In talking about libraries this week, one topic that keeps coming up is the cost of journals and access to them. What isn’t discussed is how users navigate these blockades. High quality research doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s informed by prior research. When a faculty member, researcher, or student is unable to access information does the search end? Or, does the researcher leave the institution’s library and pursue information through the shadow library? At this point you may be asking, what is the shadow library?
The shadow library is made up of people with access to information outside of your institution and articles (sometimes illegally) posted on author’s personal websites. How many librarians from research libraries have had friends contact them for an article? It often starts with an email that opens, “I found this really great article, but can’t access it. Can you get it for me?” Being a helpful librarian, you may find yourself searching through your subscription databases, downloading the article, and sending it to your friend. You’ve just become a point in the shadow library network. I experienced this a few times from friends in the private sector who didn’t want to pay for the opportunity to see if an article would be helpful or not.
When I administered an open access repository, I received emails from scholars outside of the United States thanking me for making the resources available. Sometimes, these emails would come with an additional request: Can you please send me this restricted article.
It’s an ethical dilemma that puts people in an awkward position. A librarian might do this for a friend, but not a stranger.
Speaking of ethics, is it ethical for a researcher at a small institution to hire a graduate student at a research institution to do library searches for them and open up access to materials, which they cannot access on their own? What is the price for a journal subscription or database compared to the cost of employing a student for five hours a week? Who is getting hurt in such a scenario?
The shadow library is a symptom of the current system. Information doesn’t want to be free. People without access want it to be free.
Should a librarian, or for that matter a faculty member, perform these actions for friends of strangers? Where’s the line drawn? How is it exacerbating the problem?