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The librarians have entered the chat

This post is by Kathy Essmiller and Leo Havemann.

This post is an extended version of the script of our OER24 Gasta, presented at MTU, Cork, 27 March 2024. A Gasta, if you are not familiar, must not exceed 5 minutes and finishing on time is enforced by audience participation, so when we met in a dangerous* Cork pub the day before the conference to discuss our plans, we knew this would be too long for the slot and that therefore we would be evicted from the stage. But this part of the point of a Gasta, and also, we felt, a way of demonstrating that nothing open is ever truly finished. In that spirit, we offer a slightly more finished version below.

*Dangerous, because on arrival Kathy was slightly injured by a flying piece of broken pint glass. It was a Guinness glass, the bar staff pointed out, by way of explanation.


True story, I asked Leo to do a GASTA with me so I would get to hang out with him some at the conference. Conversations with Leo are a delight, and I always come away with renewed energy and curiosity for the work we are doing. 

The history of open practices has several different versions, each of which articulates their beginning in different ways and tracing the roots back to different communities of practice (Atkins et al., 2007; Jordan & Weller, 2017; Seiferle-Valencia, 2020). Origin stories  (Pike 2022) help us understand where we are coming from, and can provide information helpful to intentional movement along a chosen trajectory.

In the United States, many scholarly conversations about the origin of open practices frequently speak of their having originated in the 1990s, using the open source movement as an example or analogy. Some scholars, however, resist this as the sole narrative. For example, scholars whose stories are included in OERigin stories, University of Idaho Librarian Marco Seiferle-Valencia (2020) and the OER24 closing keynote by Catherine Cronin and Laura Czerniewicz push back against the notion of open as something that started in the 1990s. In his 2020 OpenEd presentation, Seiferle-Valencia observed that “The conventional histories and scholarly contextualizations of open movements do not connect open pedagogy to liberatory women of color, feminist practice, and scholarship on education.” He then pointed to black feminist scholars bell hooks and Regina Austin as “intellectual foremothers to many concepts in contemporary open practices.

I don’t know if it is necessary to point to a particular time in which the presence of librarians in broader conversations highlighted perspectives which some may have chosen to hear as counter to their goals. But it is helpful to understand that the mission of librarianship is to bring communities together to build knowledge and understanding, and central to that is community members’ access to spaces, materials, and conversations. The field has a long history of stepping up and speaking out to help protect and enable this access from entities whose personal interests may conflict with the needs of the communities libraries serve.

The history of the field is also pockmarked with mistakes and choices which restricted access to spaces, materials and conversations. Librarians take those mistakes seriously, and work hard to keep them from happening again. They advocate for open, and have a lot of insights about how things like paywalls, data walls, and controlled vocabulary can impact our communities. 

Rajiv Jhangiani mentioned librarians and dragons in the fairy tale he spun as part of his OER24 opening keynote. Librarians have a lot of experience with dragons, and are just as likely to see dragons as fun, quirky friends as they are to see them as enemies or threats. They aren’t going to rush to judgement about which kind of dragon it is.

But once they encounter a dragon who turns out to be one of the not fun kind, they remember, and they speak up. It’s probably a good idea to listen.


When Kathy asked me to co-Gasta I initially tried to resist, thinking of my other presentations and also the fact that it’s kind of been a long time since I worked in a library (over 15 years, although of course I have worked closely with librarians since) – but then, it did sound like fun, and also like an opportunity for us to hang out a bit and to produce a new rant or maybe a new version of one. Because I feel like the actual alignment and synergy between open education, especially OER, and libraries and librarians, could be, and should be much stronger than perhaps it currently is, depending where you are. Of course I am not speaking from Kathy’s context, she is a self-described ‘sort of a librarian’ in her institution, focused on making OER happen. In the UK where I am based these roles seem to be quite rare. We have tended to think OER in the form of open textbooks is maybe less relevant in the UK context than in North America, because of an extensive use of curated reading lists, but the truth is, we do depend on a lot of books (Pitt et al., 2020). Perhaps a lot of the time, depending on subject and institutional budgets, this dependence has been masked by the professional labour of librarians who arrange access to relevant resources, which has meant we have not seen the same level of student investment in books, or the flipside of that, a crisis of students lacking access due to unaffordability. But librarians and library budgets are far from unlimited.

I saw a quote the other day: “Without an analysis of power, it is hard to understand inequality or much else in modern capitalism” (from Nobel Laureate Economist Angus Deaton, who was slamming his profession as clueless). I felt this chimed with the message of my rant-within-a-Gasta, which is that we cannot gain an understanding of education (even open education) without an analysis of labour. 

