A critical theory of open access: Libraries and electronic publishing
First Monday

A critical theory of open access: Libraries and electronic publishing by Ajit Pyati

The stranglehold that commercial publishers have over scholarly publishing and the high prices of their journals have led to the so–called “scholarly publication crisis.” Academic librarians and concerned scholars have had to advocate for alternative models of scholarly publishing that challenge the commercial publishers’ control, and the open access movement has taken hold. This article introduces the framework of critical theory into the discourse of open access. Critical theory contextualizes the scholarly publication crisis within the dominant information society framework of increasing commodification of information and enhanced global capitalism. While providing tools for analysis and enhanced advocacy, the critical theory framework links libraries with other advocacy movements related to freedom of access to information and opens up new democratic possibilities for engagement. In particular, electronic publishing is an area in which libraries have the potential to effect changes in a commercially dominated market, thereby contributing to greater equity of information access.


Libraries in the Information Society
What is “critical theory?”
Academic libraries: Re–envisioning the Information Society
Interrogating the Information Society
Library advocacy: The case of open access
Conclusion: A critical theory of open access?



Libraries in the Information Society

Given the massive popularity and use of the Internet, the old venerable institution of the library has faced challenges in redefining its roles and justifying its existence to the general public. Specifically, the relevance of the library in the ‘information age’ has been questioned, especially since increasingly sophisticated search engines are redefining the meaning of an ‘information institution.’ This level of skepticism and doubt amongst the public and a corresponding peak in anxiety amongst librarians and library leaders became more prominent in the late 1990s, at the height of the Internet revolution. For example, a 1996 report commissioned by the Benton Foundation found that the public in the United States was unaware of a librarian’s job, likening it to that of a bookstore clerk, and that while there was high esteem for the traditional role of the public library, there was little public support for the library as a leader in the digital revolution (Estabrook, 1997).

The role of the library as a leader in the digital revolution is an evolving one, however, that has been advancing with time. ‘Traditional’ roles of the library hinge on the idea of service to the public (St. Lifer, 2001), as well as maintaining and building library buildings, and providing a place where the information needs of the public can be met (Estabrook, 1997). This traditional service role of the library has been demonstrated in statements such as the American Library Association’s (ALA) Core Values Statement, in which values such as service, social responsibility, and the public good are highlighted (ALA, 2004). Part of the challenge for libraries in the information age is for them to redefine themselves to meet the needs of the communities they serve, while continuing to deliver core informational and recreational services (St. Lifer, 2001).

One aspect of this redefinition includes an intensification of libraries’ roles in facilitating access to information and technology for the communities they serve. Libraries are in fact playing a significant role in increasing access to the Internet (Molz and Dain, 1999), as they are now central actors in addressing the “digital divide” (B.P. Lynch, 2002). Perhaps even more significantly, major benefactors such as Bill Gates have made the funding of public libraries and the enhancement of information technology access in libraries one of his major philanthropic goals (Nunberg, 1998). The goal of both the U.S. Libraries and Global Libraries program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to provide access to information technology that can improve health, educational, and economic opportunities (Gates Foundation, n.d.). The role of the Gates Foundation in promoting libraries as important technology access points is arguably a significant factor in increasing the relevance of the library in the information age — in 1996 one in four library systems provided public access computing, while today a vast majority of libraries do, and 14 million Americans regularly use computers in libraries (Gates Foundation, n.d.).

In fact, the prominence of libraries in facilitating access to technology is seen in their association with information society policy frameworks. For instance, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), composed of national library organizations from around the world, is the de facto international ‘voice’ of librarians, and has made the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) one of its major areas of focus (IFLA, 2005b). IFLA participated in the conference as a member of the civil society delegation in both the 2003 Geneva and 2005 Tunis phases of the Conference, and it lobbied government representatives to include language that reflects the importance of libraries, museums and archives to a global information and knowledge society (IFLA, 2005a). IFLA successfully made libraries an important part of the information society vision of WSIS.

Information society policy and ideology, however, is a contested terrain in the context of globalization, treated later in this article. For instance, the technological determinism that permeates the ICT–heavy vision of WSIS obscures some of the cultural, democratic, and public space functions of libraries. In addition, libraries are mentioned mainly as access points to technology in the WSIS documents (Pyati, 2005). The other cultural, social, and educational aspects of libraries are reduced to purely technological concerns and access to ICTs. While the library profession is taking advantage of an opportunity to advance their role in increasing access to ICTs by participating in WSIS, technological determinism and neo–liberalism permeates the information society environment. Libraries are caught in a paradox of the information society — while acknowledging their important roles in providing access to information, the overarching technocratic agenda of the information society can serve to undermine many library goals of information access.

