Tag Archives: scholars

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.

Actively Reading Open Access

Open Access

I’ve been enthusiastic about OA (open access to academic texts) for a number of years. I don’t tend to be extremely active in the OA milieu but I do use every opportunity I can to talk about OA, both in formal academic contexts and in more casual and informal conversation.

My own views about Open Access are that it should be plain common-sense, for both scholars and “the public.” Not that OA is an ultimate principle, but it seems so obvious to me that OA can be beneficial in a large range of contexts. In fact, I tend to conceive of academia in terms of Open Access. In my mind, a concept related to OA runs at the very core of the academic enterprise and helps distinguish it from other types of endeavours. Simply put, academia is the type of “knowledge work ” which is oriented toward openness in access and use.

Historically, this connection between academic work and openness has allegedly been the source of the so-called “Open Source movement” with all its consequences in computing, the Internet, and geek culture.

Quite frequently, OA advocates focus (at least in public) on specific issues related to Open Access. An OA advocate put it in a way that made me think it might have been a precaution, used by OA advocates and activists, to avoid scaring off potential OA enthusiasts. As I didn’t involve myself as a “fighter” in the OA-related discussions, I rarely found a need for such precautions.

I now see signs that the Open Access movement is finally strong enough that some of these precautions might not even be needed. Not that OA advocates “throw caution to the wind.” But I really sense that it’s now possible to openly discuss broader issues related to Open Access because “critical mass has been achieved.”

Suber’s Newsletter

Case in point, for this sense of a “wind of change,” the latest issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

Suber’s newsletter is frequently a useful source of information about Open Access and I often get inspired by it. But because my involvement in the OA movement is rather limited, I tend to skim those newsletter issues, more than I really read them. I kind of feel bad about this but “we all need to choose our battles,” in terms of information management.

But today’s issue “caught my eye.” Actually, it stimulated a lot of thoughts in me. It provided me with (tasty) intellectual nourishment. Simply put: it made me happy.

It’s all because Suber elaborated an argument about Open Access that I find particularly compelling: the epistemological dimension of Open Acces. Because of my perspective, I respond much more favourably to this epistemological argument than I would with most practical and ethical arguments. Maybe that’s just me. But it still works.

So I read Suber’s newsletter with much more attention than usual. I savoured it. And I used this new method of actively reading online texts which is based on the Diigo.com social bookmarking service.

Active Reading

What follows is a slightly edited version of my Diigo annotations on Suber’s text.

Peter Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, 6/2/08


June 2008 issue of Peter Suber’s newsletter on open access to academic texts (“Open Access,” or “OA”).

tags: toblog, Suber, Open Access, academia, publishing, wisdom of crowds, crowdsourcing, critical thinking

General comments

  • Suber’s newsletters are always on the lengthy side of things but this one seems especially long. I see this as a good sign.
  • For several reasons, I find this issue of Suber’s newsletter is particularly stimulating. Part of my personal anthology of literature about Open Access.

Quote-based annotations and highlights.

Items in italics are Suber’s, those in roman are my annotations.

