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Public Education and Private Access

On Monday of this week I found out that I’m going to need to change many of the research assignments I use in my courses-. For years, the Boston Public Library has provided remote access to any Massachusetts resident to most of the e-resources to which it subscribes, including the extremely valuable Readex databases in the America’s Historical Imprints series. These databases have served as a key part of my own research for my dissertation/book, and have become a central part of my teaching for assignments in a wide range of courses.

But as of next semester that will change. At some point in the last few days, BPL ended offsite access to the databases owned by Readex. I noted my frustration with the decision on Twitter, prompting a response from the BPL Twitter account:

I tried to press a little bit to find out the extent to which it was solely about the cost of an offsite license, but the answer was essentially the same:

Since then, through informal conversations with several people, I’ve learned that the arrangement between BPL and Readex was very unusual (and perhaps unique) in the breadth of access to the materials that the license permitted. I’ve also heard secondhand that the license never envisioned classroom uses for BPL access, though I can’t confirm that based on information from either BPL or Readex. On a certain level, of course, that makes sense. Readex makes its money by selling subscriptions to institutions. To the extent that our students, and those at some other Massachusetts institutions, were accessing materials through BPL, we (and BPL) were getting a tremendous bargain.

In the wake of this decision, my colleagues and I will ask our university library staff to contact Readex for pricing on a local subscription so that students can continue to use those databases. But here’s the thing: I’m nearly certain that the answer will come back that the subscription—even for a relatively limited number of series of the databases—is too expensive for our small, public institution. I suspect the answer will be the same at most of the institutions where faculty had students utilize these databases through BPL.

Sure, we were getting a fantastic deal—though not, I would argue, an unfair one. Whatever the intent of the contract, BPL publicly advertised that Massachusetts residents could acquire an e-card that included access to these databases, and representatives from Readex signed a contact that permitted offsite access of its resources for any e-card holder. And though the amount is less than it could (or should) be, the state does provide some amount of funding to the Boston Public Library. That the deal may have been unique does not mean anyone was hoodwinked.

Nonetheless, here we are again with a reminder that digitization is not synonymous with accessibility. Given that it’s unlikely that my university will purchase access, I’ll have to go back and revise assignments in several courses to account for the fact that students can no longer use early American newspapers or imprints. We won’t be able to do another project like @KillingStamp, where we historically tweeted the protests against the Stamp Act. Students in my sophomore research methods seminar can still write about Benjamin Franklin … but probably not anything related to the Pennsylvania Gazette. The same is true for students in my general education course where we read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Students who write honors theses with me may not be able to use newspapers or other imprints unless they’re able to travel to Worcester or Boston regularly (but that will cut into time they might otherwise spend using manuscript sources). And of course my colleagues and I will have to be more circuitous in the ways we access these databases for our own research.

Teaching at a small, public university is mostly a wonderful experience. I love my students and the work they do, and I appreciate the obstacles they fight to overcome in order to be in the classroom and learn. To the extent that we can, my colleagues and I try to re-create the experience and quality of a much more expensive education. And many teachers around the country have not had access to Readex databases for a long time; in that regard, we’re simply reverting to the mean. But losing access, and being reminded in the process that we can’t afford these resources on our own, stings.

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