Ralph Luker at History News Network points out:
Last week, I noted the agreement between the National Archives and Footnote.com to digitize millions of documents from the Archives and make them available to researchers on the net. Dan Cohen takes a closer look at the agreement and compares it to the agreement between the Smithsonian and Showtime. “From now until 2012 it will cost you $100 a year, or even more offensively, $1.99 a page,” Cohen points out, “for online access to critical historical documents such as the Papers of the Continental Congress.“
I’m reminded of what was described to me as the “incredibly liberal” license and usage agreements of EEBO-TCP, in which the participating Universities have “allowed” private for-profit online media companies to digitize their microfilm records and serve them back to their faculty and students for a fee. But that fee only lasts a couple of decades, as I recall, expiring around 2010. After that, those digitized documents from the 14th — 18th Centuries will become free.
Well, free to registered Library users.
Of course, the microfilm that’s being digitized was itself created from the physical library books in the 1970s and 80s, often by the same companies, and back then access to the physical images was sold back to the faculty and students and other libraries for a hefty fee as well. I can still buy a microfilm of something I want to read a grainy over-developed lith print of, for $120 or so.
Nice work if you can get it. Almost as smooth a business plan as forcing Ph.D. students to publish their theses with a particular company, and then forcing them to buy them back, and pay for long-term storage.…
I gripe. I honestly have no major problem with the business model. After all, I can still—thank the founders of actually-expiring copyright law, and damn you Sonny Bono—go to the library and check out the original book and scan it and republish an open-access, fully public-domain, proofread version of text, if it comes to that.
What I want to know, though, is What makes delayed access seem like a fair trade?
Sure, I see that it “costs lots of money” to digitize millions of books. I can follow the logic — much as I despise the sentiments — that makes it seem reasonable to encumber access to public-domain works owned by public institutions and bought with public funds with obstructive private license agreements and heavy fees, in order to repay that effort and offer up a bit of profit for the digitizing/microfilming firm. An amazing success of compromise, conflict of interest and greed over public stewardship, sure… but not stupid.
But why should it expire? Recall we’re not talking about a copyright protection here — the original works are generally in the public domain, and physically owned by public institutions, and so any reproduction of the work must also be in the public domain, regardless of medium. You can’t re-copyright a 16th-century book, just because you made a microfilm or electronic version of the page images.
We’re talking about contractual license agreements. The microfilm and digitized page images are encumbered by an agreement covering terms for access. The re-re-re-publishers have access, they charge for you to have access, and you agree not to let anybody else have access.
There is no natural termination of license agreements. They could charge forever, like they do with microfilm, to let you see their pictures of your stuff. And they could forever encumber that access with whatever terms they want.
What does 2012 have to do with it?
And of course it’s not just manuscripts and Very Early Old Stuff for Historians that have this sort of ephemeral encumbrance. The same thing has happened with certain Northwestern European Publishers’ back-catalogs of modern technical journals. You can search and read and see full text for all sorts of research published in the 1980s and before. These have “opened up” under vocal pressure from librarians and scholars, who are busy, and pressed for time and resources, and pissed… and now armed with their own printing and distribution network.1 So now — if you work at a University that pays big fees — you can look at many published works that are old enough, but not yet out of copyright. Again, a decade-or-two delay.
What’s ten or fifteen years, in the life of the mind?
Unlike many of my peers, I’ve read both old science and technical research papers from the 70s and 80s and 90s, and also public domain books and manuscripts from way earlier. And I can vouch for the quality: It’s not spoiled yet. There’s good stuff in there, people.
But nonetheless, the deal with all the re-re-re-publishers is: pay lots of money now for licensed access, or sit and twiddle your thumbs for 20 years for open access. There’s a tacit trade-off, somehow, and clearly that’s a concession. How can this few years’ delay for openness balance the huge profits being made on license agreements? Why allow any open access at all?
It costs to maintain burdensome license-protecting infrastructure. So surely it benefits the companies to let it all go when the costs outweigh the revenue generated. It’s interesting, though, to see how quickly the revenue-generating value disappears. Ten, maybe 20 years. Why?
I can make some stories up. We might explain the lack of interest among scholars in older works by some combination of these handy myths and tropes:
- Dust in the Wind: Beyond a certain point, every article published in an old journal becomes obsolete. Every one of them has been read to death, and cited appropriately for its intrinsic value, and has thus had its fair effect and impact on the state of modern scholarship. Nothing left to follow up on, except for a certain type of navel-gazing meta-scholar. And besides, they will surely tell us what they think they’ve seen.
- Computer Revolution Now!: Even historians and Early Modernists have laptops! With Word! With Powerpoint! Sometimes with e-mail! Unstoppable wave of the future, computer-aided scholarship. Stop all this pedantic nattering about inconsequential individual fiddly things like individual articles or paragraphs or poems or authors; it’s corpora or nothing, these days, or you can’t get the Big Picture [Of the Fraction of Stuff in the Online Index]. Summarize a swathe, graph it, provide a sweeping 50000-foot-view. Look—are those ants down there?
- Stroke your Betters: You’re an up-and-coming academic wannabe. You need the people you’re begging for a “real”, “tenured” life to see you’re listening to their every word. Cite them; forget their old enemies and mentors from the 70s and 80s. The last thing they want to be reminded of is the stuff they missed (ignored?) when they wrote their theses. That’s tantamount to calling them lazy. Look to their most recent bibliographies, and do that selectively to point out the insights they’ve provided you.
- Facts are Cold and Hard: Libraries and physical books are slow, and far away, and the fluorescent lights just hum and suck the life out of a carrel, and ferchrissakes it’s snowing in Winter Semester. I can do this at home in my SnugSack, with a cat and some Earl Gray Hot by my side.
Haha, hyperbole; look at the amusing Straw Men dancing.
No, really. I’m done.
It all comes down to one thing: Successful scholars do what other scholars do. Because their work is exactly conversation among themselves, not about what’s useful or powerful but also unremarked. There are very few back-catalog “wildcatters”. Nobody looks at old content except when there’s a Gold Rush already in progress, as in the 18C these last few years… since the 18C documents have been digitized.
In the end, nobody in Computer Science these days ever cites the 1970s papers of Lindenmayer and his colleagues; few Victorianists ever read 19C magazine reviews; and who reads the steam-era mathematical journals, or even 1980s issues of Cell? You buy them at the library sale so you can use them to press flowers in.
The value of academic raw materials — manuscripts, published works, articles — for scholars is realized only through the conversations they spark. Scholarship is conversation. Many conversations are going on at once, surely. Now and then a conversation will shift, when somebody with a carrying voice brings up a new topic, and some of the time this new topic something rediscovered and revived from long ago.
Of course the back-catalogs are full of interesting, useful, intriguing topics. The journals are full of untraveled roads and research ideas left unexplored; the musings and odd references and preceding conversations of a dozen generations are written down there for all to see.
But in the modern University, one is rewarded only for following and contributing to the ongoing conversation with one’s peers. It’s worth it, to pay a fee to join the club. Access to what everybody else is saying—that’s what’s worth the money. That’s how re-re-republishers can charge for access, and also why they need not charge for old stuff. Old stuff, that’s the record of silenced conversation. And being silent, it is no longer scholarship.
Besides — now we blog. Oh, wait.…
1 If only they had time to organize and use it, they might offer up a real threat to those old arms-dealing family publishing ventures from the 17th century…