Blog, Clio 1

The Library Challenge

My favorite library, Seymour Library at Knox College

For our final class of the semester, George Mason’s History Librarian, Dr. George Oberle, came to present on the topic of libraries and enclosure. As a former employee of Fenwick Library with a continuing interest in the world of academic libraries, I found this especially interesting. After providing some background on the history of scholarly presses and the growing commercialization of scholarly publishing (through the entry of commercial presses into the market, the transfer of publications to commercial presses, and the move by university presses to branch into more popular kinds of books), George described the problems posed by the rising cost of academic journals, especially science journals. I was entirely unfamiliar with just how much these journals could cost, and I had not considered the ripple effects of this, which include less money to spend on monographs and therefore less interest in publishing them.

The problems aren’t limited to science journals; increasing (some would say extortionate) costs also characterize the situation of digital collections of historical documents. Getting at the reason why this presentation fits into the curriculum for the class, George sees this as a particularly pressing issue for digital history. The companies that own these historical document collections argue that the existing agreements made when access to these collections was purchased do not include access to the OCR text. This wasn’t a problem not too long ago, but recent years have brought a growing interest in text mining, which relies on use of the OCR text. In response, these companies have decided that their solution is to charge each time that someone wants to do text mining. In George’s opinion, this places new limitations in the historical field on who can do what kind of work. For example, a tenured professor will find it much easier to justify their need for this expense than an undergraduate student. Perhaps more significantly, it might place limitations of what kind of scholarship can be done at what schools. Flagship universities and prestigious private universities will have the advantage.

In some respects, this is not a unique issue. There are disparities in access to equipment and other lab resources that affect the sciences in similar ways. In the historical field, it is already the case that status as an undergraduate student, graduate student, faculty member, etc. has bearing on an individual’s ability to fund travel for archival research. It is also the case that prestigious and better funded schools generally house larger and more noteworthy archival collections. However, I do still agree with George that this is an issue. If one of the goals behind digital history is democratization, then limitations on who can pursue digital methods is a violation of the spirit of digital history. There is also no reason to accept that disparities in academia need to remain the status quo. But if there is one thing that I took away from class, it’s that identifying a solution to this tangle of problems, let alone actually solving it, is complicated.