By Tom Smith and Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam
Something strange happened last month for members of the Renaissance Society of America (RSA). On Wednesday the 28th October members of the 61-year-old historical society were informed that one of the major benefits of membership –subscription to the research tool EEBO (Early English Books Online) – had been cancelled. The service claims to possess “images of virtually every work printed” in English between 1473 and 1700, constituting several million scanned images of microfilm supplied by more than 200 libraries worldwide. It is thus an invaluable tool for the early modernist, available through most, if not all, university libraries. However, the service doesn’t offer any individual subscriptions and the high price puts it out of the realm of the casual public library. Membership at a very reasonable £85 a year of the RSA (the only professional society that subscribes to EEBO) provides the vital access to these documents in a digital, searchable format. It must therefore have proved a blow to their members that ProQuest, who own EEBO, decided to cancel the RSA’s subscription. This was not due to lack of use but to such “heavy use of the subscription” by members that it was “reducing ProQuest’s potential revenue from library-based subscriptions”. Within 24-hours the decision had been rescinded with ProQuest describing the situation as a “confusion”.
In defence of open-resource
This short-lived row – known briefly (and unimaginatively) in the world of early modernist Twitter as #proquestgate – has far broader implications. Scholars are, at this stage, used to the issues of open access in the world of article publishing. Here, one can comfortably argue that publishers have a right to demand payment for the printing of articles and for paying its editorial board. However, open access to primary sources is a far more contentious issue. ProQuest owns none of the books included in EEBO – by their own admission these images are contributed by the libraries that hold the books which are, in their physical form or in the microfilm, normally open for one and all to read for free.
This is the issue of who controls, or who has a right to control, the data that historians need to work. When the British Library is willing to put millions of images from its collections online in beautiful HD, free to view and free to use, how can we defend the gating of scans of poor-quality 1930s microfilm of centuries–old books, copyrighted by a company that didn’t even make the digitisations? Being affiliated with a university shouldn’t be a requirement to view and read the works that lie at the foundations of public cultural heritage, from the first book printed in English to the works of Milton, Shakespeare, and Pope. Can one really put a price tag and a profit margin on cultural heritage, on what should belong to us all? While it may not be time for a revolution in the digital library, the aching, antiquated system of ownership is crying out for reform if we are to make historical resources, and not just history, public.
In defence of publishers
On the flip side, we must to an extent acknowledge that the role which commercial publishers are playing in the digital revolution is, for the time being at least, an imperfect yet necessary one. EEBO is perhaps, in a sense, a bad example; subscription fees are particularly galling when the resultant images are poor-quality and taken from microfilm versions of out-of-copyright documents. Even here, however, time and money are spent researching and sourcing material, engaging librarians and academics, and creating an online portal which can accommodate such vast quantities of material. The cost is even higher when producing high-quality colour images direct from original documents, as many other commercial databases do. Although there are some excellent examples of resources created by individual libraries and archives seeking to make some of their material widely available for free, for large-scale projects these same institutions are often crying out for commercial partners.
Take the U.K. National Archives, for example. Despite securing funding to make the entire run of cabinet papers from 1915-1986 available to all, among many other sets of government and military records, they have also sought out commercial partners to expedite the digital dissemination (and consequent physical preservation) of millions of pages of further material for both academic and genealogical research. The patchy nature of larger open access databases like the Internet Archive and Google Books should give some further clues as to how difficult it would be to create anything like a comprehensive and meaningful digital collection without such input. Open access is a noble ideal, and its time will come, but at the moment the help of commercial publishers is needed to drag the humanities into the twenty-first century. Although it may seem that offering subscription-based access exclusively to institutions is shutting out a broader audience (#proquestgate offers a pernicious example of how exclusivity might go too far), material is still available more readily than it would be without commercial interventions, even if only in certain locations. In this case, it is the role of libraries and institutions that own subscriptions to reach out to their potential audiences, to let them know what is available and how it can be accessed.
To conclude, the digital age has brought historians many benefits, with instant access to the kinds and quantities of material that predecessors could only dream of. Having become used to expecting everything at our fingertips, it’s jarring when copyright holders slam the door in our faces, particularly when by rights this material already belongs to all of us. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have no right to do so. As the users of this material, if we want it to be truly open access we ought to lead the way, encouraging and assisting under-funded libraries to make this material available wherever possible. Until then, we ought to be grateful that publishers have bothered to make any of this material available at all. And while the incident with the RSA might provoke anger, members do still have access to EEBO after ProQuest graciously, and speedily, changed tack.
Image credit: rainy city under Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)