Blogs > Cliopatria > The best things in life were free

Jul 1, 2009 8:43 am


The best things in life were free



[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

The Royal Historical Society has for some years maintained an online bibliography of British and Irish history, updated three times a year. It currently has over 460,000 records. It's a fantastic resource for scholars interested in any aspect of the history of the British Isles, not least because it's free. But from 1 January 2010 it won't be: it will be rebranded as the Bibliography of British and Irish History which will be sold by Brepols, with subscriptions available for institutions and individuals.

This is a shame, of course. A resource which was freely available to anyone with an internet connection will now only be open to those who can afford to pay. Presumably that includes big universities and libraries (although even librarians at Yale, of all places, are complaining that digital resources are getting to expensive, according to this H-Albion post), but what about smaller universities, local libraries, schools, independent researchers? There is the individual subscription, but there's no information about pricing yet and it seems unlikely to be cheap.

The reason for this move is the end of government funding for the bibliography. That's understandable; the money has to come from somewhere. The fact that it has been funded by British taxpayers does raise the question of why a commercial entity should be allowed to profit from that expenditure. But as I'm not a British taxpayer it could equally well be asked why I should benefit from that expenditure. So I don't really have a basis for moral outrage here. It's just ... a shame.

But it seems to me that must be some other way to do this -- crowdsourcing, scraping, some combination of both? There are some sites which show the potential of crowdsourcing by way of people uploading and updating their own bibliographies, such as Librarything, or in a more academic context, CiteULike and Mendeley. Given a critical mass of users, a crowdsourced bibliography would be close to up to date. Scraping could be used to automatically feed in journal articles via RSS (books would be harder -- though maybe not). There are many difficulties inherent in such an approach, but I'd rather see something like this be the future than an ever-increasing array of paywalls.

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