Open Insights: Solving The Biggest Problem with Open Access with an OLH Grant

Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 17 December 2021

The OLH Open Access Award 2020 awardee’s report: the Open Access Digital Theological Library

Solving The Biggest Problem with Open Access with an OLH Grant

An Open Insights essay by Thomas E. Phillips, Digital Theological Library

The Open Access Digital Theological Library (OADTL), the only fully Open Access library with OCLC membership, was proud to receive the OA award from the Open Library of Humanities. The OADTL specializes in religious studies literacy, believing that the world is a better place when all people can engage in self-critical reflection upon their own faith and humble dialogue with those of other traditions. The OADTL collects in all areas of religious studies without regard for tradition. The OADTL is free for all users and is accessible without fees or registration. It has over 250,000 regular patrons in more than 200 countries. 

The funds were used to train and supervise interns. The interns were trained how to curate Open Access collections in the OCLC knowledge base. The interns, students in Masters programs in library science, were trained how to locate university level Open Access content on the web, how to create collections in the OCLC knowledge base, how to populate OCLC collections, and how to troubleshoot problems with discoverability and retrieval of OA content. 

Over the grant period, the OADTL trained 11 interns, who curated more than 15,000 university level ebooks and doctoral dissertations and placed that content in more than 30 new OA collections in the OCLC knowledge base. As a result of this award activity, any library with access to the OCLC collection manager can make all of those ebooks and dissertations fully discoverable and downloadable from within their local library catalogue with only a few minutes of staff time.

A Little Background on our Internships and Open Access

A few years ago—in those pre-pandemic days of old—I attended an Open Access conference where many of the leading advocates of the OA movement were speaking. Speaker after speaker talked about the financial, logistical and technical challenges facing the OA movement. Although I learned much from my distinguished colleagues, I thought then—and I still think—that most OA advocates have failed to understand the central challenge facing the OA movement.

The Central Challenge

The central problem is not financial; there is already more than enough money in the system. The central problem is not logistical; the scholars at our institutions are already performing the peer-review and editorial process that ensure quality. The central problem is not technical; we know how to create databases and stable urls. 

The central problem is discoverability. As long as librarians are satisfied with creating thousands of discrete websites with high-quality OA content, the OA movement will continue to be marginalized within the information economy. 

The Danger of Digital Silos

In the last decade or so, we have reached the place where nearly every research institution (and many small to medium size universities) have created institutional repositories. Today, there is no shortage of universities, museums, archives, scholarly societies, non-profits and advocacy groups generating university level OA content.

The problem is not on the producer side. The problem is on the user side. The typical repository works like this. Scholars produce and vet content. Institutions then place that content in repositories and move on to the next project. No one moves that content from the repository to local and global library networks. The information remains isolated in some digital silo, meaning that the only avenues for discoverability of the content are commercial search engines and commercial aggregators.

Commercial search engines have their purposes. We all use these engines and they perform quite well for many purposes, but their primary purpose is not the discovery of information. Their primary purpose is to sell things.

Reliance on commercial engines is a problem for two reasons. First, digital siloing renders much content invisible. When is the last time that a Google search returned a recent PhD dissertation for your consideration? Remember, commercial search engines are not designed to find things; they are designed to sell things.

Second, digital siloing renders the library and librarians invisible. When librarians are satisfied to relinquish the task of discoverability to commercial search engines, they have abdicated their central role as curators of content. When high quality OA content is not discoverable in the library’s ILS (integrated library system), information seekers are being trained to disregard the library.

If reliance on commercial search engines is bad, reliance on commercial aggregators is even worse. Reliance upon commercial aggregators retains the artificial barriers between content and information seeker; it creates a soft paywall between readers and content.

The Ubiquity of Digital Siloes

When I discuss problems like this, librarians often ask, “Is this really the big problem that you claim it is?” The answer is an unqualified “yes.”An example: A few years ago, we purchased the entire backlist of titles in the areas of our collection interests from a major European publisher. We agreed upon a price of $56,000. The bill arrived… for $116,000. When I looked at the bill, it had the name of an institution one third the size of our institution on it—and a price tag of $116,000. I contacted the provider and asked why a school with a much smaller student body was paying far more for the same content. The provider said, “oh, they have not curated the OA titles like you have.”