In addition, the discussion of libraries and their emerging forms of technology access in the Internet age often lacks a critical theoretical perspective. To address this shortcoming, I propose critical theory and critical theory of technology (Feenberg, 2002) as useful constructs for understanding emerging and transforming roles for libraries in the information age. This article proposes how frameworks such as critical theory are eminently practical for understanding how information institutions such as libraries can combat the dominant reach of informational capitalism. These roles can include an enhanced role for libraries in the publication process, which can encompass tasks as varied as electronic publishing support services, digitization of cultural and academic resource materials, community archiving, as well as other forms of electronic content management. Critical theory also contextualizes the challenges that libraries face in larger socio–economic and political contexts. For example, the so–called “scholarly publication crisis” that academic libraries face is part of the larger information– and “techno–capitalist” movements within the dominant information society.



What is “critical theory?”

Critical theory, while a large area of study, in this article is defined largely in terms of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, which has a specific historical development and trajectory. In this context, the Institute for Social Research (the first Marxist–oriented research institute in Germany), founded in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany and composed largely of German–Jewish intellectuals, is of fundamental importance. This institute, during the time of its most influential director, Max Horkheimer, attempted to revise both the Marxian critique of capitalism and the theory of revolution in order to address those new social and political conditions which had evolved since Karl Marx’s death (Bronner and Kellner, 1989). The term “critical theory” did not emerge until 1937; however, after the majority of the Institute’s members had immigrated to the United States after Hitler’s victory, the term stuck and was used to define the general theory of contemporary society associated with Max Horkeimer, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and Frederick Pollock (Bronner and Kellner, 1989). The term represented a “code” of sorts, which belied its roots in Marxist social theory, particularly in a time of increased hostility to socialist–inspired academic and political projects (Kellner, 1989).

Critical theory, in a general sense, is a form of normative social theory that is concerned with progressive social transformation and change, an interrogation of power dynamics in society, the connections between theory and politics, and a focus on the emancipation of those who are oppressed. Critical theory is distinguished from traditional, mainstream social theory through its multidisciplinary perspectives, its attempts to develop a dialectical and materialist social theory, and its goals for socio–political transformation (Kellner, 1989). In this particular discussion, critical theory is highly relevant to a critique of the techno–capitalist and technological determinist forces affecting libraries. It makes connections between larger socio–political and economic contexts with specific and particular contexts. The particular in this example is the case of libraries — information institutions that are being challenged to continue their service–oriented models of information provision in the face of the increasing techno–capitalist and market pressures of the information society.

Critical theory offers a multidisciplinary approach to society which combines perspectives drawn from political economy, sociology, cultural theory, philosophy, anthropology, and history, and offers an antidote to the often non–critical quantitative approaches within contemporary social science (Bronner and Kellner, 1989). Critical theory is open to development and revision and offers a well–articulated standpoint for thematizing social reality, but is not a single doctrine or unified worldview, but is rather a set of basic insights and perspectives (Bronner and Kellner, 1989). Emancipatory concerns within the context of oppressive socio–economic, political, and ideological conditions are at the heart of critical theory.

Critical theory’s interrogation of techno–capitalism is of growing importance, mainly because of the increased prominence of culture, technology, media, information, knowledge, and ideology in more domains of social life (Kellner, 1989). It investigates the mediations between different spheres of life, as well as the contradictions between these spheres, producing a “mediated totality” (Kellner, 1989). The contradictions are part of a dialectical tension, which can open up new possibilities and emancipatory alternatives. In this particular context, contradictions and tensions exist between the potential for libraries to become further involved in a capitalist vision of an information society, and the potential for libraries to create democratic and progressive visions of an information society. The next sections explore this idea in more detail, particularly with regard to the roles of academic libraries in the open access “revolution.”



Academic libraries: Re–envisioning the Information Society

While libraries have transformed themselves into important technology access points, they are also in a position to articulate broader technology goals and development strategies. This fact is evident in the case of academic libraries — while not having the broad mandate of public libraries, academic libraries are nonetheless important service institutions to their academic and often broader civic communities. In response to various economic pressures (as part of the greater context of the ‘information society’), for instance, academic libraries are taking on important roles with regard to the scholarly publication process. The development of institutional repositories and exploration of electronic and open access publishing models have made academic libraries important players in the debate over the future of scholarly publishing (Willinsky, 2006). While academic libraries are not