Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

The OI and the NEL

· April 15th, 2020 · No Comments

Today the OI joins with its publishing partner for books, the University of North Carolina Press, in a limited agreement for our books to appear in the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library.  We do this as a good faith effort to engage with the IA’s work and with the fervent hope that a greater commitment to and understanding of the holistic production of scholarship will mark that work going forward.

The COVID19 crisis has created new and variable needs for the OI’s community of authors, readers, and learners.  In response, we have created access and aggregated resources on our website, including freely accessible OI publications –book chapters and William and Mary Quarterly articles –as well as early American collections, presentations, and transcription projects from lots of different individuals and organizations.  We have also worked with our publishing partners and platforms at JSTOR, Project MUSE, and UNC Press to further open up OI publications.

Last month the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library acted unilaterally to open content.  This move cuts against one of the core values of the OI, which is respect for and transparency about the intensive collaborative and skilled work that makes scholarly publishing possible.  OI executive director Karin Wulf wrote about the NEL for The Scholarly Kitchen,  “The Internet Archive Chooses Readers.”  

“What seems most discordant to me is that, if there is a theme to the coronavirus crisis, it is the recognition of integrated social systems. We are more aware of, and more articulate about, our interdependence. The news is more attentive to supply chains and the people who staff them, from food suppliers and retailers, medical providers including hospital janitorial staff, and public school counselors and teachers. It is this human infrastructure that is, as should have been obvious all along, irreplaceable.  The dramatic loss of income in the food service, hospitality and travel industries, and the crushing blow to small businesses that make up our communities, from bookstores to nail salons, is flashing red lights around the importance of fair, regular and reliable paid labor for the skills and to the people that make up the fabric of society.

Thus it does seem supremely odd, and quite out of step with the moment, for the Internet Archive to prioritize the needs of readers as if they can be disaggregated from the systems in which reading material is produced. If you think something should be free, you likely don’t have a very good grasp of what it costs to produce — and who needs to be paid in the course of that production. Knowledge is not found under a tree. It is not a natural but a human product, born of labor but also of talent and training. It requires investment, often from individuals, but almost always from organizations.”

This week the Internet Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, wrote a blog post acknowledging that “In our rush … we didn’t engage with the creator community and the ecosystem in which their works are made and published. We hear your concerns and we’ve taken action: the Internet Archive has added staff to our Patron Services team and we are responding quickly to the incoming requests to take books out of the National Emergency Library. While we can’t go back in time, we can move forward with more information and insight based on data the National Emergency Library has generated thus far.”  

It is the invocation of “the creator community and the ecosystem in which their works are made and published” on which we hang our agreement.  Starting with authors, but including archivists, designers, editors, metadata creators, marketers and so much more—bringing publications into the world is a full ecosystem of labor.  The language of “free” and the practice of “open” all too often ignores this labor, and the critical importance of compensation.  

“The OI has accrued a well-deserved reputation among Early Americanists and scholars more generally for building intellectual infrastructure,” says OI Editor of Books Catherine Kelly.  “In the wake of the pandemic, it has become clear that maintaining and protecting that infrastructure is every bit as important as constructing it in the first place.  Our goal in offering limited-time access to our publications on digital platforms, including the Internet Archive’s NEL, is to help meet the immediate needs of our multiple constituencies even as we look out for their long-term interests.”  

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