Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital eraOpinion

Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital era (chapter 3.2): The political histories of UK public libraries and access to knowledge

This article is chapter 3.2 in section 3 of a series of articles summarising the book Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access.

To complement current discussions on open access, the second chapter of the publics and politics section sees Stuart Lawson consider public libraries as one element of the longer history of access to scholarly knowledge. A historical perspective reveals that access to knowledge has undergone a long, slow process of change, related to social, technical, and political developments in printing, mass literacy, universities, and libraries.

Until the advent of the digital technologies that enable the Open Access Movement, public access to the scholarly record required physical access to printed works. Public libraries helped facilitate this, fulfilling a vital role in extending access to scholarship beyond the academic sector. However, the complex power dynamics at play in the dissemination of ideas are visible in the creation of public libraries.

This chapter examines these origins, with a focus on the UK, to reveal that current debates around the consequences of widening public access to scholarship – and how this expansion should be paid for – are nothing new.

Public libraries and expanding access

For most of their history, libraries have existed to serve specific communities, although some were also open to members of the general public. When public libraries in the modern sense were created, they built on an earlier legacy of libraries supported by a variety of funding models dating back to as early as the seventeenth century.

The idea of public libraries as a network of institutions to serve an entire nation only became possible in the UK following the 1850 Public Libraries Act, which allowed town councils to establish libraries funded by raising local taxes. Over the next century, the national network slowly came into being, with steady growth in the number of libraries, driven by further legislation such as the 1919 Public Libraries Act. Library provision to all finally became a statutory obligation of local authorities with the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

Concurrently, working-class education had expanded greatly throughout the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, education reforms meant that most adults were literate to some degree, and details of the occupations of registered library users in the 1870s show that a majority were of the working classes. The coupling of broadened access to education with public library provision resulted in a dramatic expansion of public appetite for access to scholarly knowledge.

The professionalization of science around the turn of the twentieth century also contributed to greater participation in scholarship beyond the traditional “gentleman-scholars” who had previously dominated science, although the requirement of a university education may have had a negative impact on self-trained working-class scientists.

Access to reference materials through public libraries played an important supporting role in all of this – at least in the cities – particularly in expanding access to women, who had often been excluded both from universities and from institutions designed for working men.

A counter reading of the history of working-class education in the UK, though, shows a gradual shift of control out of the hands of the workers themselves and toward the governing classes. Public libraries were part of this process. The state-funded public library network did offer greatly expanded opportunities for working-class people to access books, but at the cost of removing some of the agency from the decision over what to purchase that was present in the small local libraries of a century earlier.

This trade-off between access and agency has resonance with current debates surrounding the geopolitics of open access, especially regarding the relations between the Global North and South. Indeed, one specific model of funding open access, article processing charges (APCs), has been widely criticized as a form of “neocolonialism” that entrenches unequal power relations, fueling a disparity between those who can afford to publish using that model and
those who cannot.

The “missionary” aspect of the UK’s early public library provision, whereby wealthy philanthropists bestowed gifts upon the poor, must be avoided in new open systems of knowledge dissemination by taking care to foster relationships of mutual cooperation.

Class, colonialism, and access

Libraries have often been idealized as “neutral” and classless, which obscures their political dimension. Indeed, Victorian middle-class notions of social- and self-improvement were a key driver in the idea of providing library facilities to all. Public libraries were created with the aim of “bettering” the working classes.

Conversely, it has been argued that rather than instill bourgeois values, working-class education was a means for workers to break out of prescribed class roles, with institutions designed to provide greater equity of access to knowledge seen as part of the egalitarian spirit of liberal reform.

Equity of access is seen as central to the purpose of public libraries, but it is vital to remember the destructive legacy of colonialism and empire that coexists within this same tradition. Comparing the creation of public library services in the UK with the experience of some former colonial nations shows the imprint of this imperialist legacy and the fight against it. These histories show a diverse global picture in terms of the political dynamics of introducing national public library systems, particularly in terms of their colonial origins, with lasting consequences for their future development.

