Knowledge in the Shrinking Commons: Libraries and Open Access in a Market-Driven World

Knowledge in the Shrinking Commons: Libraries and Open Access in a Market-Driven World

Luke Bassuener
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9634-1.ch017
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Libraries and Open Access function in a variety of ways to make information freely available to the public, but the current era of market-driven globalization has reshaped the economic environment, and threatens to undermine their principle mission. The defining characteristic of this threat is the treatment of knowledge as a commodity. The idea of open access and the institution of the library exist as sources of self-directed learning and as representatives of the shrinking commons in the face of encroaching market forces. Libraries face challenges of relevance in regard to technology, budgets, privatization, and physical space. Open Access must find ways to define itself coherently—as publishers, researchers, libraries and businesses all try to manipulate the concept to fit their needs. This chapter looks at the shared obstacles and objectives of libraries and the open access movement, and analyzes some of the efforts being made to address current challenges and work toward a future of collaboration and continued relevance.
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Libraries and the open access movement are, of course, not the same. They can both be viewed as educational institutions or gateways to self-directed learning. They are both key players in the curation, arrangement and storage of information. They are both engaged in the processes of making information readily available, but while both play similar educational and organizational roles, there are several distinctions that set them apart. Libraries are physical institutions, while OA is a primarily virtual idea. OA can take place within the structure of the library, may utilize the library as a tool toward its realization, or may mirror the library in its delivery of information, but it has no physical presence of its own. The access to information provided by a library, meanwhile, does not necessarily carry the same specificity as the access referred to within the “Open Access Movement.” OA, as defined by Peter Suber’s (2004) “A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access,” refers specifically to scholarly literature and research of the sort not typically found on the shelves of public libraries. The particular access problem that OA attempts to address is the restrictive and rising cost of scholarly publications. The basic solution it presents is that research and information should be digitized, archived and made available without charge. The reality of OA is far more complicated. Terms like free and open mean many different things in many different contexts. Access can be free in terms of cost, or free in terms of usage and permission. Information which is free to a reader is not necessarily free to produce. There are significant costs to providing things for free, and there are significant differences in the ways that various stakeholders propose to make that happen.

Open access, then, is a hotly contested concept, even while it is also a relatively specific one. It fits loosely into the framework of libraries – and roughly follows the library model – but it does not necessarily operate like the library itself. Direct comparisons may not be entirely accurate, but the obstacles and objectives shared by both seem to merit their consideration here together. Both are influenced—or perhaps under attack– by the forces of consumerism and market globalization (Buschman, 2003, D’Angelo, 2006, Rikowski, 2005). Both run the risk of witnessing their principle mission undermined by commodification, and both face considerable struggles with an economic future that seems inevitable.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Privatize: To transfer ownership or control of a public/ government industry or organization to an independently owned enterprise.

Globalization: Integration across national boundaries brought about by advances in transportation and communication technologies.

Commons: Spaces or resources which are publicly owned or accessible to anyone.

Digitization: The process of converting data into an electronic form for use on computers.

Commodify: To treat as an object which can be bought, traded or sold.

Market-Driven: Characteristics of policies, practices or ideas which are guided by the economic principles of deregulation, privatization, and free and open trade.

Open Access: The free and unrestricted availability of research and information; typically in digital form.

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