Ain’t no paywall low enough, Part II


“You don’t know how good you have it!” is something we have all wanted to yell at another person at one time or another, especially in academia. I’ve told this story from when I was a full-time library assistant at Washington University in St. Louis countless times:

It’s April, a time when undergrads begin to panic about their research papers, and I see a student come in in a rush, sit down at a library catalog computer, searching, searching, searching, clearly frustrated. She came up to the service desk and asked for help because there were no books at Wash U on Joseph Albers.

I was so confused. We were in the art and architecture library. Albers is a pretty major guy.

We sit down at the catalog computer together, and she’s got a search up with dozens, if not hundreds of hits for Joseph Albers. She looks to me in a panic and says “How am I supposed to get any of these books in time? My paper is due next week!”

I was still so confused.

Turns out that she was looking at the publisher locations on each catalog entry. She thought these books were in Austin, Ann Arbor, New York, Berkeley, etc. This student was a sophomore, in the second half of her second year of college, and she had no clue how the library catalog worked. I was able to point her to shelves of books on Albers and she told me I was amazing.

I wasn’t amazing. I was horrified. How could a student be halfway through her undergrad career and have no idea how to use the library at her own institution? Turns out all the research she’d ever done was googling full-text articles.

Googling full text articles wasn’t much of an option for me as an undergraduate, where I was limited to the small library at my liberal arts campus, the relatively slow interlibrary loan, and limited e-databases of the late 90s/early 00s. And all the undergrads before me could easily yell “You don’t know how good you have it!”

I have been fortunate to have institutional access to paywalled articles for the majority of my academic career, and it’s only recently that I have realized how good I’ve had it. I have wanted for NOTHING in terms of getting the books and articles I’ve needed, and I have a real fear that, should my contract not be renewed, all of that will be taken away. How is an unemployed researcher looking for an academic job supposed to keep up with current research without institutional access to it and/or the ability to pay for it? Living in Boston with easy access to an excellent public library system, I’d probably be ok. If I were elsewhere?

Academic research is not a level playing field. If you are not already “in”, or if you were but now you are out due to a change in employment status, catching up ain’t gonna be easy.


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