Magazine article American Libraries

On My Mind; Inaccessible Information: A Strategic Solution

Magazine article American Libraries

On My Mind; Inaccessible Information: A Strategic Solution

Article excerpt

Recently I received a frantic phone call from a colleague who heads up a small special library in Washington, D.C. "How can I get access to JSTOR, First Search, and all those wonderful databases?" she asked. I was mystified by her question, and then I listened.

"My access to those vital sources of information has disappeared. I learned to depend on them while we were partners with the local university's ERIC Clearinghouse, but since the U.S. Department of Education closed all the regional ERIC Clearinghouses we are no longer affiliated with the university."

I explained that the license agreements we sign with database vendors are restrictive. Although we negotiate access for walk-ins and for off-site use by our own faculty and students and we can provide copies of documents from the databases through interlibrary loan, the contract prohibits searching by nonaffiliated persons who are not on-site.

She replied that her library supports nearly 50 membership associations in higher education and many of these scholarly databases are essential sources of information to serve her membership.

This incident brings home a fundamental fact that confronts the information world today: In the current system of scholarly communication, more and more information is becoming part of proprietary databases that offer limited access to independent scholars who are not affiliated with libraries that can afford to pay the license fees.

In the days of print-only material, libraries established an infrastructure to accommodate the restrictions of copyrighted books and journals that were priced out of the budgets of individuals and libraries. Because virtually every community across the country supports a public library, theoretically an enterprising librarian could use union catalogs or widely available print indexes to help anyone locate the books or articles needed.

In much of the digital world, that is not feasible. The very indexes--made all the more powerful by technology--that provide the metadata describing the full-text articles, reports, or books are themselves inaccessible to librarians like my colleague, not to mention individuals who need the information for health care, employment, or personal and intellectual development.

Today, when the Web gives society the illusion that all information is available to everyone, more and more of the latest and most highly vetted research findings are locked up in expensive, propriety databases, accessible by fewer and fewer individuals. …

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