Open everything, everywhere, all at once

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the evolving Open landscape, library roles and OCLC’s place within it. This post provides a general overview of Open, sign-posting important categories as they relate to libraries and exploring motivations that draw libraries – and other stakeholders – into this ecosystem. Subsequent posts will describe OCLC’s engagement in the Open landscape and examine our distinctive position as a member-driven infrastructure partner.

Blue, purple and orange image of a stellar constellation.
Hubble Space Telescope image of the Carina Nebula produced by produced by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

There is tremendous enthusiasm for “Open” initiatives in the library community. While much library activity and investment in this area is concentrated in academic libraries, libraries of all types and sizes have embraced Open – a broad constellation of practices and principles – as a core value proposition.  

Examples of library advocacy and involvement in Open initiatives abound.  

  • In 2022, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) named “Open Everything” among the top trends in US academic libraries, fulfilling the prediction of its 2021 conference which foresaw libraries Ascending into an Open Future.
  • IFLA, an organization representing library organizations worldwide, has repeatedly affirmed its support for Open Access in a series of formal declarations in 2003, 2011 and 2022, describing OA as an “essential issue within IFLA’s information agenda.” (IFLA, 2011). In 2013, IFLA included Open Education Resources and the Rising Importance of Non-Formal and Informal Learning among the key trends impacting libraries and has asserted a role for the organization and its member libraries in advancing an Open Science agenda.
  • Open Access and support for Open Science have been core elements of LIBER’s strategic agenda for a decade or more, driven in part by top-down directives within the European Union, such as the long-running Horizon program. LIBER’s current strategic plan (2023-2027) envisions a widening sphere of library activity and influence in this space. LIBER (AKA the Association of European Research Libraries) represents more than 400 national and university libraries across Europe.

Research by OCLC confirms these general trends. In 2019, over 90% of respondents to a global survey of libraries reported participation in Open Access or open content initiatives. Survey respondents included a wide range of library types (national libraries, public libraries, special libraries, etc.) but most responses (72%) came from libraries serving higher education institutions. Further segment analysis revealed that participation in Open initiatives among university and research libraries was even higher (97%).

In the last two decades, College & Research Libraries, the official journal of ACRL, has published dozens of scholarly articles exploring library roles in the Open ecosystem, ranging from David Lewis’ provocative assessment of the “Inevitability of Open Access” (2012) to an editorial by Franklin Sayer and Amy Riegelman on the “Reproducibility Crisis and Academic Libraries” (2018) exploring library roles in the Open Science agenda. The latter is ranked among the most popular articles in the journal’s recent history (acknowledging the ‘popular’ list appears to reach back only 5 years).  

Presentations on Open Access publishing, Open Educational Resources, Open Science, and Open Source library software are also featured in conference programs, a sure sign that organizers and presenters view these themes as salient.

In short, for libraries, Open is everywhere.

Libraries in the Open ecosystem: a kaleidoscope of activities

Consider these broad categories of Open activity and investment, all competing for attention and support in the library community:

Open Access (OA) – this is a longstanding area of interest for academic libraries, going back to the early days of institutional repository development in the early 2000s, spurred by researcher-led efforts to expand global access to research outputs, formalized in a series of declarations (Budapest, Berlin, Bethesda, etc.). This category includes advocacy around green vs. gold OA models, recent discussions around transformative agreements, library workflows for managing and tracking Article Processing Charges, and compliance with institutional or national Open Access mandates (e.g., Plan S in Europe and the OSTP Nelson memo in the US). Scholarly communications librarians offer guidance to faculty/students on copyright and rights management. Library publishing initiatives also fit under this broad umbrella, whether this means implementing platforms like OJS to support faculty OA journals, contributing financially to “subscribe to Open” initiatives, or shared publishing infrastructure like Lever Press. The scope of library activity related to Open Access is very broad.

Beyond facilitating the creation and dissemination of OA research publications, libraries also play an important role in increasing the visibility of public domain and “open” content (including digitized cultural heritage, web archives, etc.) in local, group/regional, and global discovery environments by aggregating metadata in syndication hubs (like DPLA, Europeana, Trove, and of course WorldCat). While these activities are distinct from OA efforts (which focus primarily on scholarly communications) and are organized and staffed differently, they occupy an adjacent space. In practice, expectations around library support for research workflows, and library curation of cultural heritage collections may be quite different. This is reflected in the diverging requirements for systems and services that support research workflows, on the one hand, and the management of digital (and digitized) cultural heritage collections, on the other.

Open data – much library attention has focused on supporting faculty/researcher compliance with Research Data Management (RDM) requirements imposed by funders. The FAIR framework (for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable scientific data) is important in this context. In research universities, library staff provide guidance on Research Data Management Plans, advise on which disciplinary research data repositories are most appropriate for long-term stewardship, and assist with data licensing terms. Some academic libraries support institutional or consortial research data repositories, alongside traditional pre-print repositories. This has emerged as an important new service area for libraries and for technology providers (e.g., Figshare and TIND RDM). OCLC Research has produced a useful body of research on library roles in RDM. For national and public libraries, concerns about Open data are more likely to involve access to governmental data (census, demographic, and economic data). For national libraries particularly, these concerns may extend to include data describing cultural heritage collections and national bibliographies (registries of national publishing output).

