© 2014 Robert McKercher. All rights reserved.
Access < Ownership
I enjoy the many advantages of digital access to information resources. Inevitably, no matter the occasion, every conversation with my friends includes a Google search on a smartphone. When I’m walking my dogs, I think nothing of instantly calling up one of the roughly 2,200 songs on my iPod. In graduate school, I rarely read any scholarly literature that was inaccessible digitally. And I think we can all agree that, barring some kind of Planet of the Apes cataclysm, digital will be the fundamental infrastructure of information. But while access to information resources is important, it is not equivalent to ownership of information resources. This is especially true in the library world, where the challenges of existing e-journal distribution models are only magnified by digital’s inevitability.

For most academic libraries, cost places subscription to dozens of individual e-journals out of reach. Instead, they pay aggregators such as Elsevier for access to a bundle of e-journals. Then, in the name of economy and because their patrons tend to avoid analog resources, many academic libraries no longer subscribe to paper copies of journals. And to go a step further, some libraries, like Drexel University’s, have eliminated archival access to journal content under the assumption that another research institution or publishers and/or aggregators will secure that access for the future. However, as Linda Eels observed in Science and Technology Libraries, commercial publishers have demonstrated little interest in preservation and in some cases have surreptitiously removed content from databases on which libraries rely. Under the access model, libraries have little control over whether resources available to users today will be available ten years, five years, or a year from now. That's the biggest difference between ownership and access.

Possession partially protects the rights conveyed by ownership. What good are the libraries’ copyright law exemptions if the information resource disappears? Access permits use of a resource possessed and ultimately controlled by someone else, and terms of access are defined by licensing agreements which typically contain statements like "Elsevier reserves the right to change, modify, add or remove portions of these Terms and Conditions in its sole discretion at any time and without prior notice." No publisher could legally enter a library and retrieve print copies of its journal, but they can and have unilaterally removed articles and entire titles from subscription packages.

The point is that librarianship's professional responsibilities make ownership of resources a more significant concern than it is for, say, an individual's music collection. These concerns only intensify as digital's reach expands beyond e-journals into e-books, digital music files, and all of the other impending manifestations of resources at the core of library services. The problems of the commercial provider model go beyond cost; libraries need to fight to secure long-term availability and use of resources.


  • Eels, Linda L. (2004). For Better or for Worse:  The Joys and Woes of E-Journals. Science and Technology Libraries, 25(1/2), 33-53
  • Elsevier (2004) Terms and Conditions http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/termsconditions.cws_home/ termsconditions.
  • McClanahan, K., Wu, L., Tenopir, C., and King, D.W. (2010). Embracing change:  perceptions of e-journals by faculty members. Learned Publishing 23(3), 209-223