Reflections on information privilege: how this concept intersects with my role in providing access to electronic library resources

Reflections on my role as an access gatekeeper. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/_we0BQQewBo

My day-to-day role involves providing access to the Library’s many databases, journals, and e-books. When the Library acquires a new resource, the licence determines who is authorised to access it. I provide technical advice on how to implement an access method that will only permit use by these authorised users. I also answer enquiries from our academics, students, alumni and unaffiliated users on how to access our resources.

Through completing the Open Knowledge and Higher Education unit and engaging in discussions with other learners, I have come to understand how my role of access gatekeeper is linked to the concept of information privilege.

What is information privilege?

The unit introduced us to the work of Char Booth and the concept of ‘information privilege’. Hare & Evanson define information privilege as ‘the affordance or opportunity to access information that others cannot.’ This is a privilege experienced by our academics, students and staff members (which I’ll refer to collectively as our users) as their University affiliation provides them with access to a wide range of resources in comparison to an unaffiliated user such as a member of the public.

Information privilege resonates with me because as a library and information professional and member of CILIP (the professional body for librarians, information specialists and knowledge managers in the UK) I have made a commitment to uphold, promote and defend the preservation and continuity of access to knowledge.

CILIP’s ethical principles. Source: https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/ethics

It has quite rightly now been acknowledged that libraries are not ‘neutral places’ due to collection policies, metadata standards and the continuing legacy of colonialism . We have a duty to do what we can to challenge and address information inequality. Indeed, this obligation was recognised by Aaron Swartz who wrote in his Open Access Manifesto that:

‘Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world.’

I have reflected on how this applies to me and my role within the Library. I often receive enquiries from Alumni who are surprised to find upon graduation they can no longer access the wide range of resources that they had access to as a student. I guide them towards our webpage listing resources that permit Alumni access but this list is small compared to the wide-ranging access they enjoyed as a student. I am also contacted by unaffiliated users who enquire if they can access an article or e-book. In usual times we can offer access using our Walk-in Provision but due to the Covid-19 pandemic this service is currently suspended. This has led me to re-evaluate the current barriers and consider if there is more I could be doing to help challenge them.

How have we have tried to overcome these difficulties?

My efforts so far have been aimed at helping our users to overcome the stumbling blocks they encounter when accessing scholarly research output. For example, through our Library Management System, Library Search, we formulate proxy links that tell the publisher that a user is affiliated with our University and therefore should be granted access to subscribed content. However, our users might choose to start their searches outside of Library Search from a non-library starting point such as Google. We, therefore, have a number of solutions that try to meet the users at their point of entry.

An example of this is commercial access-broker browser extensions, Library Access and LibKey Nomad. These extensions are designed to allow seamless access by reading the URL of a webpage and then comparing this to our institutional holdings information. They are free for our users to install and we’ve received positive feedback on how helpful our users find them.

The Library Access browser extension in action.

However, there are privacy issues to consider as the browser extensions must read the URL of the webpage to function. If a user installs the extension on their personal device they must accept that the browser can also see non-academic webpages they are viewing. Equally, as described in Aaron Tay’s blogpost, the extensions work as a plaster. They patch over the current difficulties in accessing scholarly research output without changing the landscape which allowed these issues to arise.

Concluding thoughts:

As a result of studying the unit, I have started to take a broader view and question how much assistance we provide for unaffiliated users and whether we could do more to help them access information. Are we providing as much support for these users as we can? Are we directing them towards Open Access resources like the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) or tools like Unpaywall or the Open Access Button?

In relation to the enquiries we receive from our Alumni, I have been contemplating if we are educating our current users on their information privilege so they are prepared for the changes in access when they leave the University? Are we equipping them with the tools they need to continue to find and access information after graduation? Furthermore, are we advocating for access for these users when we acquire new resources?

Whilst these questions are currently unanswered it is my hope that through my increased awareness of information privilege I will continue to question our processes and seek ways to improve access for all who need access to scholarly research output.

Library and information professional working in Higher Education.