Back in the pre-digital age, when university libraries bought physical resources, graduating students knew that the university library collections would continue to be there for them. Even if it meant a trip back to campus, that reservoir of curated knowledge would always be available to enjoy.
These days, graduating students are sadly, abruptly and completely cut off from most of the digital resources that we librarians work so hard to supply and teach students how to use.
How did this happen? How have libraries learned to hate commencement?
It wasn’t one big fall, some heinous villain or anything like that. It’s similar to the frog-in-the-incrementally-boiling-pot scenario detailed in the documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” Huge profit-driven social media companies created and monopolized digital properties, exploited our social-psychological insecurities to foster addictive, self-obsessive behavior patterns with each view and swipe at a time. These companies siphoned our freely provided data and algorithmically monetized us with one small transactional nudge, all while making their companies seem indispensable to the functioning of society.
Huge profit-driven publishers have taken a similar course: gobbling up monopolies across academic publication markets, consolidating supply and distribution chains. They exploit the freely surrendered labor of university faculty and students as authors, editors and reviewers, all while monetizing every possible revenue source and user transaction. These major publishers are now setting their sights on sweeping up user data and effectively ending reader privacy by requiring individual – not just institution-based – validation and login information.
The saddest part is that academic libraries — for generations among the most trusted and publicly beneficial institutions in society — are enabling and funding this system of exploitation.
These days librarians hardly buy print books, textbooks, print journals or physical audio-visual media. Instead, as if living in some Bradburian dystopia, we routinely conduct enormous purges of physically-owned content and seek to replace it with packages of leased digital content with inflationary prices that even outpace the healthcare industry.
The same rampant inflation and predatory digital leasing model has overtaken much of the academic textbook market, forcing difficult either/or decisions for students about whether to have housing and food or textbook access. In the name of renovating and modernizing library spaces, we make the almost Orwellian rationalization that purging the physical purchases of the past is how we best serve library users today.
Forfeiting our carefully curated and cataloged property, we librarians have opted instead to become lessees, de facto customer service agents for publisher monopolies. We spend our days working to maintain for-profit vendor systems and closed-access links to deliver their preferred products, and we pay them billions of tax and tuition dollars for the privilege of working for them.
Day after day we sign electronic license agreements large and small, all the while believing that we are buying digital content and securing perpetual access. This mendacious, if not legally fraudulent sales pitch, echoed frequently in our workplace conversations, assumes that publishing companies, contracts, platforms, underlying author agreements and even educational institutions are eternal and unchanging. Fact check: they are not.
Students, alumni and taxpayers would be justified to ask vociferous, pointed questions about all of this. Whose interests are really being served here? Perpetual access for whom? Why don’t tax, tuition and fees cover the cost of textbooks and course materials? Why can’t alumni and taxpayers access public university library resources, especially during a lethal pandemic?
As it happens, libraries have special carve-outs under U.S. copyright law that provide a robust bundle of special rights. Once we have purchased a book, journal or even a movie, libraries can legally digitize a preservation copy of what we have purchased, replace it for free if it is damaged or goes missing and lend the item to anyone we choose.
Indeed, libraries can even lend out a digitized version of a physical item that we have purchased, so long as the physical item is not circulated at the same time. The more physical copies we collectively purchase, own and store, the more digital copies we can lend. This legal mechanism and technical workflow is called controlled digital lending, and it has been fully endorsed by the CSU libraries. However, even while endorsing controlled digital lending, most CSU libraries have yet to make use of it.
The Internet archive’s Open Library uses controlled digital lending to provide books to the whole world in fulfillment of its altruistic mission as a California public library and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Incidentally, the Internet Archive is facing a lawsuit in the District Court of the Southern District of New York by a few big publisher monopolies, because they used controlled digital lending to provide access to otherwise inaccessible, library-owned books during the COVID-19 crisis.
With nearly a decade of legally uncontested usage prior to COVID-19 and numerous endorsements from third-party legal experts, hundreds of library partners which include UC San Francisco and Los Angeles Public Library, among other non-profit, educational and government organizations, a jury trial and a legal team including the famous Authors Guild v. Google case’s lead attorney, the Internet Archive looks well-poised to win, but it needs strong support.
Sometimes librarians are reluctant to partner with the Internet Archive, even as a form of enlightened global self-interest, because of our commitment to local users as our priority. Controlled digital lending though, need not be limited to a partnership with the Internet Archive.
