Tag Archives: Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.


Redevenir Québécois

C’est le moment.

J’ai pas mal d’affaires à faire, y compris me trouver une (ou de la) job. Pis finir ma thèse pour de vrai. Mais ça empêche pas que c’est le moment pour moi de redevenir un Québécois.

«Mais t’es déjà Québécois!», dites-vous, à grand renfort de «Bin voyons donc!».

Oui, d’une certaine façon. Pure laine, même. Il a fallu que je le devienne après un certain temps. J’étais tanné de me faire traiter de «maudit français», à l’école. Et j’ai un peu cessé de l’être, à certains moments de ma vie.

Souvent, je redeviens Québécois quand je suis à l’extérieur du Québec. C’est la nostalgie qui fait ça. Pis le fait que le Québec est une société pas mal spéciale.

Mais là, je redeviens Québécois à la fin de  mon dernier hiver au Québec. Ça fait que le timing est bon.

C’est peut-être pas mon dernier été au Québec, par exemple. Je risque de venir passer des étés ici, après avoir déménagé à Austin avec (et grâce à) ma chère Catherine. Mais ça sera jamais la même chose que maintenant.

Une des choses qui me fait penser à ça, de redevenir Québécois, c’est que j’ai manqué le dernier YulBlog. Alors je me suis mis à commenter sur tout un tas de blogues montréalais, surtout francophones. Ça m’a fait comprendre que je fittais pas pis que je devais me mettre à fitter plus.

Une des raisons que je fitte pas, c’est que je sais plus ce qui se passe ailleurs dans le monde que ce qui se passe au Québec.

Quoique… J’écoute quelques balados québécoises et j’arrive à me faire une idée de ce qui se passe ici en entendant parler d’événements plus spécifiques. Mais comme c’est plutôt des balados de musique et de shows plutôt que celles de RadCan, c’est pas la façon la plus efficace de connaître les dernières actus de la vie québécoise.

En plus, je regarde peu la télé. Maintenant que la saison régulière de Télé-Québec est terminée, me privant de nouvelles émissions de Méchant contraste, Pure laine et La vie en vert, je regarde à peu près juste DSwJS (yeah, I know), au détriment de ma québécitude.

J’ai beau aimer Concordia pis y’a beau y avoir pas mal de Francophones là-bas, le fait d’enseigner en anglais (comme d’habitude), ça me pousse pas nécessairement à vivre en québécois.

Sans oublier que ma chère Catherine, qui devrait revenir à Montréal en fin de semaine, est pas locutrice native de la langue québécoise.

Donc, pour être Québécois et parler québécois, je dois un peu me forcer.  Pas que ça me tente pas. Mais j’ai besoin d’occasions.

Et hier, j’ai commencé à me donner l’occasion. De la salle d’attente d’un super médecin sympathique et efficace (pour un renouvellement de prescription), à la bibliothèque nationale en passant par le Marché Jean-Talon, le Cheval blanc et Une grenouille dans une théière (un salon de thé près de chez moi), j’ai pu vivre au Québec.  Entre autres, en entendant parler quelques personnes au salon de thé. Ou en marchant depuis le Cheval blanc jusqu’à chez moi (de Chateaubriand et Bellechasse).

L’affaire, avec Montréal, c’est qu’on peut très facilement ne pas se sentir au Québec. Pas surtout une question de langue. Plutôt une question d’identité culturelle qui inclut non seulement la langue mais les modes de communication et l’«accent». Alors, si on se tient pas au courant, qu’on va pas aux bons endroits, on peut passer à côté de beaucoup des choses qui font de Montréal la métropole du Québec.

C’est d’autant plus facile à manquer qu’il faut déjà comprendre ce qu’est le Québec. Ça c’est quelque-chose que beaucoup de monde qui a passé du temps à Montréal sans sortir dans le reste du Québec a de la misère à comprendre. Malgré les différences énormes entre Montréal et le reste du Québec (comme les différences entre Genève et le reste de la Suisse Romande ou entre Paris et le reste de la France), il y a des choses qui sont vraiment québécoises, à Montréal. Comme la façon de vivre de beaucoup d’adolescents. Ou bedon la bouffe. Pis les banlieues.

C’est pas folklorique: c’est typique.

Donc, pour me remettre dans le bain, m’as essayer d’écrire plus souvent en québécois.

Après avoir vu certains avantages de CanalBlog, je me suis dit que j’y aurais un blogue exclusivement en français. Mais, finalement, j’me rends compte que j’aime pas ça tant que ça, CanalBlog. Fa-que, plutôt que de multiplier les blogues distincts, m’as bloguer en québécois ici-même, sur mon blogue principal.