barriers we put around library information. It seemed (and was) prophetic a few years ago when David Weinberger of Harvard was doing his talk about the “library-sized hole in the Internet” (https://www.researchinformation.info/interview/there-library-sized-hole-internet). We librarians believe in wide access to universal knowledge, but all the fences and restrictions and sign-ins and dual authentications that we have to put around our information have the effect of discouraging even our authorized users and of actively prohibiting most of the human race from getting at what we have to offer. The result is that this hole, this gap, is easily ignored by information-seeking people, who then content themselves with Wikipedia or whatever, as did those millions of people who pivoted in a single month from being experts on the constitutional twists of impeachment to pontificating serenely on the nature of infectious diseases. We didn’t always get the most authoritative information from them in either case.
We’ve spent the last twenty-five years talking about open access (have a look at the book Ann Okerson and I edited in 1995, Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal [https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015034923758&view=1up&seq=5], probably the first book ever constructed out of the records of a series of email exchanges and the first book about open access) and we’ve made progress, sure. But to me, the frame of that conversation is never ambitious enough. We don’t need just open science and open research — we need the human race, from Silicon Valley to the remote locations that the Offline Internet Consortium (http://www.offline-internet.org) tries to reach, to have genuinely free and transparent discovery of and access to the highest quality information humankind can offer.
We’ve come only a little way toward that goal. It’s not just a question of business models and copyright management. Plan S (https://www.coalition-s.org/) points in one direction but we have to remember to listen to Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive (https://archive.org) as the prophet of liberating “the forgotten twentieth century” and all the in-copyright books and songs and films that cannot be digitized and made available. Much needs to be set as near free as possible — and for all its faults, Apple’s iTunes showed the liberation that reducing prices to a non-zero but, for many folks at least, trivial level could offer. On the way to free, really, really inexpensive is a pretty good waystation.
In the end, the access wars will be won only if many more people than librarians fight them. But be careful what you ask for.
If every book and every article and every song and every Tik Tok video and every Instagram page back to the beginning of time were available for free on the open Internet, that wouldn’t solve our real problem: finding what readers need. “Nobody goes there anymore,” said Yogi, “it’s too crowded.” Finding where to go and what you really need is just going to get harder — and that is an area where librarians have core competencies. Yes, we need to work on our own business practices to break down barriers and smooth paths. (I think here of the work of two Ohioans, Lorcan Dempsey with his work on the facilitated collection [http://orweblog.oclc.org/towards-the-facilitated-collection/] and Gwen Evans with the recent OhioLink report [https://www.ohiolink.edu/files/press/releases/2020/docs/OhioLINK_UserFuture_whitepaper.pdf] on the ILS we need for the future.) But we also just have to get better at facilitating discovery — with metadata and machine learning and personalization and tactics yet to be invented. Until we do, all the plagues of humankind, not just the ones airborne on a sneeze, will be harder to defeat and all the possibilities of human development — and just survival — will be constrained and hampered.
Remember that phrase from “Aquarius”: “mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation”? Can we claim that as a vision from old days that some of us can remember about the future librarians can offer? If we’re still in self-isolation when you read this, shouldn’t we be thinking about these issues — these possibilities?