Brandon W. Hawk

Opening Access in Medieval Studies


The recent launch of Parker Library on the Web to the public via a new platform signals big news for medieval studies at the start of 2018. This 10th-anniversary upgrade to 2.0 brings with it compatibility with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) and a Creative-Commons Non-Commercial License, so images and other data are available to use and download for free.

Parker on the Web’s new platform and license herald major shifts for those who specialize in medieval England. The Parker Library boasts one of the most significant collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts written in Latin and Old English as well as impressive holdings in Middle English and Anglo-Norman literature. Open access to those manuscripts means greater opportunities for research and teaching.

Good news about Parker on the Web’s commitment to open access also prompts consideration of access to resources more generally–for medieval studies and more generally. The moment is right to assess issues of access, power, and equity with scholarly resources in the digital age.

Of Paywalls & Power

It’s a matter of pride for many medievalists that scholars of the Middle Ages engineered some of the earliest digital humanities projects like the Index Thomisticus. Still, some of the most useful resources in the field remain closed behind expensive paywalls. Some notable, high-profile instances include Brepols databases like the International Medieval Bibliography, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS), and Latin Library of Texts, as well as Chadwyck-Healey/Proquest databases like the Patrologia Latina and Early English Books Online.

Additional subscription-based resources online could be mentioned, maintained by commercial publishers, non-profit presses, institutions of higher education, or other well-meaning organizations. Excellent projects with paywalls exist, and many necessarily follow subscription models to fund inevitable costs. Indeed, this was the case for Parker Library on the Web for ten years before its 2.0 launch. Not all paywalls are based on commercial desires for profit. They do limit access to the privileged nonetheless.

At the heart of such considerations lie questions about access, control, and equity. As I’ve previously written:

Issues of open access and equity go hand in hand (also see this post, especially the latter part). This point is especially apparent in an age of predatory publishingfor-profit companies taking advantage of scholars, and shady online repositories.

Yet commercial publishers still hold the reins, and that situation has serious implications for equity in access.

Many individuals and institutions lack the ability to pay steep fees to maintain subscriptions to commercial databases. In the economic recession of the past 10 years, and with subsequent budget cuts to libraries, the ability to pay for expensive subscriptions has only decreased.

Problems with reconciling library acquisitions between these cuts and rising subscription rates affect not only smaller institutions but also large research universities–as well as students and teachers across the world of higher education.

Individuals rarely have much say in institutional budgetary decisions, and access to subscription-based resources is even less possible for contingent and independent scholars. Closed access models perpetuate hierarchies (individual and institutional), marginalization, and the contingent precariat of academia made up of graduate students, adjunct faculty, alt-ac staff, and others. Access in a world of subscriptions corresponds to privilege.

A striking case that brings these considerations into focus was the scholarly fervor that erupted around the 2015 #ProQuestGate. When members of the Renaissance Society of America were told that they would lose members’ access to the ProQuest EEBO database, outcry was strong. The controversy prompted reflection on the state of resources and the role of commercial publishers in relation to open-access equity. For many, it was a sobering reminder of who controls access and holds power over academic resources.

The irony, of course, is that in many cases commercial publishers only hold rights to their specific platforms, since the contents of databases often predate modern copyright and related intellectual rights issues by hundreds (or even thousands) of years.

Equity in Access

Not all news is dire, though.

Some projects have opened the gates to offer fresh paths toward equity in access. Even open-access alternatives to databases already mentioned exist. Logeion, for example, provides searches of multiple indispensable Latin and Greek dictionaries like DMLBS. Similarly, the Corpus Corporum provides a searchable database of much of the text of the Patrologia Latina.

Non-profit publishers also pose new opportunities for those seeking equity in access. Presses with interests in medieval studies like punctum books and journals like Digital Medievalist and Interfaces have shown the possibilities of publishing traditional and non-traditional types of scholarship with open-access licenses and hybrid models. The Medieval Academy of America has recently experimented with an open-access supplement to its flagship journal Speculum (available to members and subscribers). These shifts are evidence of larger trends toward open-access publishing in the humanities.

The Parker Library on the Web joins a host of institutions and projects offering public access to digitized medieval manuscripts online, and many of them have open-access licenses. For the first time ever, the general public now has free access to manuscripts containing a thirteenth-century manual for female anchorites known as the Ancrene Wisse; fantastical apocrypha about Jesus’ life like the Gospel of Nicodemus and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew; an account of the trial of Joan of Arc; and Muslim works like a Quran and theological treatises by Arabic scholars. Such witnesses demonstrate the fundamental diversity of the global Middle Ages.

Pointing toward open access as the way of progress is certainly nothing new. Neither is decrying subscription-based models by for-profit commercial publishers. In some ways, the latter is standard fare in critiques about higher education in relation to neoliberalism and late capitalism. Open access, however, is not a savior for academic publishing: there are serious advantages and disadvantages to consider in any model. There’s certainly room for reconsidering the author-pay model of open access. Yet dwelling on these critiques (however warranted) can also foment certain types of apocalyptic rhetoric with little hope.

Instead, I want to gesture toward open-access resources as integral to how we tell stories for the public. This is, in many ways, one of our duties to make scholarship more relevant, and it is deeply connected with equity in access.

Those interested in telling stories for the public need to be interested in equity. After all, telling stories about the past is much more difficult when access to sources is closed, controlled, and only available to those at the top of a hierarchy. Stories don’t belong only to the privileged.

Equity matters in terms of how we access the very materials of the past. This is as true for academics as it is for the public. Academics without access to specialized resources like Brepols and Proquest databases also lack access to those caches of stories to tell the public. At a time when so much of academia faces the need to diversify and decolonize, the hoarding of resources by commercial publishers poses a major obstacle.

Many are already concerned with equity in access, especially as they relate to representations of the past. As the problems of white supremacists’ love of the medieval period has recently been thrust into the spotlight, it’s increasingly clear that representation in stories about the Middle Ages certainly matters. It should be obvious that this problem isn’t unique to medieval studies. In the desire to tell better stories for the public, equity in access promotes better representation.

Beginning of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 288, fol. 65v.

There’s no doubt that some of the most successful medievalists at reaching the public are those who offer engagement with sources drawn straight from the Middle Ages. For example, Chaucer Doth Tweet, Erik KwakkelEmily Steiner, and the Medieval People of Color activist present medieval languages, manuscripts, and art to thousands of eager followers. Their examples rest on open-access sources, and their engagement would be much more difficult without access to those sources in the first place.

As may be seen from the above examples, manuscripts of the Parker Library testify to the wide array of stories about medieval people, authors, readers, and books that circulated throughout the Middle Ages. Hopefully more projects will also open their repositories via open-access licenses in the future. After all, many more storehouses hold untold stories that need to be released.