  • Open access and the self-correction of knowledge

    • This might be one of my favourite arguments for OA. Yes, it’s close to ESR’s description of the “eyeball” principle. But it works especially well for academia.
  • Nor is it very subtle or complicated
    • Agreed. So, why is it so rarely discussed or grokked?
  • John Stuart Mill in 1859
    • Nice way to tie the argument to something which may thought-provoke scholars in Humanities and Social Sciences.
  • OA facilitates the testing and validation of knowledge claims
    • Neat, clean, simple, straightforward… convincing. Framing it as hypothesis works well, in context.
  • science is self-correcting
    • Almost like “talking to scientists’ emotions.” In an efficient way.
  • reliability of inquiry
    • Almost lingo-like but resonates well with academic terminology.
  • Science is special because it’s self-correcting.
    • Don’t we all wish this were more widely understood?
  • scientists eventually correct the errors of other scientists
    • There’s an important social concept, here. Related to humility as a function of human interaction.
  • persuade their colleagues
  • new professional consensus
  • benefit from the perspectives of others
    • Tying humility, intellectual honesty, critical thinking, ego-lessness, and even relativist ways of knowing.
  • freedom of expression is essential to truth-seeking
  • opening discussion as widely as possible
    • Perhaps my favourite argument ever for not only OA but for changes in academia generally.
  • when the human mind is capable of receiving it
    • Possible tie-in with the social level of cognition. Or the usual “shoulders of giants.”
  • public scrutiny
    • Emphasis on “public”!
  • protect the freedom of expression
    • The problem I have with the way this concept is applied is that people rely on pre-established institutions for this protection and seem to assume that, if the institution is maintained, so is the protection. Dangerous!
  • If the only people free to speak their minds are people like the author, or people with a shared belief in current orthodoxy, then we’d rarely hear from people in a position to recognize deficiencies in need of correction.
    • This, I associate with “groupthink” in the “highest spheres” (sphere height being giving through social negotiation of prestige).
  • But we do have to make our claims available to everyone who might care to read and comment on them.
    • Can’t help but think that *some* of those who oppose or forget this mainly fear the social risks associated with our positions being questioned or invalidated.
  • For the purposes of scientific progress, a society in which access to research is limited, because it’s written in Latin, because authors are secretive, or because access requires travel or wealth, is like a society in which freedom of expression is limited.
  • scientists who are free to speak their minds but lack access to the literature have no advantage over scientists without the freedom to speak their minds
  • many-eyeballs theory
  • many voices from many perspectives
  • exactly what scientists must do to inch asymptotically toward certainty
  • devil’s advocate
  • enlisting as much help
  • validate knowledge claims in public
  • OA works best of all
    • My guess is that those who want to argue against this hypothesis are reacting in a knee-jerk fashion, perhaps based on personal motives. Nothing inherently wrong there, but it remains as a potential bias.
  • longevity in a free society
    • Interesting way to put it.
  • delay
  • the friction in a non-OA system
    • The academic equivalent of cute.
  • For scientific self-correction, OA is lubricant, not a precondition.
    • Catalyst?
  • much of the scientific progress in the 16th and 17th centuries was due to the spread of print itself and the wider access it allowed for new results
    • Neat way to frame it.
  • Limits on access (like limits on liberty) are not deal-breakers, just friction in the system
    • “See? We’re not opposed to you. We just think there’s a more efficient way to do things.”
  • OA can affect knowledge itself, or the process by which knowledge claims become knowledge
  • pragmatic arguments
    • Pretty convincing ones.
  • The Millian argument for OA is not the “wisdom of crowds”
    • Not exclusively, but it does integrate the diversity of viewpoints made obvious through crowdsourcing.
  • without attempting to synthesize them
    • If “wisdom of crowds” really is about synthesis, then it’s nothing more than groupthink.
  • peer review and the kind of empirical content that underlies what Karl Popper called falsifiability
    • I personally hope that a conversation about these will occur soon. What OA makes possible, in a way, is to avoid the dangers which come from the social dimension of “peerness.” This was addressed earlier, and I see a clear connection with “avoiding groupthink.” But the assumption that peer-review, in its current form, has reached some ultimate and eternal value as a validation system can be questioned in the context of OA.
  • watchdogs
  • Such online watchdogs were among those who first identified problems with images and other data in a cloning paper published in Science by Woo Suk Hwang, a South Korean researcher. The research was eventually found to be fraudulent, and the journal retracted the paper….
    • Not only is it fun as a “success story” (CHE’s journalistic bent), but it may help some people understand that there is satisfaction to be found in fact-checking. In fact, verification can be self-rewarding, in an appropriate context. Seems obvious enough to many academics but it sounds counterintuitive to those who think of academia as waged labour.


Really impressive round-up of recent news related to Open Access. What I tend to call a “linkfest.”

What follows is my personal selection, based on diverse interests.