Access, Real and Imagined

Last month I had an interesting discussion with Adam Riggio about the problems faced by researchers who are not employed at universities in accessing the academic literature, which is published by increasingly expensive journals. As a solution, Adam proposed that we “develop new styles of philosophical writing that don’t depend on referencing the dry and minor secondary literature produced in heavily audience-restricted peer reviewed academic journals whose immense subscription prices keep them behind university library firewalls.” In my view, that would be a bit extreme, since there is usually a way of accessing almost anything that has been published through your local public library’s inter-library loan agreement.

Adam was skeptical about this, but my conversations with librarians, both here in Denmark and in the US suggests that my intuition is correct here. Although it’s obviously more convenient to have the sort of on-campus access (and, often, even remote access) that students and faculty enjoy as a matter of course, it’s not the case that people not affiliated with universities are forced to cultivate a “new style of writing” that ignores the academic literature. They really just have wait a little longer to access the same literature. Not years, mind you. Days.

I was reminded of this issue when reading Charlie Potter’s contribution to the anthology Googlization of Libraries(I hope everyone enjoys the irony of my linking to Taylor and Francis for the the article, and Google Books for the book.) Here’s the key passage:

“The citation seen [on Google Scholar] by on-campus users are considerably different from those seen by users affiliated with a campus, as on-campus users see a direct link to the institution’s library in a result that is locally held. Users not located a campus but who are affiliated with a campus can activate the links provided by their library through the Google interface. After doing this, users will be able to access the available articles through the remote access authentication provided by their institution. However, if users are unaware of this technology or unaffiliated with a university, they are led to believe that they must purchase the article in order to obtain it. In reality, most of these items could be obtained by going to the local academic or public library and viewing the items on on-campus computers. In addition, the articles that cannot be obtained by a library can usually be found using interlibrary loan, a service free to those affiliated with most universities or public libraries.” (Potter 2008: 17)

I think Potter makes a very important point here. New technologies have made it much, much easier to access information. But this has also made the barriers to access more visible and, in a sense, more daunting. Libraries have to do a better job of presenting themselves as public-service institutions that provide access to things that money can also buy, admittedly a bit more conveniently. In an important sense, there’s no difference between the world of the Internet and the old days, where you could choose between subscribing to a newspaper or reading it a local library, buying a book and borrowing it.

I’d be interested to hear how other librarians, and other scholars who are not based at universities, perceive the problem.


Potter, Charlie (2008). Standing on the Shoulders of Libraries: A Holistic and Rhetorical Approach to Teaching Google Scholar, Journal of Library Administration, 47:1-2, 5-28.

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