Recently the Mina Rees librarians at the GC were pitched a new service called ReadCube. ReadCube embraces a Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA) model where rather than the librarian researching, evaluating and acquiring or the patron requesting and the library reviewing and potentially purchasing or licensing items/content, the patron, by the mere act of requesting the electronic item, the desired item is made automatically available to the patron. On the surface, the pitch sounded like another instance of technology improving and filling in the gaps in a library’s collection(s).  Rather than having to wait for an item to go through the processes, and at some institution’s machinations, of collection development or a patron having to jump through the hoop of ILL with a few hours wait, ReadCube was apparently offering a panacea that would alleviate the need to support a library’s acquisitions and ILL departments and ultimately, provide patrons with immediate access.  So why didn’t the librarians at the GC embrace this new model?

In general, most librarians are not reflexively reactive to and against Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA).  PDA is a relatively new concept in procurement & acquisitions and librarians have encountered various models over the last decade. For example, Ebook Library (EBL), a large ebook vendor, a few years ago, offered access to their entire collection to Graduate Center Community with the stipulation that if an item was accessed 3 times, the library would automatically license the item. Rather than the array of potential Digital Rights Management (DRM) based issues (more later on DRM) that many electronically content presents, the EBL offer is more of an ideal model, freeing up the librarian from anticipating and guessing the relevant items to place in a collection; EBL promised that the items accessed will be used, so there is little risk in developing a collection in a vacuum and wasting precious funds.

Again, what was wrong with the ReadCube offer? Although, we greatly appreciate the technical aspects of the ReadCube universe, the ReadCube offer diverged from other PDA models that we encountered in the past because it completely embraced a Digital Rights Management scheme. A model that some librarians view as completely unsustainable. Essentially, ReadCube was asking the library to handout ‘gift cards’ to our patrons and ask the librarians to stand in the background, not participate and not be the gatekeepers of their collections; merely to siphon and funnel funds back to the publisher.  Rather than a PDA model where once an item is accessed by patrons it becomes licensed by the library, ReadCube in embracing a radical DRM policy, a pay per view model, will re-sell the same content/item/article to multiple patrons, thus the model’s unsustainability.  Similar to a gated community, privatization of content is the paradigm in ReadCube’s business model, as suggested and revealed by the requirement to use their authentication based software as the only means to view and read content.

ReadCube catalyzes larger questions concerning DRM. DRM is used by publishers to tightly control and restrict the access and distribution of copyrightable materials. On a purely objective perspective, DRM is juxtaposed to Fair-Use and its sister, Open Access. The traditions surrounding Fair Use assert that copyrighted materials can be used for educational and other indirect/meta purposes without purchase, licensing or permission from the copyright owner.  When contextualizing Fair Use within the current Open Access/ Creative Commons movements, we are better able to understand how restrictive copyright and DRM adversely effects education. If we were to distill and reduce to a digestible scenario: a content producer, faculty member, at a public university is paid through tax dollars, and their research is supported by grants from public funds, and because they are attempting to attain tenure they must publish and at times pay fees to the journal publisher to process their article (page fees) and finally the library from the very same institution in which they work uses public funds again to pay for access to the article.  Hence infinite unsustainability as many charts have suggested library cost expenditures for a static group of journals have increased exponentially while budgets have remained static.


Although I do not desire to make Aaron Swartz a martyr because the facts surrounding his death remain ambiguous, we do know that he was fervently at odds with the commodification, monetization and privatization of information that should be free for the social good. Because of the unsustainability of the DRM based universe, librarians recently have had to embrace more active forms of Fair Use.  With the goal to provide efficient access to our patrons and support our collections, the librarians are continuing to evaluate ways to support ILL, preferring to embrace Creative Commons Copyright licensing & Green and Gold Open Access where faculty retain their copyrights so they can, if desired, upload their works to Open Access repositories such as arXiv, PubMed Central, SSRN, and RePEc.

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Digital Services Librarian