“Our common mission” – Charlotte Hess as keynote speaker

What is scholarly communication? Should higher education be considered a public good? How will we be able to structure the zettabytes of the digital universe? What is the trend in open access and public depositing?

Scholar Charlotte Hess addresses her main concerns regarding digital commons, and knowledge commons in particular. As an Associate Dean for Research, Collections, and Scholarly Communication Administration at Syracuse University Library, Hess talks the audience through the path she endeavoured upon in coming to understand the issues of digital sources and to her hands-on experiences with constructing a commons.

It all started in 1989, when Hess attended a workshop held by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom at Indiana University. The Ostroms elaborated on their breakthrough activities concerning commons, which appparently had no political agenda. Both were much more interested in trying to understand what works within the commons. How is it that complete strangers can come together to make and share knowledge? 1990 saw the evolution of collective action, where property rights no longer seemed to be about ownership but about access and harvesting.

However, there was no precedent for handling today’s amounts of data. The digital universe had become incomprehensible. Hess believes we should therefore not feel ashamed for not having come up with the perfect system of infrastructure (yet). She explains how new technologies, and in this case  information technology in the early 19990s, disrupt existing systems, for example the ecology. Reordering of things becomes essential, because the technology has changed the way we think, work, live..

As her case study, Hess takes on research libraries, which should be based on open access, commons and suitable infrastructures for digital information. To start with, it is important to define their purpose: “To collect, organize, preserve and make available the scholarly and cultural records on earth.” In the digital age, however, libraries continue to engage in analogue-based systems and are not tending to the present needs of researchers and culture. While there are now various digital packages available, all based on different systems, browsers etc., libraries are primarily spending their time helping people find things within their collections. Hess notes that this situation is true for all kinds of media: film, television and so on. Thus, the focus should no longer be on “producing” the databases themselves, but on making the data findable.

Hess zooms in on the collection, preservation and distribution of scholarly sources. Who is responsible for them? Are there global and local commons? Her definition of these sources supports her argument: “Any piece of knowledge needed for the creation of new knowledge.” Doesn’t that make higher education and research a public good? They are a responsibility of all stakeholders, especially the government. How can we engage the public? However, it is extremely difficult to think of higher education and knowledge-making in these terms, considering library “goods” are still “closed”.

Knowledge should be openly accessible. In a way, Hess believes, we are adapting to the “new normal”. For instance, with regards to higher education, this means that we accept the fact that college tuitions are increasing. As an alternative, she posits, universities should be engaged in continuous fundraising and need to operate more like businesses. They should be seeking corporate partnerships. The challenge lies in how we can measure the impact of research, on the public, on policies, on local economies and so on.

Hess goes on to question the nature of scholarly communication. An example is peer-review publications, which are not needed to make a living. Universities buy up the dissertations and abstracts coming out of their own (partly) funded research, simply to be allowed to submit them to their databases. A system which Hess feels is very much skewed. How can we ever talk of open access within this context, because again the focus lies on ownership? Libraries remain to lag behind the developments of the growing digital universe.

Starting in 1991 and going live in 2001, Hess and the Olstroms set up the Digital Library of the Commons, which entails full text commons. The most interesting questions popped up and were addressed: Who are our users? What binds them as a community? How are we going to continue to organize, disseminate and sustain the digital network/commons? How will we be able to select what we need out of all the digital information that is on offer? Especially, what does the world need to know?

There are issues that will lead to success: Innergenerational equity and intellectual property, in addition to a feeling of responsibility towards the future. However, the problem remains in how are we going to grasp the digital universe. We don’t have a system for it (yet). Can we build a repository library to systematize all the electronic data? Hess has been talking mostly about text, but she notes that we should also take into consideration the vast amounts of data in the form of video, images etc.

The trend is open access and public depositing, Hess claims. And it will definitely be okay if our work herein is a work-in-progress. As long as we all work together, because this is “our common mission”.

Charlotte Hess concludes her talk by addressing the audience in her gratitude to be surrounded by people who are just as enthusiastic and committed to (the benefits of) open access. She leaves off with a few suggestions for further reading: the Olstroms’ work on polycentricity and metropolitan government.

Written by Lisa van Pappelendam