Does a Fish Know It’s Wet? : Access to Scholarly Journals in Public Libraries

Heather Morrison discusses what she calls an “access gap” for scholarly journals in public libraries.   She claims:

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

The issue will be a familiar one for anyone who works in a public library.   While most libraries will attempt to provide access to some journals, the reality is that other needs take precedent over scholarly work.   Certainly, fostering a love of reading in children cannot begin with scholarly journals; literacy work is not supported by scholarly database;   “pop” non-fiction will get a library more “thank god for the library” comments than anything coming out of Ebsco.

In short, one can easily dismiss Morrison’s analysis with the simple statement:  “there’s little demand for it.”

There a conundrum in public libraries that always creeps up as well.   How far do we go to educate learners?   Do we fill our collections with Charles Dickens and Homer as a way to expand minds, or do we let the paper backs flow with the hopes that something comes out of your mass-produced formulaic and barely literate romance, western or mystery novel?    Do we let Google satisfy your average reference query, or do we drag people kicking and screaming to the databases where they may get the real goods on what’s going on in the world (sort of).

Morrison also uses the example of typical alumnus who, as a student, has access to just about everything under the sun, research-wise, but who has their access reduced to less than 5% of they had before.   Considering many of these alumni will be professionals — working as public servants, lawyers, doctors, or whatnot — this is a great concern.   One that, clearly, public libraries ought to address if they were not so busy keeping up with all their other services.

The group Morrison does not mention, however, is the group that most concerns me — those who do not know scholarly journals exist in the first place, or who, for one reason or another do not care.  Again, the conundrum appears again.   Is this a case where a fish does not know it’s wet, or the natural order of things.   Most of the people I know leaving college were more than happy to stop taking courses and being told what reality is — not because profs were so particularly paternal/maternal but because there is life beyond intellectual pursuits and they wanted a piece of that life.   On the other hand, it is hard to say what choices people would make if they had a choice among the blogosphere, wikipedia, mainstream news and scholarly literature and full awareness of latter’s role in understanding the truth.

A good example is the pseudo-myth of the online predator.  As Bruce Schneier has uncovered, most parents’ fears of online predators lurking after their children are unfounded.   The mainstream news, and even Google for a good while, would suggest differently — it is the scholarly literature that is best able to handle such a question without blurring the issue behind sensationalism and fear.  If parents were more easily able to access and evaluate such literature, there could be a lot of headaches saved all over the world on this issue.   Climate change is another obvious issue that comes to mind as well.  Ditto most health scares.   Anyone who thinks gaming is a waste of time should look at the time wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.

I   don’t have any answers here, although I will say that Morrison’s support of open access scholarship seems a reasonable response to me.   Bring the scientific research out into the public eye via Google is better than throwing big chunks of public library budgets at the big name academic publishers.    Perhaps the more real research there is, the more Digg and Wikipedia will use it as a check on what they present to their audiences.   The better Wikipedia articles are, in fact, those with the most citations.

On the other hand, scholars are as much a victim of the wet fish syndrome as those who do not read it.   Writing in the scholarly world is focussed on those things non-researchers could care less about: methodologies, procedures, scholarly pedigrees and the like.   Is there any wonder why a book like Guns, Germs and Steel will always have more popular interest than anything on Geo-ref?   Maybe popular non-fiction is the better road to knowledge?

It’s very very hard to speculate on a world where access to scholarly information was truly free to all.    Humankind’s reaction to a little bit of truth should not be underestimated, for its volatility.    Personally, I think the dream is worth a shot.

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