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tl;dr: Publishers are crushing the life out of libraries. They’re undermining libraries’ efforts to democratize access to information and advance learning. You can push back by refusing to be a part of this broken system and deciding to make your own scholarly work more accessible to all.

A few weeks ago, officials in Citrus County, Florida denied a local library’s request for funding its subscription to The New York Times.

“I’m going to be a ‘no’ for this. Fake news. I agree with President Trump,” one of the county commissioners said as he explained his position. “I will not vote for this. I do not want The New York Times in this county.” The commissioners laughed at the thought of paying for the paper, especially digital access to it. One asked, “Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?”

Librarians around the country, including the three of us here at Olin, are alarmed by the implications of this. Should an official’s political views be grounds for deciding what content a library can make available? How about a publisher’s profit margins?

At the beginning of November, Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers in the U.S., declared they’re instating embargos on all libraries looking to obtain multiple copies of new ebooks until eight weeks after their release date, in order to boost paper book sales. 

Imagine there were 20 Olin students who wanted to borrow an ebook copy of Edward Snowden’s new memoir Permanent Record back when it was first released in September. Under Macmillan’s rules, our library could have purchased one e-copy of Permanent Record on its release date, waited eight weeks, then purchased additional e-copies. If, after those eight weeks, we bought three additional e-copies and loaned each of them out for two weeks apiece, this would have cost us $210 (vs. $120 for four paper copies) and there’d still be borrowers waiting to be able to read a digital copy of Permanent Record. If you had to wait three or four months to read something, would you just go buy it, or maybe just not read it at all? (The library does own one paper copy of the book, by the way.)

In the words of the American Library Association, this “limit[s] libraries’ ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. [Ebooks] can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most ebook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges.” As a librarian wrote in an editorial for Publisher’s Weekly, “[W]hile Macmillan’s ebook embargo aims to squeeze a few more sales out of frustrated library users, it unfairly disadvantages ebook readers who use the library out of need. Equal access to information regardless of ability to pay is foundational to a democratic society and is why public libraries exist.” It may not be as blatantly censorious as what the Citrus County commissioners are up to, but the embargo prevents people from being able to read what they want to read when and how they want to read it.

Macmillan and its ebook policy present a problem to libraries that amounts to censorship by a thousand cuts–or maybe a thousand invoices. By pricing libraries out or denying them access altogether, companies are limiting what people can read and, in the process, creating a user experience so frustrating that many people give up on it. Streaming media platforms are another challenge. There is next to no conversation happening about how libraries can provide institutional access to services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. When librarians try to engage in agreements with these companies, they tend to hear nothing back. We’re so far out of their line of sight because we aren’t profitable. After all, our business model is essentially “take very small amounts of money from people through taxes or tuition and translate it back into lots of free stuff for those same people to use.” Theirs is “charge lots of people quite a bit of money for just enough access to things they like that they keep autopaying their subscriptions.” Doesn’t mesh well.

This is bad because at some point in the near future, the physical media libraries can easily provide access to in the form of DVDs will cease to be a viable option for many borrowers. In early 2019, Samsung announced it was going to stop manufacturing DVD players. We’ve seen Oliners experience the joy of running around trying to find external DVD drives on campus, and we’ve talked to faculty flummoxed by how to provide access to documentaries they’d hoped to show in class. Libraries are already contending with certain exclusive streaming shows and movies never being sold as physical copies. This is only the beginning as we move to an era where DVDs become a thing of the past and theatrical releases go straight to streaming, again creating a division of access based on who has or doesn’t have the $9.99/month for a Netflix account (and the $9.99/month for a Hulu account, and the $6.99/month for a Disney+ account, and the cable subscription for an HBO GO account, etc.).