Open Educational Resources (OER) – a growing number of academic libraries, especially those serving public institutions with a mandate to increase and diversify participation in higher education, are involved in Open textbook and affordable courseware initiatives. OER, including textbooks and other teaching/learning materials, are designed to increase access to education by reducing cost barriers for students, and enable faculty to share and repurpose course materials, learning modules, etc. published under non-restrictive (“open”) licenses. ARL published an informative SPEC kit on this topic in 2016; IFLA published a briefing on OER and libraries in 2019. Ithaka S+R included library support for OER as a topic in the most recent version of its long-running survey of US college/university faculty priorities and recently shared some library perspectives on this area. OER has emerged as an area of interest for library consortia, with groups like MOBIUS and LOUIS providing group-scale discovery services.

Open science/scholarship – Open science is often described as an ‘umbrella’ framework encompassing everything from Open Access publishing to reproducible research methodologies. The Center for Open Science (COS), which has attracted significant grant funding, is a hub of activity in the US. COS formally acknowledges the role of librarians as partners in advancing Open science practices. In the European Union, centralized policy guidance and funding have been a major stimulant to activity. Library roles in this space vary widely and may include management of institutional pre-print and research data repositories, the provision of electronic lab notebooks and other tools that provide greater transparency into research methods, and/or training and support for data analysis, visualization, and other specialized workflows. Libraries may provide consultancy services to advise faculty and researchers on Open Access and open data licensing, and facilitate community participation in ‘citizen science’ initiatives. Libraries are also active in promoting researcher adoption of persistent identifiers like ORCID and raising awareness of altmetrics tools for scholarly reputation management.

Advocacy organizations like the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC and SPARC Europe), The Future of Research Communications and e-Scholarship (FORCE11), the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services (SCOSS), and Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) promote library participation and investment in Open science and exercise an important normative influence.

Open source – Library involvement in the open source software (OSS) environment dates back to the late 1990s, when libraries began to retire locally-developed proprietary systems in favor of standards-based solutions that were better suited to emerging workflows. Open source alternatives to commercial library systems appealed to institutions that wanted to participate directly in the design and development of ‘community-owned’ solutions, believing they offered a better guarantee of responsiveness to library needs and greater long-term sustainability, since open source code can be freely shared and modified. Marshall Breeding has chronicled this history in a series of reports and articles. Alongside library management solutions like Koha, the now-defunct Kuali OLE initiative, or FOLIO (an EBSCO-backed venture), libraries are developing and implementing open source discovery tools (e.g., Blacklight, VUfind), repository platforms (DSpace, Fedora, TIND) research management tools (VIVO), resource sharing and fulfillment systems (ReShare, Sourcery), citation management tools (Zotero), and digital exhibit/storytelling tools (Omeka, Scalar).

The extent to which these open source tools can substitute for commercial applications, or usefully complement proprietary solutions, is not entirely clear. And of course there is no guarantee a solution that begins life as open source software will remain that way – witness the fate of Mendeley, a popular open source reference manager ultimately acquired by Elsevier. While the longevity of Koha and DSpace, introduced in 1999 and 2002, respectively, and implemented by libraries around the world, suggests that open source library solutions can scale and achieve ‘staying power’, the direct and indirect costs of maintaining and extending multiple OSS code repositories are considerable, resulting in inefficiencies that can comprise long term sustainability. Software hosting and support providers reduce some of this burden by concentrating capacity so it can be delivered more efficiently – but these costs are still passed on to libraries, and may (as Marshall Breeding observes) be no lower than the costs of proprietary solutions. A recent report from LYRASIS on OSS adoption in libraries highlights a paradoxical finding: while libraries select OSS solutions believing them to be more sustainable than commercial alternatives, most implementers invest little or nothing (in direct financial support, contributed staff effort, etc.) to sustaining the OSS community or codebase.

This is not an exhaustive list – there are other Open contexts and some of these categories overlap and intersect. The definitions and descriptions provided above are illustrative, sign-posting some major themes or directions, not canonical or authoritative. (The European Commission’s Science Hub, FOSTER taxonomy and UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science propose some useful terminology in this area.) With the proliferation of Open initiatives and communities, there is growing need for nuanced understanding of the motivations and interests at play. A parallel ecosystem of advocacy organizations has emerged, intended to clarify the range of library opportunities in the Open ecosystem, but simultaneously contributing to confusion about what “standing for Open” actually means for libraries.

