Thoughts on Philanthropy and Open Access in Public Libraries (Part 2)

open_access-logoPart 1 is here.

In another article on Bill Gates and philanthropy, Siobhan Stevenson points out that between 1998-2004, the Gates foundation installed 47,200 internet-ready PCs in 11,000 libraries and trained 62,000 librarians in this work across the U.S. Of course, the hardware and software provided to these libraries was made by Microsoft. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, some critics have called out Gates and Microsoft for their vocal opposition to the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, which the Gates foundation has described as “communist” and “un-American.” Gates also wrote an infamous letter in 1976 in which he criticized those who were copying and sharing his Altair BASIC program. Those who believed that “hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share” were wrong, according the Gates.

Richard Stallman has been particularly critical of Gates. In 2003 he argued that the digital divide (the split between those who have access to digital information/technology and those who don’t) was largely due to Gates and “the culture surrounding proprietary software,” including copyright, patenting, and trademarks. By refusing to make Microsoft software free and open access/code, Gates created “artificial obstacles to the sharing of information” that perpetuated the digital divide. In another article, Stallman further explained that “Microsoft’s software is distributed under licenses that keep users divided and helpless. The users are divided because they are forbidden to share copies with anyone else. The users are helpless because they don’t have the source code that programmers can read and change.” For example, libraries wanting to educate their patrons on how to better use computers are forbidden from sharing software with those patrons. With libraries now receiving budget cuts around the country, they are often unable to pay the costs for fixing, upgrading, and sharing Microsoft software. As digital technology takes a more dominant presence in public libraries, the need to understand the debates on copyright, patents, and open access to information becomes heightened.

Access to academic publishing should also be a serious concern to all public librarians. Academic publishing contributes important ideas and knowledge to society, but who has access to this information? The funding for academic publishing endeavors comes mostly from two sources: public tax dollars and private donations to public universities. These published articles are then placed in online databases like JSTOR, EBSCO, and ProQuest. However, in order to access these databases, libraries have to pay steep prices. For example, the Faculty Advisory Council at Harvard University wrote in 2012 that the cost for access to academic journals online was nearing $3.75 million.

While college students are able to access these articles through their university’s subscription to these databases, many public libraries cannot afford these costs. Thus, the general public is blocked out of access to these articles, even though their tax dollars have been used to help fund their creation. Private donations to universities are used to support the academic advancement of those who can afford to attend college only.  Scientists, historians, artists, and other academics/students not associated with an academic institution are left behind, unable to access the newest research, ideas, and knowledge in their fields of interest. While public libraries continue to provide open access to print technologies such as books, magazines,  journals, etc., (and rightfully so),  those wanting to learn about a given topic in their free time on a computer–whether that computer is in the public library, or if a public library’s website is being accessed at home–are limited in what sort of material they will able to find online.

By taking questions of philanthropy and open access seriously, librarians are able to situate themselves in a better position to understand the changing nature of their profession. Philanthropy within the public library setting, according to Siobhan Stevenson, challenges us to “ensure that the community’s needs are the priority, and not those of the philanthropist.”

Regarding open access, Hugh Rundle reminds us that “open access matters because it frees up the spread of ideas and knowledge. When a person looking for answers can’t access the information they need because they don’t have a university card, don’t work in a university and don’t have thousands of dollars to spend, humanity is poorer for it.” By devising ways to enhance access to digital content in public libraries, “librarians can finally forget about selection and concentrate on discovery… collections are there to be used, and your job is to make sure they can be used. That means making information easy to access. It means helping to make it visible. It means assisting people not just to access the information that is available, but to find connections. The future is an exciting place. Let’s go there, but let’s make sure it really is open to everyone.” These poignant remarks remind us why libraries are vitally important to societies around the world and why many of us choose to pursue careers in the field of library science. What are the best methods for inspiring a love for learning in library clients? It is clear to me that finding ways to share and spread information–not locking it up–is one important path towards fostering such a love.

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