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The Secondary Digital Divide


February 3, 2015 by chuber1


Several things stood out to me in this week’s readings revolving around who owns digital sources, how we access them, and how they are paid for.  Again access to scholarship is a key concern for me, as I anticipate that my work in history will occur outside of the university and its access to vast body of knowledge that is kept behind the paywall.  I find the current model of digital scholarly publishing problematic, in terms of ownership, dissemination, and the generation of revenue to keep that publishing going.  I want to use this blog post to continue looking at the place of scholarship and access on the history web and looking at another digital divide, one between who has access to secondary sources and who does not..

I was rather surprised that digital books and journals are licensed and not owned by the libraries that pay for subscriptions.  I found this to be rather disturbing as it means that a publisher could revoke those rights and the resource would no longer be available for use.  Also it begs the question of whether or not authors license their work to these publishers or sell the rights outright. It seems problematic if the journals own the material of an individual scholar, but refuse to then in turn sell that material.  The lack of a permanent copy, that cannot be destroyed unless physically, seems to be a problem.  What happens if someone disagrees with what is said in an article, and blocks digital access to that article or journal?  If there are not multiple physical copies of that article then that work can be lost or hidden. This asks the question of who owns the digital archive and therefore who controls the access to the past.  When this becomes big business what other forces drive the publication and dissemination of scholarly materials besides the wish to add to the body of knowledge on a particular subject areas?

Like my post two weeks ago I am still interested in how the readings discussed who has and controls access to digital sources.  One of the arguments that stood out to me in chapter 7 of Clio Wired (which was a fascinating read) was in light of readily available primary sources, there is a need for access to secondary sources to better understand the meanings and interpretations that people have attached to primary sources.  If we want a historically literate public involved in the discussion of the meaning of the past we cannot hoard half the sources of historical discourse behind a paywall.

However, if we open the availability of these sources again the question of how do we pay for them arises.  The scholarly journal has been funded for well over a century by the revenue generated from the sale of those journals to scholars and libraries.  Though one can now argue in this digital age, the target market for digital journals seems to be libraries as they are so often bundled together through services like JSTOR and Project Muse, which have price tags well beyond the average independent scholar or even medium sized museums


  1. kdaly3 says:

    I appreciate your comments regarding library licensing and potential revocation of sources, which is a disturbing thought to students who have relied on these sources for so long. I’m also interested in the ways dissemination of information is discussed throughout Clio Wired and the struggle for historians outside of universities to get ahold of the proper information for their disciplines. I was particularly interested in your comments regarding the potential scarcity of permanent copies not being acquired and owned by libraries. That was a key topic in my own post, and I definitely think you are right when you discuss about the idea of scholarship as turning into a money making endeavor rather than an intellectual conversation amongst like-minded people. What would be the use of scholarship without scholarship?

  2. nsakas1 says:

    Much of what you are saying Chris raised some thoughts for me as well. We cannot expect publicly created history to be accurate and reliable if the majority of reliable sources are not made available to them. However, it is also not as easy as making everything free and accessible, because these sources have to be supported somehow. Perhaps there is a way to make these sources available on a sliding scale or a case by case basis. Rosenzweig describes how some less affluent community colleges were given availability to online databases free of charge as a way of opening up access to those who otherwise would not have access. Whatever the solution may be, I am sure it will not be simple.

  3. acoleman34 says:

    Have you ever listened to the Wu-Tang Clan song C.R.E.A.M? Yes? No? Well either way, it stands for Cash Rules Everything Around Me. With granting more widespread access to online journals comes the perpetual issue of money. You are right that many, if not most, smaller institutions do not have the funding allotted for journal subscriptions. It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how they keep from going under (oh man I’m on fire with the rap lyrics. Grandmaster Flash anyone?) Well endowed libraries and institutions alike have the funding and means necessary to make journals available, and while I’m not saying journals and their information should be completely free, I think that smaller institutions could benefit greatly from reduced rates or, as Nick pointed out, free access. It is a similar story throughout the world, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. How do we expect smaller museums and libraries to keep up with the ever-expanding digital age if they do not have the access to the same resources as larger ones? Are larger institutions that much more important? I say, no. Right now it is unreasonable to think this gap could be bridged overnight but with reduced rates and a little more funding maybe, just maybe, smaller organizations can step out of the dark ages and into the digital access light. But alas, Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money, dollar dollar bills y’all.

  4. Adina Langer says:

    Chris, your analyses of the problems of access to secondary scholarship and the resulting problems for the production of future scholarship are spot-on. The importance of the dissemination of a large body of high-quality content to sustain the production of more high-quality content cannot be overestimated. What do you think is the best solution to this problem? I know it’s not an easy question, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the matter.

  5. jjackson39 says:

    This is should be of utmost concern for us as we FINALLY exit the academic sphere, to which most of us will not return. If we find ourselves working for a small institutions these problems with affordability will be even more noticeable. A careful balance between journals existing and affordably accessing information will not cease to be an issue until further exploration of pay-per-use models that address these potential knowledge gaps are addressed.

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