Reflections on Information Privilege

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 8, 2018.

Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Coalition for Networked Information’s Spring Membership Meeting. While the conference was full of intriguing sessions, one in particular that has stuck with me was called, “Limitations on Access: The Independent Scholar and Lifelong Learner.” The session was run by a panel made up of Independent Researcher Cecilia Preston, Roger Schonfield of Ithaka S+R, and Sarah Hare of Indiana University.

One of the central themes of the presentation was the concept of information privilege, the idea that the information that one has access to is largely dependent on one’s status, affiliation, or power. Cecilia Preston’s stories of attempting to gain access to scholarly information through local land grant institutions provided the audience with an example of how information privilege manifests in the flesh. She detailed her encounters with roadblock after roadblock in her attempts to simply access information that should be publicly available. In many cases staff at these institutions were unaware that Preston, as a member of the public, fell within the scope of a land grant university’s mission.

Meanwhile, Sarah Hare reported on her efforts to educate undergraduate students at Indiana about their privileged position. Many students were surprised to learn that they would lose access to the libraries’ databases after they graduated. Indeed, while college students are often at their lifetime’s peak of information access, many of them are simply not aware of the privilege of their position. I highly recommend Hare’s paper, which provides an account of the outreach she is conducting at IU.

I’ve been thinking a lot about information privilege since I returned from CNI, and how it’s something I can try to address in my new role at West Virginia University. While I’m still very new to WVU, I have had the opportunity to speak with a few faculty members, and one thing that has been something of a wake up call is hearing some of them express skeptical attitudes towards the Open Access (OA) movement, equating OA publications with low quality or predatory journal practices.

While there certainly are low quality, predatory journals that purport to be OA, it really bothers me to hear these dismissive attitudes. Not just because it presents a challenge to me in my role as a Scholarly Communications Librarian, but because it’s a manifestation of the very information privilege that the OA movement aims to rectify. And I fear that some individuals are so deep within the bubble of information privilege, and have been there for so long, that nothing that I or anyone else says is going to change their mind.

Nevertheless, I do remain an optimist. There are always people that we’ll never reach in our work as librarians, but panels like the one I saw at CNI remind me of how lucky I am to be in this field. I really do believe that the work being done by people like Sarah Hare and Cecilia Preston will help more people reflect on their own information privilege and inspire them to take action to create a more equitable information economy.


Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Scholarly Communications Librarian at West Virginia University. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in the ways that technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good. In his spare time, Ian likes riding his bicycle, watching baseball, and listening to late night public radio. Follow him on twitter @harmoniant.







2 replies

  1. The content of this post definitely strikes close to home for me. As a public librarian who is seeking to continue my own professional development and research, I often find that I don’t have access to information contained in university databases. Because the priority of public libraries, while certainly not all, is geared toward a more recreational view of information resources, it can be very difficult to read the things I want or need for my own personal development within the constraints of my limited means. To be a employee or student of a university truly is a privilege that offers access far beyond the means of the general citizen. It’s one of the large reasons, for me, that I miss academic librarianship so much.


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