Widening access to knowledge has been viewed as both emancipatory and, conversely, as a tool for indoctrination. If public libraries are governed solely in the interests of governing classes rather than for ordinary citizens, their potential for facilitating a more equitable distribution of knowledge is diminished.

In this light, librarians act as both facilitators of access to information but also as gatekeepers, a dual role that highlights a tension within the profession’s ethics. In some ways, the need to mediate between library users and their materials has been reduced over time through both social and technological advances. For instance, if a library now provides an electronic version of a text then members of that library may be able to access it without physically going to the library.

Library workers are still facilitating access but their role is less obvious to the end user and so the necessity of librarians’ labor is obscured. Unfortunately, the fact that labor is often hidden has resulted in calls from the libertarian right to end public library services due to ill-conceived notions that librarians have already been automated out.

Open access and knowledge politics

Public libraries have always had to be responsive to the political context of the time. For example, in England under New Labour (circa 1997–2010), social inclusion became an explicit part of library policy, whereas the later 2010–2015 Conservative-Liberal coalition government cut local government spending to such an extent that many councils closed libraries in response.

Such an engagement with the policy direction of particular governments is also very clear with regard to open access. A central rationale for open access is that not all users (or potential users) of academic research are within the academic sector, and research could have greater impact if results are made more widely available. The composition of different publics outside the academic sector varies at any given time, but includes teachers, further education students, retired academics, industry and entrepreneurs, refugees, and “para-academic” or contingent academic labor without a permanent faculty position.

The UK government has made open access a priority in order to exploit the economic potential of these publics – especially startups and entrepreneurs. The notion that public libraries could provide scientific and technical knowledge in order to drive innovation and therefore stimulate economic growth is an old one. Although in the late nineteenth century public libraries’ provision of technical literature was patchy, by the First World War they were seen as supporting economic activity around scientific and technical progress, leading to the development of numerous commercial and technical libraries.

A similar supporting role for public libraries was envisaged in the UK’s current national open-access policy direction. After 150 years of expanding access to knowledge through public libraries, using them to increase access to online research can be seen as a logical expansion and resulted in the UK’s free access service, “Access to Research.” The scheme provides free access to online journal articles from public library computers.

This is an exception to most UK open-access policy in that it focuses on end users rather than the supply side – that is, academia. But access data shows that it has so far not been a runaway success. Furthermore, the Access to Research scheme is taking place concurrently with an unprecedented level of budgetary cuts to public library provision in the UK, alongside ongoing commercialization and de-professionalization, which threaten to reduce the ability of public libraries to function as a site of lifelong learning and civic engagement. Walk-in access to research is of no value to citizens whose library has been closed.


From the creation of public libraries, the expansion of higher education, to the global adoption of the internet, a shifting distribution of power has put more information in the hands of more people. Open access to research in the digital era is part of this longer history of access to knowledge.

But if the decisions governing open-access policy are subject to whims of temporary administrations, then nothing is inevitable about the success or otherwise of open access – rights obtained after a long struggle can always be rolled back. Despite all the gains made so far, not everyone has equal access to knowledge: money and social advantage are still barriers to accessing the results of scholarship, let alone participating in its creation.

The extent of academic piracy highlights the uneven geographical distribution of access to research: pirate websites such as Sci-Hub and Library Genesis show great demand in countries where access is a significant problem. This indicates that there is still much work to be done.

Throughout history, progress in this area has often followed on the heels of grassroots or illicit activity. For example, although nineteenth-century public libraries resulted from top-down work of social reformers rather than bottom-up demand, they entered a world already containing a rich variety of autonomous working-class libraries. And piracy is often a precursor to the implementation of legal solutions.

in closing his chapter, Stuart Lawson contends that by paying attention to the lessons of history, particularly its social and political dimensions, those of us who see open access as a progressive catalyst for social change can work toward the kind of open access we want to see.

Next part (chapter 3.3): Libraries and their publics in the United States.

Article source: This article is an edited summary of Chapter 101 of the book Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access2 which has been published by MIT Press under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.

Article license: This article is published under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.


  1. Lawson, S. (2020). The Political Histories of UK Public Libraries and Access to Knowledge. In Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
  2. Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2020). Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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