The other institution was paying $60,000 for OA ebooks. Our institution had gone to the publisher’s website (where the content was siloed) and curated that content within our local ILS. We had also created a collection in the OCLC knowledge base which that other institution could have activated with a single click. But let’s be clear: the worst thing about my colleague’s $60,000 overpayment is not the wasted funds. The worst thing is that by not curating OA content, my colleague was unwittingly perpetuating the paywall culture which assumes that all knowledge is subject to commodification.

A Challenge: go to the institutional repository of any major research university. Look at the treasures which reside there. Then go to WorldCat and/or your institution’s discovery system and see if that content is discoverable and retrievable. Chances are, that content is either not discoverable at all or it is discoverable via a commercial aggregator. 

Breaking Down the Siloes

Let’s do the work of librarians. Let’s curate content.

I am a big fan of OCLC’s discovery services for one reason. The OCLC knowledge base is truly vendor neutral, meaning OA content and propriety content are each treated equally and the search results are based solely upon relevancy, not on vendor contracts. There is a reason that the content providers have been aggressively acquiring the big ILS providers. They want access to the search algorithms in these systems in order to use the ILS as a thinly veiled marketing system for their proprietary content. Since OCLC does not sell content, they have no marketing concerns influencing their search processes.

However, whether your institution uses OCLC or some other ILS, let’s all work together to curate OA content. Let’s not buy OA content or pay third other (for-profit) companies to curate OA content. Let’s move all OA content from its digital silo to the collection management systems in our library’s ILS. All the major library systems have the capacity to create and share digital collections. Let’s get aggressive about creating and sharing OA collections.

Within the OCLC knowledge base, there are currently (at the time of writing in November) about 1150 OA collections which libraries can activate within their local discovery (any library with access to the OCLC knowledge base can download the MARC records even if they do not use OCLC discovery). That curated OA content can be made easily discoverable in your local ILS. The religious studies portions of that content are also available via our free website ( and through the OCLC collection manager.

The Philosophical/Ideological Piece

At the Digital Theological Library we believe that the right to know and to understand is a human right and not a commodity to be bought and sold. Learning should not be an exclusive a privilege of the affluent. We believe that it is the moral obligation of librarians to de-commodify knowledge and to make universal access to knowledge a reality for all people. 

At the DTL, we specialize in religious studies. So, within our field, we at the DTL believe that the world is a better place when all people are enabled to engage in self-critical reflection upon their own faith and humble dialogue with persons of other traditions.

Of course, one does not have to be particularly religious to share our commitments to the de-commodification of knowledge. In fact, it seems like a core value of librarianship as we understand it.

Two Concrete Proposals

Many great ideals have been dashed upon the rock hard realities of limited resources, but a vigorous prioritization of OA curation should not be one of those ship-wrecked ideals. The failure to assign significant time and resources to the curation of OA is a false economy. You are almost certainly already paying for OA content (remember the sad example above of a $60,000 overpayment to a vendor). How much is your institution paying for access to dissertations that are nearly all housed in various repositories?

If you are convinced by the ideological and pragmatic justifications for aggressive OA curation, then I have two very concrete suggestions.

First, commit a specific and trackable part of your cataloging and metadata resources to OA curation. Commit to using one day each week to curate and share OA content within the knowledge base of your ILS.

Second, start an internship program. Nearly every library program offers for-credit internships for its students (for-credit internships do not need to be paid according to US federal law). These students are often bright, energetic and skilled librarians in training who would love to gain hands-on experience with library systems. We have three to eight interns in our programs at all times. One of our professional librarians meets with each intern for about an hour per week to train and mentor the student (the generous OLH grant helped underwrite this training expense). Then, the intern works on an assigned OA curation project until the next week’s meeting. Typically, each mentoring secession results in the student performing 5-10 hours of OA curation time. Thus, our internship program is a tremendous multiplier for our paid work force.

At the DTL, our vigorous internship program trains library students how to curate and maintain OA content within the OCLC knowledge base. Our unpaid internships for students in library science programs have enabled us to provide free access to over 250,000 OA religious studies titles through the Open Access Digital Theological Library. By working with these interns, the Digital Theological Library has created over 650 of the approximately 1150 OA collections in the OCLC knowledge base (we are striving to make religious studies the first area where all OA content is easily discoverable in every institution’s local ILS).

One final note: our interns often become zealous advocates of OA. 

Our thanks to Thomas E. Phillips from the Digital Theological Library for this very interesting and informative essay on their OLH funded project.