Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guest Post: Research between the cracks: when you’re a PhD without a library

Today I heard back from the library of the university at which I completed my PhD a year ago. Sadly, they are unable to offer me online, off-campus library privileges, even with Visiting Scholar status. Only current faculty, staff and students can access the online resources. It took the library two months and countless messages from myself and my former department’s Chair and Graduate Secretary to provide this information.

So if I want to access databases like the MLA, peruse online journals, or see what books are in the library system, I have to go physically to campus and work there, in a crowded public lab filled with undergraduates. That’s a bit of a drag when you’re trying to be an academic researcher in the 21st century, and want to check something on the MLA at 2 in the morning – or briefly at 3 in the afternoon, for that matter.

I don’t have an academic job right now. Like so many recent PhDs, I’m cobbling together what I can, teaching sessional, applying for jobs, looking for other options and yes, grateful for the work I do find. But moving forward is not easy when you’re not affiliated with a university. It’s much more difficult to research and write papers when you don’t have good, unlimited access to an academic library. Heck, the moment my card expired after my PhD I was back to borrowing status as a member of the public: 3-week loans on a regional library card, with no way of accessing interlibrary loans.

My former department has been very supportive, and they tried their best to help me. But university policies, and library policies, are very clear: they’re meant to exclude me the moment I graduate. In the current economic climate for PhDs – and the current employment climate generally, with its rise in sessional positions and cutbacks to full-time workers – universities should rethink their relationship to their alumni, and offer more institutional support to their PhD graduates. After all, the harder it is to publish, the easier it is for us to perish. Ultimately that makes them look bad too.

--Susanne Marshall

3 comments:

  1. Susanne, thank you so much for your thoughtful (and frustrating!) post. Your position is indicative of Heather's charge that we think clearly about what we want from the institution. Institutional support after graduation (in addition to departmental, which I am so pleased to hear you've received) is necessary.

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  2. Yes, thank you, Susanne -- it makes me think that, of course, I have not been without university library access since 1992. I take it for granted: library access is a utility, like phone service or road service or electricity. That I can't even imagine being without a library speaks both to my own blindness, first, but also to the centrality of the library to scholarly work, and to scholarly life.

    I don't imagine that so many people are desperate for access to the university holdings that we have to be so very parsimonious about alumni accounts, or independent scholar accounts, or interested member of the public accounts. God, if anyone wants to go to the library enough to even fill out a form to that effect I say LET THEM GO TO THE LIBRARY.

    Sheesh. Of course you need access. If you need me to take out any books for you, let me know.

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  3. I sympathize with your plight and agree that this is necessary.

    However, I suspect the problem is not with the University but rather with the publishers. The University will pay a licensing fee for access to online journals, databases, etc. And that license will limit who they can give access to. I'm not sure if a license giving access to alumni is available nor what the price difference might be, but I suspect that this is the core issue.

    One thing I wonder is why you don't have access through the institution where you are a member of staff (as a sessional teacher).

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