Any library can use controlled digital lending and set up and configure its platforms to fit its policies. One example, as part of its effort to provide digital access to its print collection during COVID-19 and in the future, is that the Stanford libraries have recently built their own in-house controlled digital lending system and launched a related community of practice, the Controlled Digital Lending Implementers.
What if all public universities and colleges in the state of California worked together — whether voluntarily or by state legal mandate — to build, maintain and populate a shared controlled digital lending platform devoted to students, past, present and future?
Such a platform could allow access to all alumni and current affiliates of a university, to an entire educational system or even to all systems simultaneously. It could even be configured to provide for partnerships with feeder high schools, so that the students would have access to an enormous, digitized print collection that begins to acclimate them to university-level reading and research.
Such a concerted effort could result in tens of millions of print books and hundreds of thousands of physically-held movies and other media made available for fully legal temporary borrowing, enjoyment and use.
Libraries have another special power: open access advocacy. In keeping with the fundamental principles of our profession, librarians have been at the forefront of transforming academic publishing to make quality academic information freely available to students, alumni and the general public.
Green Open Access mandates such as California AB-2192, and Green open access policies passed by universities’ Academic Senates make the accepted versions of faculty journal articles legally available to the world for free. Gold open access publishing funds subsidize the up-front labor and publishing costs for books and articles to make them free for everyone from the moment of their digital birth. Transformative agreements cover open access publishing costs for all authors of an institution as part of content subscription packages. Open educational resource initiatives facilitate the creation and inclusion of free resources in courses and curricula.
Library-sponsored Wikipedia edit-a-thons enact social justice on the world’s most-accessed informational site by surfacing persons, events and resources from underrepresented leaders, authors, communities and publishers. Open science workflows leverage publicly-funded and grant-funded platforms to eliminate intermediary publishers and make them irrelevant to the review and digital distribution of scientific knowledge.
Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of Homeland Security and recently retired president of the University of California, has been an exceptional global leader in the open access movement. On her last day in office, Napolitano published an impassioned plea for institutes of higher education to commit fully to support open access research and publishing for the national and global good. The CSUs should have that kind of leadership.
On a closing note, Charlotte Roh, the University of San Francisco scholarly communication librarian, has documented in her important research that global academic publishing and U.S. librarianship is plagued with systemic racism and gender bias.
Predominantly white librarians led by predominantly white male library administrators buy predominantly white male-authored literature sold by predominantly white male publisher staffs run by predominantly white male executives who are excessively paid. Even though researchers in China are producing more journal articles today than in the U.S., an English-only bias persists in large swaths of academic publishing and librarianship. Academic labor exploitation, white English ethnocentrism and sexism are the three legs propping up this unjust and regressive system.
In the United Kingdom, a library-based petition is quickly gaining traction calling for the regulation of the academic book industry and to investigate its market manipulation and price-gouging, all the more egregious and opportunistic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This call is likely to spread to North American shores as well. As many academic publisher monopolies are based out of the Netherlands, Germany and the U.K., yet heavily reliant on California-funded academic institutions and authors for their supply and revenues, this injustice is all the more poignant for us in the golden state.
In the spirit of humanist anti-racism, the CSUs should reprioritize budgets to fund the realization of intersectional diversity in academic publishing and librarianship, prohibit the use of taxpayer and tuition dollars for digital content leases that weaken the special rights and protections of libraries under copyright law, pass robust open access policies to make CSU-authored journal articles freely available to the public, generously fund open access publishing and open educational resource initiatives inside and outside libraries, adjust reappointment, tenure and promotion standards to accept open science peer review workflows that disintermediate academic publisher monopolies, transition to interoperable open-source software architecture across all our platforms, and build or join a digital lending platform that truly serves our students, alumni and the taxpaying public.
As the world’s largest public educational institution — one whose students face disproportionate levels of economic, food and housing insecurity — the CSU has an enormous, historic opportunity to transform our libraries and the larger academic knowledge economy from an exploitative, captive consumer market to a liberating, creative commons.
History will be our judge. Whose side will we take?
Mark G. Bilby
Ph.D./, M.S.LIS, Scholarly Communication Librarian, California State University, Fullerton
Mark Bilby blogs about Scholarly Communication at calschol.com