What Price Gale Cengage?

The ‘gold sponsor’ of the excellently organised Digital Humanities 2016 conference in the beguling city of Kraków was Gale Cengage Learning, who produce many of the digital packages most widely used by UK humanities scholars such as the Burney Collection of Newspapers, The Times Digital Archive and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Large conferences such as DH, which this year had nearly 1,000 delegates, are very expensive to organise, and without doubt the generosity of Gale made the event a much more enjoyable and convivial one.

However, the #DH2016 Twitter stream revealed a distinct unease about the relationship with Gale. Many of the digital humanities enthusiasts attending the conference are strongly committed to using digital methods to make the collectons of libraries and archives freely accessible to all. The production by Gale of enormously expensive digital packages which can only be afforded by university libraries seems at odds with the open access aspirations of many digital humanities practitioners.

It is perhaps too easy to jump on a high moral horse about such issues. I was happy to drink the Gale wine at the reception and appreciate the difficulties of organising committees in delivering good events that offer value for money. And of course like many humanities scholars I am a heavy user of Gale products and wouldn’t wish to be without them.

But my uncomfortable feeling increased during the presentation by a Gale representative at the opening ceremony of DH. Gale, we learnt, wants to engage with the digital humanities and wants to allow advanced techniques to be used on its data. So, working with ‘legitimate clients’ like university libraries, it is offering access to the data from its packages for purposes like text mining, etc. Examples were given of work that has benefitted from this access, such as Adam Crymble’s fascinating work on the Irish in London. But is Gale really promoting the widest possible access?

Part of my work is on the history of Freemasonry and this involves investigation of the major series of State Papers in the National Archives, particularly for the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The marvellous British History Online at London’s Institute of Historical Research offers me a searchable version of the summaries of documents in the printed Calendar of State Papers to 1714 for a modest annual subscription of £36, which I am happy to pay because it supports the continued development of British History Online. But summaries of documents are not substitute for looking at the original, and so I was very excited when Gale produced an online version of the State Papers from 1509–1714 which provides scans of the original documents and improved cataloguing of the documents. I was even more excited when Gale published three years ago the State Papers Online for 1714–82, which is the key period for my work on the history of Freemasonry.

So imagine my disappointment that it is virtually impossible for me to get access to any of these online packages. I have to travel to the Natioal Archives at Kew or to the British Library in London to look at them, so the digitisation isn’t much of an improvement in terms of availability. This is not access; it is a form of intellectual torture.

The reason is simply that these packages are prohibitively expensive. My colleague at the University of Glasgow Dr Alison Wiggins is also desperate to get access to these packages to pursue her wonderful work on Bess of Hardwick. She has lobbied our University Library to purchase the packages, and this is the quote that was provided by Gale Cengage for the four parts of State Papers 1509–1714:

So, purchase of just the State Papers 1509–1714 would cost over £200,000 (including VAT) plus hosting charges. I don’t have figures for the State Papers 1714-82, but if the cost is comparable to earlier publication, it would seem that the price would be somewhere in the region of £150,000. So, to offer scholars working on Britain in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries access to one of the most important sources for the period, the University of Glasgow would need to find £350,000. As a Scottish university, which does not charge tuition fees to Scottish or EU students, money is tight, and there is little hope of Glasgow being able to put this vast amount of money into library provision for one area.

I am not clear why the State Papers are not available via the licences negotiated by JISC Collections, one of the unsung heroes of the digital humanities, which has done miraculous work in negotiating digital licences over the years which enable British universities of all shapes, sizes and budgets to purchase a wide range of digital resources (including free access for British universities to Gale’s Burney Newspapers and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online). As a result, you can’t find Gale’s State Papers packages in many university libraries in Britain — they are simply unaffordable. Even the Institute of Historical Research in London doesn’t offer access. I study a lot at the National Library of Wales, and access to the State Papers is imortant for scholars working on the history of Wales, but the National Library in Aberystwyth, currently under severe budgetary pressure, couldn’t possibly afford to acquire this resource. Alison Wiggins drew the attention of Glasgow State Papers enthusiasts to the trial access to the State Papers recently offered by the National Library of Scotland, but the outcome of this trial is not yet clear.

Since I have no online access to Gale’s State Papers, if I want to consult these packages, I need to travel to London and go to the National Archives. In other words, do what I have been doing for forty years if I want to consult the State Papers. In which case, what was the point of digitising them, exactly?

I would be intrigued to know how Gale justifies these pricing policies. For £300,000 a university could mount a fairly substantial digitisation project, but presumably Gale now has exclusive rights over digital publication of the State Papers. As far as I can see, Gale have simply carried over the old pricing models associated with microfilm publication (the production of a small number of microfilm sets, sold at a high price to a few research libraries) into the digital sphere.

It is through the work of publishers like Gale that digitisation becomes a tool which, instead of enhancing and democratising access to libraties and archives, shuts access down, thereby reinforcing and amplifying old inequalities and hierarchies. It is very noticeable how in the United States, where there does not appear to be a nationwide licensing service comparable to JISC Collections, there are marked inequalities of digital access, with large wealthy research universities able to purchase everything that is available, while smaller colleges and universities have limited access, and still effectively teach their students using the methods of the 1980s. These patterns are repeated worldwide — it is the wealthy institutions in developed countries that are able to offer their students access to tyhe est digital resources.

Diversity has been a prominent theme at DH2016. The most important way in which DH promotes diversity is by ensuring, in the words of the great nineteenth-century librarian Antonio Panizzi, that the poorest student, wherever and whoever they are, should have access to the greatest library that the richest man could afford. Gale’s motto appears, by contrast, to be that digitisation shoul ensure that only the richest institutions have access to knowledge.

While there has been much fevered discussion about open access to scholarly publications, there has been little parallel discussion about the importance of ensuring open access to the contents of libraries, archives and museums owned by the public and part of a shared cultural heritage. The digital humanities need to make common cause with those institutions such as The British Museum and the National Library of Wales which have stood up for the importance of resisting the enclosure of our cultural commons by engrossers such as Gale. Maybe I might refuse the next glass of wine sponsored by them.

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