Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.

7 thoughts on “Privilege: Library Edition”

  1. Some of the exceptions in the U.S. are amazing, and have no counterpart in Canada that I personally know about. For example, at this moment I have next to me a video that was sent to me by the National Gallery of Art in Maryland — for free, no charges, for me to keep for three months, and they spent $20 US sending it to me. I am not a patron of their library, nor am I an American. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can request and receive one of their videos.

    So what you are calling for in Canada, especially with regard to non-academics and non-Canadians, can be done, and is being done. Just not in Canada.

  2. Sorry for the spam,

    It also seems to me that asking questions, or allowing space for questions, about whether libraries are cost effective, their role in achieving competitive advantage, if they offer a return on investment, etc., are all the wrong questions to entertain or to allow a presence in your post without being thoroughly questioned and challenged. The primary question is: must everything be governed by the logic of capital, even now, when that logic has been so severely discredited on its own terms? What other things are valued by people that have no return for the economy — love, a happy family, mental peace, etc., should we chuck those out because they don’t serve capital? I actually don’t think you would agree with what I am criticizing here, you might, I don’t know. My question is why you would let such questions pass without commentary.

  3. @Maximilian Thanks for the comments. Don’t worry about making multiple comments on the same post.
    On getting resources from the US, I see what you mean and I’ve had even better service through my affiliation with IU. But my point is about discrepancies in terms of access. In Canada, university libraries tend not to be that different from one another in terms of access. Open access would make this model even more egalitarian.
    As for the questions you don’t like, they are precisely the ones which come up most frequently in discussions of OA. I paid more than lipservice to these issues and I’ve been on record on many of them on several occasions, here and elsewhere.

  4. I understand Alex, but those who speak of Open Access and profit in the same breath probably have not realized the contradiction they have created for themselves, because profit can only arise from closure. Incidentally, I was not suggesting that you agreed with that and my apologies for not having followed all of the posts on what is a blog of hefty proportions.

    The larger and more important problem is the corporatization of public assets such as universities, which is proceeding apace even in Canada, is fundamentally against the kind of broad open access that you call for and that I agree with, and that manifests itself in a thousand other everyday cost-benefit approaches that pass without detection because they are deemed “normal.”

  5. @Maximilian No apologies necessary. I wasn’t blaming you, just trying to explain that this post wasn’t a summary of my position on Open Access. In fact, I was trying to merge some issues related to the OA movement to the broader issue of privilege.

  6. These borrowal rights are above and beyond normal inter-library loans? At McGill (where I work) I’ve done inter-library loans from non-canadian universities and it’s never taken more then a week or two to get the volume (but the borrowal period was rather short, to say the least).

  7. @Alexandre Carmel-Veilleux
    CURBA itself did enhance some aspects of inter-library loan, but I was talking about getting a library card to borrow books directly. In physical libraries, there’s a huge difference between direct borrowing as a guest and inter-library loans. Both have advantages which are still less advantageous than online distribution.
    In this case, I was specifically talking about direct borrowing. I’ve lived in New Brunswick in 2003-2004 and I could have used direct borrowing at U. de Moncton and UNB, at that time. It would have made my life much easier. At the time, I was borrowing books through Indiana University (where I was registered as a PhD student). IU shipped the books directly to my home address in Moncton and I had the books for as long as a full year. There was no limit to the number of books I could borrow. That was also very convenient but for different reasons. I couldn’t just go to the library, browse books, and come home with those I select.
    Online, there’s something somewhat similar in the difference between, on the one hand, Google Books and books which allow “Search Inside” on Amazon, as opposed to books you see in a catalogue. The fact that you can browse those books (with some annoying restrictions) “changes the game.” It’s almost the equivalent of “instant gratification” but it has some more practical consequences.

    Thanks for dropping by!

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