Embracing the Subversive Nature of Open Access


“Libraries are innately subversive institutions born of the radical notion that every single member of society deserves free, high quality access to knowledge and culture.”—Dr. Matt Finch

Libraries are indeed a radical idea. Rather than purchase a book, I can simply go to my public library and borrow it for no fee whatsoever. Free books for everyone! Apart from the single purchase of a book by the library, it is a collective slap in the face to free-market capitalism. Some conservative voices in the nineteenth century, in fact, strongly attacked libraries for being “socialist continuation schools” that created a culture of dependency for those who could not pay market value for the books they wanted. And some continue to argue this even now.

Such arguments seem quaint in our age of open access (OA). OA has taken the already subversive nature of libraries, both public and academic, and broken down their physical confines, expanding their knowledge infinitely to anyone in the world with access to a computer. The revolution will not be televised, but some of it will be experienced online.

While there is no doubt a real grassroots power-to-the-people component of OA, the deeper truth is that creating the infrastructure to give power to the people requires a serious investment of time and resources. In 1919 nearly half of all libraries in the entire United States were built with money from one of the richest men in history, Andrew Carnegie. The GPS systems in our phones and cars that help us navigate through life are the product of massive military research and development. The internet as we know it was developed through substantial investments of both private and public funds (including those of Al Gore).

A recent study put the cost, on average, around $30,000.

In that same vein, open access information is certainly free for the end-user, but it isn’t free to create. Academic books are expensive to produce. A recent study put the cost, on average, around $30,000. For that amount of money you could go out and buy a brand-new car. Imagine yourself going to the dealership and paying for one in cash. See yourself getting into your new car and hearing the satisfying clunk of the car door closing, driving home savoring the new car smell, and admiring how smooth the ride feels.

You park your car at home in a safe spot, and later that night you drift off to sleep with a smile on your face. Now imagine yourself waking up the next day and giving your new car away to the first person who wants it. For free.

That’s the hard math of OA for university presses in a nutshell. Knowledge can free the world, but world knowledge is not free.

This is where the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation come in. Their jointly sponsored Humanities Open Book Program helps university presses make classic out-of-print humanities titles accessible to teachers, students, scholars around the globe.

In collaboration with Cornell University Library and eminent subject specialists from within the academy, we chose twenty titles for the first round and will be uploading an additional fifty-seven titles from the second round in the coming weeks ahead. The decision process was both objective and subjective, utilizing both library usage statistics and a holistic understanding of the fields chosen to be represented: literary criticism, Slavic studies, German studies, anthropology, classics, literary theory and political science.


Our OA titles are available for download on multiple platforms: our own Cornell Open website, JSTOR, Project MUSE, Amazon, Hathi, OAPEN, and DOAB.

The results have been stunning. For the first twenty titles, JSTOR usage alone exceeded 74,000 views and 24,000 chapter downloads. It was truly global in reach; the top ten regions were the United States, UK, India, Canada, Germany, China, Russia, the Philippines and Australia. The Project MUSE stats were just as eye-opening—96,000 views and 63,000 chapter downloads. We also saw substantial viewership of the free books on Kindle, with readers downloading more than 6,000 full-books in July and August of 2017 alone.

Our Cornell Open website has also seen impressive numbers, with nearly 10,000 page views and 17,500 chapter downloads since the site was launched.

Each time we publish an OA title we join hands with our subversive and radical friends in the library, giving power to the people. As one librarian told us after seeing our Cornell Open program, “Each and every open book initiative increases the knowledge base available to everyone in the global community. Each initiative makes a difference. Books and libraries make a difference. They save lives in thousands, if not millions, of ways.”

Jonathan Hall is the Digital Marketing Manager. Subversive is his middle name.

Embracing the Subversive Nature of Open Access