Reaching Further: Open Access and Public Libraries

Open Access and Public Libraries

Discussions around open access are often dominated by academic librarians and publishers. But given that open access is supposed to make research available for all, and that it is not only students and researchers attached to an institution who may need access, public libraries could have an important role to play. This blog sets out the arguments, and some examples.

Discussion around open access tends to be intense, but limited to a relatively limited group of publishers, researchers, research funders and librarians. It only rarely enters into the broader public debate, for example through George Monbiot’s article of 13 September this year The Guardian.

This is does make some sense – the people most likely to make use of academic articles currently are based in research institutions. They clearly do benefit from an alternative to the rising prices of subscriptions, although arguments continue around how to finance scholarly communications otherwise.

However, it also implies that the main potential beneficiaries – people outside of academic institutions who are highly unlikely to be able to afford subscriptions or individual article charges that can go up to €50 for a single paper – are not getting involved.

The Potential of Public Libraries

One means of ensuring that the impact of open access is felt as widely as possible, and so its benefits are widely realised, is through work with public libraries.

Unlike academic libraries, public libraries usually have a clear mandate to be open to everyone. They have a crucial role in ensuring that everyone can get access to the information they need to learn, and take decisions.

There is no reason why an ordinary person will not want to be able to access scientific information.

Prospective entrepreneurs wanting to develop a business concept, people suffering from medical conditions, those with a personal interest in local history or nature, researchers working for non-governmental organisations and former students with a continued interest in their subject – all may rely on their public library to access articles and books. Citizen science initiatives in particular can bring ‘ordinary’ people in contact with scientific literature.

Clearly public library budgets cannot support the cost of academic journal subscriptions, making open access essential. But they can, once access is assured, invest effort in supporting discovery and use of these materials. Given the wealth of materials available – and well-documented fears around deceptive journals – these skills are indispensable.

It’s Already Happening!

There are already good examples of public libraries using these possibilities. Toronto Public Library has focused on raising awareness of the availability of open access materials, and offers direct support to researchers who are not affiliated to an institution.

They work closely with the University of Guelph to bridge the gap between public and academic libraries, and encourage more people to access, and get involved in scholarship.

In the Netherlands, the Plusbibliotheken (Plus Libraries) network aims to ensure that the public are able to access academic-level literature. This covers a number of areas, from traditional science to heritage and music, and responds to public demand.

Their strategy recognises what open access brings to this work, and indeed they have organised training sessions on how to search for open access publications.

Elsewhere, there have been efforts to give access to subscription journals through partnerships between academic and public libraries. In Switzerland, where university libraries double up as public libraries, open access is helping overcome challenges around how to give access to walk-in users. Deals have also been struck to ensure that public library users can access academic works, for example through RERO.


Clearly, these are only limited examples, but offer an important example both of helping open access realise one of its key original goals, and using the specific skills and potential of libraries to make this happen.