Incentives and the growth of Open

A complex mix of incentives is driving the growth and expansion of “Open” as it pertains to libraries. These are some of the key drivers:

Digital transformation of teaching, learning, and research – Digital technologies have transformed the ways we work, teach, learn, and share knowledge. The systems we use to find information, deliver education, advance scholarship, and engage with library users are increasingly intertwined. Library, teaching, research, publication, and administrative workflows intersect. Many institution-scale library operations (content acquisition/licensing, discovery, fulfillment, stewardship, etc.) have been reconfigured as group-scale or consortium activities managed across multiple technology platforms, increasing the need for systems interoperability. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ has enabled the growth of large-scale research collaboration and the rise of distance learning and remote work, trends accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, consolidation in the publishing, educational technology, and library services industries has reduced market choice and heightened concerns about vendor lock-in and monopoly pricing. Open solutions present an appealing alternative that favors decentralization, community-driven development, increased customer choice and if not lower total costs, then at least greater control over pricing. Open’s ascendancy as a framework, movement, and business model is enabled – and accelerated – by the digital transformation of our social, educational, and work environments. 

Economics – Open Access is sometimes portrayed as a solution to the financial challenges academic libraries face in acquiring/licensing content for their institutions, a cost-reduction strategy that will replace expensive subscription resources — chiefly e-journal packages — with “free” alternatives or substitutes. This is a misleading oversimplification and generally recognized as such. Libraries negotiating so-called Transformative Agreements (see Lisa Janicke-Hinchliffe’s helpful explainer) understand that replacing a license to read published content with a license to Read-and-Publish content does not necessarily reduce library expenditure and may increase it. (See e.g., “The Dog that Caught the Car” in a recent issue of Clarke & Eposito’s The Brief.) For publishers, the transition to Open Access may represent an opportunity to move upstream in the researcher workflow, delivering higher-value productivity and management solutions to the research enterprise. Yet as David Crotty – among others – observes, the path to Open is neither obvious nor necessarily profitable (or even sustainable) for all publishers. Lorcan Dempsey’s nice aphorism ‘workflow is the content’ captures some of the challenging dynamics publishers and libraries face in this area.

Commercial interests are an important part of the Open Source software ecosystem too. In the library sector, where engineering and development capacity is generally scarce, commercial hosting providers (such as ByWater, Equinox, Index Data or PTFS) fill an important market need. Competitive commercial interests are also a factor in the introduction of market-disrupting solutions like the FOLIO library management system. As with Open Access, the business models that support Open Source shift costs for libraries without necessarily reducing them. Marshall Breeding outlines some of the economic incentives that motivate commercial participation in the library open source movement (focused on library management systems).

Values – Many librarians, along with the faculty, students, and researchers they support, view Open Access, Open education, and Open scholarship as intrinsically good social objectives, a natural extension of libraries’ central mission of expanding access to information. Unfettered global access to information, the democratization of science and scholarship, more equitable and socially just knowledge systems, interoperable technologies that reduce vendor lock-in and distribute the costs and benefits of innovation more broadly — these are unquestionably attractive objectives, but not an inevitable outcome of embracing an Open ideology. As a system of belief, Open is a powerful motivator but not in itself a sufficient force to dislodge patterns of institutional investment that are reinforced by complex economic and social incentives. Bold declarations of intent – even subjoined by promises of financial commitment – are inadequate to resolve what Cameron Neylon aptly describes as a collective action problem. Choosing the right locus for collective action, recognizing that there are competing claims on limited resources, is a key challenge.

Paradoxically, when this elaborate Open ecosystem is invoked in discussions about library strategy, it is routinely over-simplified. Open has become an expedient umbrella term and may refer to content licensed under a Creative Commons license, an open source technology solution, or even commercially licensed content that is “open” to off-campus users by virtue of increasingly seamless authentication services. Whether this blurring of Open categories is good or bad for advocacy efforts, it is undoubtedly contributing to confusion about the benefits that an Open strategy is expected to deliver and the tradeoffs it entails.

What are the appropriate roles and responsibilities of library service providers in this Open landscape? For an institution like OCLC, the choices are both clear and complex. As a member-driven organization, we stand with and for libraries as they adapt workflows and service models to support evolving forms and norms of digital scholarship, comply with institutional and national mandates, and align with university needs. As a technology provider, we build and maintain infrastructure that enables library participation in the Open ecosystem to scale globally – and sustainably. This is consistent with our mission of “furthering access to the world’s information.”

The next post in this series will explore OCLC’s engagement with the Open ecosystem and the distinctive role it plays in advancing library understanding of this landscape, delivering solutions that facilitate library participation in Open Access efforts, and increasing the global visibility of Open Access content.

Thanks to colleagues who provided helpful input and advice on this blog post, including Rebecca Bryant, Annette Dortmund, Ixchel Faniel, Andrew Hall, Merrilee Proffitt, Richard Urban, and Titia Van der Werf. Thanks to J.D. Shipengrover for suggesting the beautiful inset image from the Hubble Space Telescope.