Friday, April 29, 2016

Digital Access for Independent Scholars

Corresponding with contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I was reminded that independent scholars--those currently unaffiliated with colleges and universities--do not have proper access to digital scholarship. Even an independent scholar who is a member of a professional organization such as the Society for Ethnomusicology is unable to access journal articles, e-books, and other materials that professors and students are able to read over the Internet through the electronic portals of their college and university libraries. Yet independent scholars deserve this same access. The situation needs to be addressed, by the academic libraries and the institutions they serve, and also by the professional organizations to which independent scholars belong.

Academic library resources far exceed those of almost all public libraries. Digital access through one's neighborhood public library is insufficient. Fifteen years ago, most academic libraries subscribed to academic journals in hard copy, and these along with the latest books could be found in the library stacks, accessible to independent scholars who showed their credentials as researchers. Today, the majority of new books and academic journals can no longer be found in hard copy there. Instead, they are made available through a portal on the academic library's website; but this portal is closed to all except those with college or university affiliation and identification. Independent scholars have no access to it.

This usually is not a problem for  professors in retirement. One of the perks of retirement is that library privileges are retained, even if office space and other types of support disappear. But students (graduate and undergraduate) typically do not retain library privileges at their alma maters. Most college and university graduates with bachelor's degrees seldom require more than what could be obtained through the neighborhood public library. But among those with advanced degrees, an increasing percentage are becoming independent of academic institutions while they continue to pursue scholarly research. They may be employed by museums, by non-profit organizations, by government, and elsewhere outside of academia, while they need access to a good academic digital library. It is not generally available to them.

When I've raised this issue, defending my independent scholar colleagues in applied ethnomusicology and public folklore, the academic libraries I've spoken with have resisted extending privileges to anyone no longer associated with the college or university. Graduate faculty, who might be expected to intercede here, have not stepped up. I have yet to hear a good reason why not. As far as I can tell, it would cost the institutions almost nothing to grant library privileges to their graduates with advanced degrees, many of whom have paid a good deal to attend while sacrificing some years of salary in so doing.

If academic institutions and their libraries will not change their policies, then the professional organizations independent scholars belong to ought to work on their behalf. Independent scholars probably comprise nearly half of the degreed members of many professional societies in the humanities and social sciences. These Societies have made token gestures insofar as they can afford to do so, arranging with some of the digital library repositories such as JSTOR to permit their members access to electronic issues of their organization's own journal, and sometimes other journals--for a small fee added to the membership cost. But this is far from sufficient. Most academic books published for the past few years, and those that will be published in the foreseeable future, will never wind up on the shelves of a library. Rather, they are available only through an academic library's digital portal. Organizations such as the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Folklore Society--I belong to both--have made these gestures to members, but they need to do more to change the culture of academic institutions and their libraries so they will change policy and grant digital access to independent scholars routinely.