On the Intersection of Traditional Interlibrary Loan Services and Open Access Publishing
A scholarly communication system can enable information sharing. It can encourage it. Or, it can make sharing impossible.
Dennis Dillon observes that traditional scholarly publishing, maintained by copyright protections and subscription licensing, exploits and encourages competition. Talent, funding, and resources accrue easily to élite universities with large budgets and huge libraries. Traditional publishing does little to ensure widespread, unfettered access to academic knowledge. Within this system, however, libraries have devised and improved systems to share and redistribute information otherwise purchased or licensed — at great and increasing expense — for regulated, discrete academic audiences.
Embracing the mission to preserve and to provide meaningful access to the world’s cultural record, librarians have developed interlibrary loan (ILL) and cooperative collection management. These innovations defray the individual burdens of cost and preservation, allowing libraries to diversify, to collectively assemble more material, and by opening collections to use by others, to provide greater access to a broader range of library resources for more people.
However, there are significant limitations to what libraries can share under this framework. While no library, even the wealthiest, can afford to purchase everything, neither can libraries perfectly distribute items so that everyone who wants something can get it. Not everything is available via ILL, and some of it is expensive, slow, and troublesome to deliver.
Given the successful interventions libraries have made to democratize access, it is particularly troubling that publishers now increasingly preclude libraries from sharing. ILL has worked well for PDF journal article distribution, and it has not toppled the academic journal subscription system as was once feared. But e-book publishers are threatened by the ease and speed with which PDFs can travel through ILL networks. E-books are not generally distributed in PDF. Instead, publishers license e-books to libraries on an array of proprietary platforms that regulate reader use and prevent sharing. Even those e-book publishers buckling to reader demand for PDF often prohibit libraries from sharing titles via ILL. These anti-sharing licenses force libraries to reduce service again to only those regulated, discrete audiences from the days before the creation of efficient high-speed ILL networks.
Open access publishing, in comparison, epitomizes barrier-free information sharing. It’s the scholarly community’s best improvement on a publishing system attempting to restrict and regulate, not to expand and de-regulate, distribution of scholarly work.
As long as all information is not equally available, because of cost, rarity, copyright or license restrictions; as long as it exists in different formats, including print, libraries will continue to facilitate sharing. Our mission – connecting people and information through discovery, evaluation, preservation, print, media and computer access – remains as important as ever. Whatever it takes, we continue to work to build a world where information is freely distributed, scholarship is freely read, and libraries are free to share.
Authors: Silvia Cho and Beth Posner