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  • Expanding Access to Knowledge:How Enlightenment Ideals Can Strengthen Public Support for the Humanities
  • Scott Richard St. Louis (bio)

Many serious challenges presently afflict American civic life: growing inequality, proliferating antipathy and distrust, and malevolent antiintellectualism, to name but a few. The humanities have a vital role to play in confronting such difficult trends. Art, history, literature, philosophy, and related fields can prepare students to enter the public square with a sense of depth, with an appreciation of complexity and variety, and with the cognitive resilience it takes to cultivate truly democratic habits of mind: among them, learning broadly, thinking precisely, listening compassionately, and debating attentively.1

How, then, might the Enlightenment inform the approach of those who strive to defend the humanities amid political and economic circumstances that regularly question the value of these disciplines? How might scholars bring within the reach of nonacademic audiences a wealth of humanistic intellectual resources, produced by learned methods of discernment, in a digital age where misinformation can spread all too quickly? How might we mitigate that foreboding tension—between academic expertise and popular sovereignty—when it rears its ugly head?2

Reversing the erosion of public trust in these fields of study, and in higher education more broadly, will require changes from within. Scholars [End Page 383] of the humanities need to question why their traditional infrastructures of research dissemination remain so distant from the alternatives a digital world makes possible. Enlightenment ideals that continue to inspire change in our time—natural equality over inherited standing, critical examination over deference to authority, and scientific advancement over the flattering of tradition for its own sake or for fear of the unknown—can help us frame effectively the importance of contemporary movements for open access to knowledge, especially to humanistic research funded by tax and tuition dollars.3 Mindful of the numerous qualifications that scholarly rigor demands, I intend to encourage fruitful and imaginative contemplation about how we share our work.

In the twenty-first century, digital technologies boast powerful capabilities for elevating the visibility and impact of scholarly research, a worthy aspiration for a needful time.4 Unfortunately, contemporary arrangements in academic publishing have largely prevented these technologies from widening public access to such information. Due to subscription price increases and growth in the sheer amount of research available for purchase, library expenditures on academic journals increased by more than 400 percent between 1986 and 2011, compared to an increase of just 71 percent for monographs over the same period.5 As academic libraries struggle to cope with the financial strains imposed by this serials crisis, important knowledge across disciplines becomes increasingly inaccessible to researchers at institutions confronting serious budgetary constraints, let alone to the multitudes of educated nonspecialists who do not possess academic library privileges.6

Put more simply, dramatically rising prices for scientific journals, often published by corporations, have squeezed library acquisition budgets at even wealthy research institutions, prompting a decline in demand for monographs in the humanities and thereby lowering the accessibility of humanistic scholarship. This bind has raised very serious—even existential—uncertainties about the future of research dissemination in our fields of study.7 To defend the humanities, it is thus imperative to think critically about scholarly communication itself.8

Some scholars of the humanities, like Robert Darnton, have begun to address these problems by supporting the development of open access (OA) publishing infrastructure in their own disciplines.9 While others continue to believe that OA necessarily entails the imposition of author-side publication fees, this is simply not true. Philosophers' Imprint, published by the innovative University of Michigan Library, is an OA humanities journal that does not require the payment of any author-side fees. Additionally, the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) is a nonprofit organization that publishes [End Page 384] OA scholarship without author-side fees. Launched in September 2015 following early support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the OLH operates using a partnership subsidy model in which an international library consortium supports the OLH financially in exchange for participation in its governance. The consortium currently includes more than two hundred members, among them some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the...


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pp. 383-388
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