“But, isn’t everything available online?” Library Collections in the Digital Era

Librarians are often asked why universities still need libraries to allow students and researchers to gain access to books, data, and journals for their research. After all, as the question goes, “Why do we need a library? Isn’t everything available online?”

It isn’t surprising that many people equate “online” with “free for everyone to read.”

Anyone with access to the internet, after all, can read newspapers on Google News without ever paying a penny. When we run across an occasional news article behind a paywall, we all know that most of the daily news reporting is pretty interchangeable–except for the opinion pages–so we just click through to something that’s free.

We can also google a topic such as “digital natives” and find multiple free articles from sources such as Wikipedia, Mashable, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and Inside Higher Ed.

Given that we can find so much information online for free, many people assume that just about everything they need to do their research and write their papers is online and free to read. Yet, this is not the case. Simply put: peer-reviewed research published in scholarly journals is rarely, if ever, free.

Here are a few things to bear in mind about scholarly publishing:

  • Most of the free online content is supported by advertising dollars. It is “free” in the same sense that network TV is “free” compared to Netflix or HBO; however, people pay for network TV by buying the products advertised and encouraging companies to continue to pay the networks for advertising.
  • Most scholarly journals, like The Journal of the American Medical Association or Journal of Conflict Resolution, are behind paywalls. Most scholarly publishers are either for-profit enterprises such as Elsevier and Springer or non-profits like The American Chemical Society and seek to make as much money as possible from their journals in order to plow the money back into their operations. The CMU Libraries pays the publishers to allow CMU users to access their content. When someone logs in with their Global ID, they are recognized as a legitimate user and can search and read the articles. No Global ID, no access.
  • Sometimes, when a student is googling on campus, they’ll find articles from scholarly publishers such as Elsevier and Springer in their search results and they will have what looks like free access to the content. CMU Libraries, however, has agreements with these publishers that allow their articles to appear in Google searches when the user is on-campus. If a student were to do the same search off-campus, a paywall would come up and ask them to pay for the same article that was accessible on-campus.
  • There is a movement in the world of scholarly publishing called open access publishing. Journals that are published open access make their money from advertising, subsidy, or by charging authors, who are usually funded by grants, and thus the author’s published work is freely available to readers. Only about 15% of published scholarship is open access.
  • Many think-tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress, etc. are privately-funded research and advocacy institutions that publish their materials free online because their mission is to shape public opinion in the service of their various ideologies. The materials are free, but readers must be aware of the slant of the sources.
  • CMU Libraries also buys many e-books that are accessible only when users are on-campus or logged in with their Global ID.

There is much going on behind the scenes at the Libraries that makes CMU’s digital collections accessible to CMU users—to say nothing of the 500,000 print books in CMU’s collections that remain centrally important to the research and learning of many students and faculty. So when people ask if we still need a library since “everything’s online”, barring dramatic changes in how scholarly publishers make their materials available to readers, the answer is “yes.”

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