In his keynote Rajiv mentioned the idea of the open education version of the hero’s journey, which chronicles the educator who fortunately learns about and embraces openness, who makes good choices to care and do good things, and the problem of talking about heroes without enough analysis of systemic issues that get in the way of those choices. Increasingly we do discuss this in relation to academic work, but perhaps less in some other third space areas of activity in our institutions. The library is by no means immune to this issue. 

The shift to digital in scholarly publishing is well known for the ways in which it’s been used by publishers as an opportunity to make the sector pay more, whether paying to rent access to digital content rather than buy it once, or paying to publish. What is less obvious from the outside is the huge amount of librarian labour that has been effectively commandeered in the service of purchasing, understanding the arcane licence conditions that restrict access (e.g. only one person can look at this book at a time/three people a week/unlimited viewers but only every second page, OK perhaps I exaggerate), managing access, technical and accessibility support, and then of course renewing the licences (because unlike a print book you can buy and scan a chapter of, of course nobody can ‘own’ an ebook, that would just be silly!). All this represents a substantial increased investment of librarian labour, in addition to the increased costs of online resources compared with purchasing in print, which have also ballooned. 

The trend towards digital was of course well underway prior to the pandemic but then, in the context of remote learning becoming the norm across the sector and many campus libraries inaccessible to students, massively accelerated. In many cases publishers as well as tech vendors offered free access ‘to support education though the pandemic’ for about 5 minutes (Havemann & Roberts, 2021), before they started charging, often much more than before. Reports of ebook price rises to 500% or even 4000% of original prices stunned the academic library community in the UK and Ireland, and grassroots activists responded with outrage via the #ebookSOS campaign which asked the government to investigate the ebook market (Anderson & McCaulay, 2022). 

As Kathy mentioned, librarians tend to be advocates for openness and in my travels around the fringes of #ebookSOS I found librarians involved in it were very supportive of the idea of OER, but less sure about whether it could or should be connected to the #ebookSOS campaign. I can’t speak for them but in part I think there was a concern about diluting the key message of the campaign by introducing other issues into it but I also wonder, to what extent, many librarians recognise that open access resources or OER make sense but are also concerned about the workload implications of adding another service – would it be adequately resourced or just something that would be on top of everything else?   

The requested investigation of pandemic ebook profiteering – which doesn’t seem to have subsequently abated – is certainly to be welcomed. The solution to broken library budgets that will likely be pushed by publishers, to the problem they created, is some kind of version of ‘inclusive access’ (which ensures all students are included in being charged to rent ebooks). But – speaking as an open education and OER advocate, and post-pandemic, also a member of the UCL Press open textbooks programme board – it seems to me that, longer term, the answer surely lies in publishing ourselves, within institutional libraries and presses or working collaboratively across institutions (Havemann et al., 2023) – so that we are at least moving to a mixed economy where a much greater proportion of the learning resources we use are openly published and licensed. But to make this a reality we need to be able to create capacity to support this work in our institutions. And so instead of thinking about this as more labour that would be added to existing workloads or that we need to find new funding for, we need to be looking at how much we are already spending in order to facilitate the highest profit margins in publishing (New Scientist, 2018). What if we start redirecting those funds and redirecting labour into initiatives like Core Econ – a collaboratively-authored collection of textbooks and resources for learning economics that is adopted by institutions around the world, and is not only free to access, but addresses real world problems. I think Angus Deaton might approve. 


Anderson, Y., & McCauley, C. (2022). How the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated an e-book crisis and the #ebooksos campaign for reform. Insights, 35(0). 

Atkins, D. E., Brown, J. S., & Hammond, A. L. (2007). A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities: Report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Jordan, K, & Weller, M. (2017). Openness and Education: A Beginner’s Guide. GO-GN.,

Havemann, L., & Roberts, V. (2021). Pivoting Open? Pandemic Pedagogy and the Search for Openness in the Viral Learning Environment. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2021(1), 1–11.

Havemann, L., Corti, P., Atenas, J., Nerantzi, C., & Martínez-Arboledav, A. (2023). Making the case: Opening education through collaboration. Rivista Di Digital Politics, 3(2), 305–326. 

New Scientist. (2018). Time to break academic publishing’s stranglehold on research. New Scientist. 

Seiferle-Valencia, M. (2020). It’s not (just) about the cost: Academic libraries and intentionally engaged OER for social justice. library trends, 69(2), 469-487.

Pike, U. (Ed.). (2022). OERigin Stories: Pathways to the Open Movement. Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas.

Pitt, R., Jordan, K., de los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., & Weller, M. (2020). Supporting open educational practices through open textbooks. Distance Education, 1–16.   

Photo credits: Kathy and Leo’s Gasta at OER24 and Kathy presenting at the GO-GN workshop prior to OER22 are by GO-GN and licensed CC BY 4.0. Leo at OTESSA23 at York University by Connie Blomgren.

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