Open Access and the library function

4 min readJul 28, 2017


The Open Access movement started more than twenty years ago and gathered momentum with the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002. The original target of the open access movement was the literature published in scientific and scholarly journals and although this battle has not been won, there are increasing signs that most if not all scientific research publications will be broadly open and freely accessible in the medium term (say 5 to 10 years). More recently, there has been growing interest in making books open access in their digital format. These efforts are still in their early stage and they are mainly based in the penumbra of ‘monograph’ publishing which is close in spirit and to an extent close in market to the periodical publishing of the learned journals.

Promising open access book publishing initiatives have been launched by academic institutions and start-ups:

(1) University College London has launched a completely open UCL press, which publishes only open access books and journals.

(2) The University of California Press has launched Luminos an open access platform for monographs with some content-enhancing technical additions (sound and video can be added to the digital versions)

(3) Knowledge Unlatched has released over 200 open access monographs via its library-based crowd-funding model (libraries subscribe to a drive through collective and scheduled pledges). Their current drive aims to unlatch over 300 titles — half of them new books.

(4) Open Edition has a strong open access programme in French and English. Over 4,000 books available and with the aim to make 20,000 available online by 2020; about half the books are produced on a more restrictive ‘exclusive’ basis.

There are many more initiatives under way, so it seems highly probable that Open Access publishing of books (many of them, but not all, scholarly) will be a growing trend. This development poses some important challenges:

First, do we still need libraries? If these are representative examples of OA publishers, we do. All these services appear to be addressing the needs of institutions and libraries just as much as they are addressing end users. The UCL and the Luminos sites are perhaps more end-user oriented; and Knowledge Unlatched is primarily funded by library sources — to that extent rather obviously in the library camp. But even Open Edition which faces endusers as much as readers, sees its commercial support coming from libraries. I think the answer is pretty clear, that we will still need libraries. Especially the librarians and their role will change. Not so much ‘gatekeepers’ as ‘curators’ where decisions are not off/on but more/or/ less.

Accordingly, the second question that immediately arises is: how are OA books to be utilised, referenced, catalogued and indeed promoted to end users and to librarians and information specialists? In what way can the riches and the benefits of OA books be presented and related to the content and resources of less open, or highly proprietary and closed books in the library catalogues and collections? This issue is especially tricky since we may be certain that masses of rubbish, and many scams will be published under the OA umbrella. Even in the dry and certain world of STM publishing, OA has led to a real problem with phoney journals and extraordinarily shoddy exploitation of gullible authors and readers. I am particularly interested in the challenges that will face librarians (curators) who will be looking after and resourcing books which are not free, or not wholly free, alongside books which will be wholly free to readers. It would be an irony if the development of OA book publishing leads to another kind of silo, for books which are not properly catalogued, preserved, promoted, appreciated and where necessary deprecated or relegated to the digital stacks.

Third, the organisations that are sourcing OA books (of which these four are representative) clearly see themselves as working at the coal-face, the on-ramp, rather than the end-user level. They all aim to deliver PDF and ebook formats to endusers — so they are not innovating much at the reader interface. Indeed it is part of the OA ethos that other stuff, tricks or tactics not even considered by the publisher or author, can be and should be performed by third parties. That is what the “Open” means. But it is by no means clear who will be contributing these intermediary, or horizontal services. Is this a job for publishers, or for libraries, or for new startups with new approaches to added value, new techniques of recommendation and new tools for selection and curation?

Finally, we have ‘curation’ — an intermediary level that lies between the coal-face of production, or publication, and the user-interface of reading or studying the books hinges on the matter of collections. Curation can be a matter primarily of care: individual attention to individual books, as gardeners water and weed individual plants, or it can be a matter of grouping, arranging, planting, grafting, pruning and classifying. Digital technologies and platforms are making it increasingly feasible to use books in a social way, by which I do not mean the use of books by groups of readers, but the use of sets of books which have a network effect amongst the books themselves. Increasingly we use tools that group books together and automate some parts of the research process. Search is the obvious example, but search can be a much more moderated and targeted tool than web-scale Google searches. Searching, annotation, comparing, translating are all tools that we find useful to apply to books in groups. Groups or configurable collections that may be specified by the reader for herself, by a teacher, of by a librarian or publisher.




Publisher and then web publisher