Librarians as Guides to Information Policy and Trends
By Barbara Fister
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 All academic librarians need to develop the means to keep up with new developments in publishing, copyright, digital technologies, and the social and cultural environment for creating, sharing, and accessing information. But they should do more: They should develop a means to share what they learn with their local community so that students, faculty, and staff understand and can shape the world of knowledge beyond the narrow confines of their traditional disciplinary practices. Librarians have not had notable success capturing the attention of busy faculty, who often fail to connect their personal publishing practices with journals cancellations and are shocked to discover that in many cases they have no legal right to post online the articles they wrote (Peterson, 2013). It’s frustrating for librarians who have labored for decades to educate their faculty about the problematic economics of journal publishing to see smart people fail to grasp what seems so obvious to us – you signed a publication agreement that explicitly transferred the copyright to the publisher, so why are you surprised that they are exercising that extremely profitable right that you donated to them? But that could be because librarians have failed to frame the issues as something much larger than a library problem. Likewise, we haven’t positioned librarians as expert at anything other than running libraries. This is an excellent time to shift those frames and position ourselves differently. Faculty are trained extensively by their mentors in graduate school to understand disciplinary practices for establishing one’s reputation in the field. This reputation-building (which is crucial for scholars’ careers as well as for the advancement of the discipline) is performed through a dissemination system that is highly specific to the community formed around fairly narrowly-defined subject expertise passed on traditionally. What is missing is the bigger picture, the connections among the publishing traditions (both scholarly and outside scholarly communities) that affect the entire ecology of knowledge. Librarians may be relatively ignorant of what the change in an editorial board signals to authors or why one journal is considered stodgy and another daringly cutting-edge because we are not disciplinary insiders. Yet we can see how certain traditional practices can inhibit or promote sharing knowledge beyond those privileged enough to have broad access to scholarship. We understand how it all connects: how the financial value of a chemistry society’s publishing program affects the market for academic books in sociology or comparative literature, how one discipline’s “essential” journals cost more than others because some disciplines are funded at a much higher rate than others. We can explain how a bill introduced in Congress might further tilt the constitutional balance between rights owners and the “progress of science and the useful arts” because we deal with the big picture daily. Librarians need to get better at monitoring changes in this big picture and better at communicating it to those who are vastly more familiar than we are with some small piece of it and are understandably proud of their hard-won expertise. This requires being able to respect and be curious about disciplinary values while relating the way they are represented in the published record to larger economic systems. It means being au fait with copyright case law as it unfolds and developing channels for sharing the likely impact of those court decisions. It means being familiar with the four factors test for fair use and confident enough to offer advice that does not succumb to an overly-cautious stance. It means shifting from a passive service orientation that privileges “we’ll do whatever it takes to get what you ask for” to “let’s talk about why getting what you want is difficult and why that problem matters beyond this campus.” We are not simply local handmaidens whose highest calling is obtaining published objects on demand. We’re here to help our communities while ensuring the best possible environment for intellectual freedom for all. It’s not fair to our students or faculty to keep our values to ourselves while locally acting as amiable purchasing agents for costly consumer goods. We are positioned to be educators in a broader sense than “we can help you find sources for that paper” and “let me show you this new technology that could improve your research productivity.” As helpful as those things are, we can do much more. We can be cartographers of the big picture, helping students and scholars see how legal and economic trends influence the ways knowledge is shared and hoarded. We can make access to information and to the tools of knowledge production a matter of social justice and global stewardship. Libraries are arguably the intellectual common ground of their campuses, welcoming to first year students and to senior faculty alike, providing access to ideas from every discipline. We enable connections as ideas mingle and collide. Our libraries are also local nodes in an interconnected knowledge commons that is threatened by privatization and commodification. We need to look beyond our narrow identities as local purchasing agents and walled gardeners and actively promote the health and viability of knowledge by sharing our understanding of the big picture both locally and beyond our own discipline. We can do much more to make our defense of the value of sharing and preserving knowledge a common cause.
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