“Free”: It’s always a favorite word for information professionals. With library budgets stretched to—and in many cases beyond—the breaking point, free information seems a gift from heaven. Open access, with its promise of free scholarly information, can be seen as one of those gifts, but it has strings attached. It’s like a free puppy; you still have to pay for shots, vet bills, and dog food regardless of how adorable the puppy is.
The strings for open access relate to payment. Money has to come from somewhere, and, for scholarly open access, it’s frequently APC (article processing charges) as an alternative to the traditional subscription model. This model has both advocates and detractors, usually based on individual financial impact. Corporations, for example, are less likely to pay APCs than are universities, as corporate researchers publish fewer articles than academics.
Open access is not, however, the only source of free information. The public domain offers information from museums, archives, and other repositories. A boon to researchers and nonresearchers alike, public domain artwork, for example, encourages views that are more up close and personal than you might experience in a physical museum. For-profit companies, such as Google, have conditioned people to expect free searching. It makes most of its money from advertising. Wolfram Research, another for-profit company, offers Wolfram Alpha for free but charges for Mathematica and related products.
As more people access information via mobile devices, the importance of apps in driving search behaviors increases. Granted, not all apps are free, but they aren’t hugely expensive either. The trick is to sort through the plethora of apps on offer and choose those that bring real value to online searchers.
“Free,” in our world, relates to cost. “Freedom” is a somewhat different term. Freedom of access and expression is a fundamental tenet of our profession. It too can have an inevitable dark side. What librarians call “selection,” others might deem “censorship.” Information professionals evaluate information according to criteria based on accuracy, relevancy, timeliness, and authenticity. We abhor bias. We shudder at tales of libraries being stripped of materials that discuss any topic deemed heretical to one particular religion.
Worse is the actual destruction of libraries and the burning of rare manuscripts and books, as happened Feb. 22, 2015, in Mosul, Iraq, at the public library. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Other historic documents, manuscripts, personal papers, and texts are under assault in multiple parts of the world. It’s one reason, albeit a very sad one, for preservation through digitization. Even if the original is destroyed, its heritage lives on in the digital world, although it’s only the memory of the real thing.
Finally, freedom of expression should not result in death, as happened to staff at Charlie Hebdomadaire. Online Searcher is not a satire magazine. We do not publish cartoons. We do publish evaluations, fact-based opinions, and experience-based articles. We believe that freedom of expression is essential to a free society and basic to the library and information science profession.