A Sea Change (9): Investment in Open Access and Shared Digital Resources

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Over the past century U.S. and Canadian libraries invested billions to amass vast collections of research materials, including newspapers and news broadcasts, legal and government publications, trade and industrial literature, statistical reports, and historical archives. That investment preserved a wealth of resources not only for the humanities, but for the social sciences, public policy, law, the environment, public health, and a host of other fields as well. 

Unfortunately many of these resources are locked in formats difficult to exploit for today's research purposes.  Use of paper and microform collections is dwindling, as interlibrary loan steadily declines in favor of online access. This is more than a matter of simple convenience: materials in physical formats are ill-suited to text and data mining, visualization, network analysis, and other new practices being embraced by researchers. On the supply side, some publishers are placing new restrictions on sharing of microfilm; others are discontinuing production altogether. 

There are also opportunity costs: Continued encumbrance of resources to acquire and manage print and paper-based materials shortchanges the preservation of more vital and relevant documentation and evidence. While we purchase expensive microforms of contemporary Middle East and Latin American newspapers that offer the official view of local events, critical documentation gathered and hosted on the web by independent journalists and opposition and civil society groups is disappearing. In the past, librarians and scholars at Cornell, Yale, University of Texas, Northwestern, and other institutions mobilized efforts under the CRL umbrella to microfilm vital, politically sensitive documentation from Cambodia, Brazil, South Africa and other places. Absent those efforts, important historical evidence would have been lost. To live up to that legacy today we need new strategies.  

In discussions and forums this year a number of ideas surfaced on how CRL can begin to address these challenges.Two promising possibilities involve increasing investment in open access and shared resources:    

  1. What if we shifted resources we now use to acquire, store, and lend paper and microform collections to digitizing those collections and unlocking them for researchers worldwide? Such an effort could leverage CRL's long history of cooperative investment in collections. It could also build upon the support CRL now provides existing cooperative digitization efforts like the Area Materials Projects and Global Resources programs, harnessing the same member expertise and energy that have driven CRL's paper and microform acquisitions to date.  
  2. What if instead of waiting for digital collections and resources to come to market, we instead proactively supported the efforts of organizations upstream to gather and preserve critical digital content and data?  That would involve shifting the focus of CRL licensing from negotiating the purchase of databases and digital collections curated and packaged by vendors, to directly supporting efforts by nonprofit, civil society and university-based initiatives, favoring open access and transparency.

There are many issues to resolve: copyright restrictions exist and will have to be addressed, and mechanisms for identifying priorities put in place. Because of the substantial fixed costs of maintaining existing collections there are also limits to the amount of capital available for new digital investments. But changing CRL's operational focus in these ways might enable us to better support original research and scholarship in the years ahead.

Aggressive investment in open data and shared digital resources is a possibility CRL's Board will explore this year in mapping CRL's future.  Representatives of CRL libraries are invited to consider these ideas in advance of discussions at the 2018 Council of Voting Members meeting.   

Bernard F. Reilly
President (2001-2019)
Center for Research Libraries