The bloodiest battle between libraries and publishers of all, and the one that’s closest to home for us at Olin’s library, is happening in access to academic research. Olin pays for access to ebooks and other electronic content, such as databases of scholarly research and online periodical subscriptions. We do not pay a small amount of money for these things to begin with, but virtually all publishers try to tack on an increase when it’s time to renew our subscriptions–not just once every few years, but every year. The percentage growth in academic and corporate libraries’ expenditures on these resources was 673% between 1986 and 2015. That’s not missing a decimal point. Olin didn’t exist in 1986, but if we did, you can bet your buns that our budget wouldn’t have gone up by nearly 700% in the thirty-odd years between then and now.

In the early months of 2019, the academic library world was rocked by the news that the University of California system ended negotiations with publishing megagiant RELX (you may know them as Elsevier) for a new journal subscription contract. This was huge; as a piece from Inside Higher Ed put it, “no [institutions that have tried negotiating] in the U.S. have the financial and scholarly clout of the UC system — which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s publishing output.” In a decision that took hundreds of opinions and dozens of departments unified in their mission to fight back against the debilitating costs of accessing research and reliable sources, UC brought widespread attention to the matter of price gouging and the importance of open access publishing.

That leads us right into why we should care and what can we do. 

Open access publishing means making research freely available, as opposed to lurking behind paywalls. If you’ve ever maxed out on free stories on a news website or searched our library resources, you’ve ran into these nasty things, tempting you with the contents of an article or ebook only to find it’s in a database we don’t subscribe to because it’s prohibitively expensive for us. To give some context here, Elsevier’s profits in 2017 – profit rooted in the publication of others’ scientific work – were an obscene $1,170,000,000, a profit of 37% over their operating budget. As a response to this extortion, open access takes shape as a commitment made at the college or university level to ensure that faculty or student research is accessible internally for free or in open access journals, or both.

How does this impact your education? Open access furthers research and innovation in all fields, and engineering is no exception. Even if you aren’t doing much research or writing right now, you will if you go to grad school, if you choose to teach, or when you file patents, author white papers, or do other fact-finding projects at work. Unfortunately, we’re very far away from a purely open access world. The prestige of publishing in certain journals combined with the greedy, powerful vendors–can’t live with ‘em (pay through the nose) or without ‘em (kill access to research)–keeps access exclusive and profit margins high.

Any library’s ability to sustainably and easily provide access to quality resources is vitally important to its existence and relevance to its community, but because publishers are so fixated on profits, it’s increasingly becoming impossible. Circling back to ebooks and streaming media, even if you haven’t set foot in a public library in years, think about the good they add to this world. They aspire to offer equal access to information that many individual patrons might not be able to afford, whether it’s in the form of a New York Times subscription, an electronic copy of a hit bestseller, or a handful of DVDs to watch with family over a holiday break. But because libraries can’t foot publishers’ bills, the public is effectively being divided into information haves and have-nots, undoing the work that public libraries have done to democratize access in the past century and a half.

Here at Olin, and at institutions throughout the world, our ability to continue providing access to reputable academic resources is at stake. Would you want to see engineering, computer science, or any other field base its research conclusions solely on what you can find on page one of Google search results? (Be real, no one ever goes past page one.) If subscription costs go up another 673%, that very well could be the future we’ll be living in 30 years from now.

There are things we can do at Olin; we are tiny but mighty and we can set a new example for how to approach this problem. First, we need a refreshed discussion about the importance of open access. Your librarians feel it is our duty to make trusted, reliable content available to our students and faculty. By following an open access policy, we can ensure together that the Olin community, now or in the future, won’t pay for the research generated by its own scholars.

The library also needs community input so we can think strategically and proactively about how to provide the content and resources you need. We need to critically evaluate what we’re paying for now and find alternatives. Over time, our model might look a lot different than what we’re doing today–it might be more time curating open educational resources and less time (and money) spent on managing subscription packages–but librarians can’t make those big decisions or push back against the broken publishing system alone. When you’re ready to join this conversation, we’re ready to listen.

In the meantime, you can help libraries today by signing these two petitions: