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Plenty of Possibilities: Shifting from Commercial to Open Solutions

Open access logo of an open lock overlaid on a photo of a city skyline.
October 20, 2022

It’s Open Access Week! In celebration, we highlight a report by the Strategies for Open Collaboration in Library Consortia (SOCLC) Task Force called Strategies for Collaboration: Opportunities and Challenges to Build the Future We Need.

In this report, the authors acknowledge the well-coordinated efforts libraries have made in advancing Open Access publishing, Open Education Resources, and Open Data, and leave those to the side. Their focus is on the ways libraries can move from dependence on commercially-developed technical infrastructure to investment in open source, collaborative, and community-driven solutions.

From Unsustainable to Hopeful

There are many practical reasons why libraries turn to proprietary products and services. Convenience, low cost, and lack of library personnel to develop home-grown alternatives are a few examples. But the fact is, commercial entities and libraries don’t generally share values or pursue the same objectives. Libraries are finding themselves increasingly dependent on commercial solutions, and have little to no recourse when vendors raise prices or make decisions that are out of sync with library missions.

While the current situation is dire and indeed unsustainable, the authors call for hope and action to turn the tide. With a balanced approach that recognizes differing capabilities of libraries to invest in open solutions, the authors lay out multiple strategies to “move the needle” towards investing in products developed with libraries’ interests and missions in mind:

  • Radically Rethink Our Operations to Build the Future We Need
  • Reframe Contracts for Proprietary Services
  • Design, Support, and Fund Alternative Solutions Now (“Alternative solutions” include open source, collaborative, and community-driven initiatives.)

Fundamental to this work is collaboration. The authors call on libraries to work together, particularly via consortia, to solve this challenge with coordinated efforts:

"Underpinning all these strategies is a recognition that libraries – even the largest, best-funded ones – must collaborate to accomplish their missions. Conversely, even the smallest, poorly-funded libraries can be valued contributors to these efforts." (p. 2)

Open Successes at BC ELN

In the past few years, BC ELN partner libraries have seen a number of successes as a result of investment in open-source products and “purchase to open” agreements. One shining example is the Arca Digital Repository.

Built on Islandora, a Canadian-developed open-source platform, Arca is a scalable solution that allows institutions to create their own open-access repositories at an affordable price. But simply selecting an open-source option is not an end-point, as ongoing maintenance and development is required. As such, BC ELN has invested in personnel that have built the necessary technical skills to support and improve Arca’s infrastructure. With oversight for Arca provided by libraries as opposed to a for-profit entity, the service can also flex as required to meet library interests. For example, BC ELN recently announced an opportunity for smaller institutions that face funding or staffing barriers – or that lack sufficient content to justify a standalone repository – to share a single Arca site at a reduced cost.

Another example of BC ELN’s investment in open infrastructure is the consortium’s Open Access Journal Hosting service, where BC ELN provides libraries with no-cost journal hosting and support on a shared implementation of Open Journal Systems. The service is supported by a partnership with the University of Alberta Library, underscoring the benefits of collaboration when pursuing open alternatives.

In recent years BC ELN partner libraries have also successfully collaborated on “purchase to open” agreements with vendors. Earlier this year three consortia (BC ELN, BC Libraries Cooperative, and Focused Education) worked together with ProQuest (now part of Clarivate) to secure open access for all of BC and the Yukon to historical archives of The Province, the Vancouver Sun, and the Times-Colonist. This was achieved by consortial members meeting a threshold level of spend on the collection, resulting in the vendor opening the collection. Points to the Past, a collection of primary sources, was likewise made open to all of BC and the Yukon thanks to an agreement between Gale and the University of Victoria Library, University of British Columbia Library, and Simon Fraser University Library.

These are just a few examples of how library consortia can support a shift from reliance on commercial infrastructure and products to investment in open solutions. With a collaborative approach, there are many more options to explore in the future.