UPDATE (Tweet appears within minutes of finishing this draft):
— ProQuest (@ProQuest) October 29, 2015
ProQuest, in a move that has been hashtagged #ProQuestGate and #EEBOGate, abruptly cancelled Renaissance Society of America member access to Early English Books Online. For scholars of the English Renaissance and through the 18th century (or early America, for that matter), the lost subscription will mean lost access to perhaps the richest online resource for studying literary and cultural history from the period.
Why would scholars lose access? The most privileged scholars won’t, because they work at institutions that pay subscription fees. The scholars who are likely to suffer from lost access are at regional public universities and smaller private colleges–or are not employed, often known by the terrible euphemism “independent scholars.”
I think the only way to put real pressure on ProQuest is for scholars who are employed at institutions that subscribe to EEBO to hit ProQuest where it hurts, in the pocket book. ProQuest negotiates subscription agreements, and these agreements vary according to what the market will bear. So I would be surprised were there not several institutions paying 20 or 30 percent more than comparable peer institutions. I do know that ProQuest has two subscription types, 1) a one-time massive charge with small renewal fee, or 2) annual renewing subscription. (I have learned, since posting this, that prices are thoroughly byzantine, that rate may differs if institution purchases transcriptions from EEBO-TCP, phase 1 or 1 and 2, or is a partner institution with EEBO-TCP). My hope is that institutions with renewing subscriptions are easily able to compare what others are paying in annual subscription rates, they should be able to negotiate for lower costs.
You, if you are a member of an institution that subscribes, should contact your library department representative to find out what your institution pays. According to my local university librarian, these subscription fees are part of payment records that by law are open to the public. I am at a public state university in US, with open records law. If you’re at a private university not subject to open records law (or outside US) you may consider civil disobedience. However, given ease of electronic surveillance, the risk may be real in event of legal suit, etc. So don’t do it unthinkingly: consider your jurisdiction.
I’ve created an open-access Google spreadsheet, where I’ve posted Kent State University’s cost for access to ProQuest EEBO database. I remember gasping at the cost when we purchased this 5 years ago. Now, I gasp again at $27,000 for MARC records. I believe Kent State received a significant discount because it was purchased with year-end moneys, allocated funds for library purchases that are pooled and then used to bargain with library vendors. Please contact your librarian, and, if your library’s cost for EEBO is subject to open-record law, you can help us figure out which institutions are overpaying. I have no objection to ProQuest making a profit. And it is true also that ProQuest has continued to revise ESTC metadata. But I do think EEBO is being sold at near extortion rates. And your efforts may help libraries save 10s of 1000s of dollars in subscription rates.
Will this cause ProQuest to relent and resume offering member access to Renaissance Society of America? This won’t, as ProQuest changed it’s mind while I was drafting this. But I do believe that gathering about 10 or 20 examples of what libraries pay could very well expose massive differences in cost. Then universities that have annual subscriptions can start driving hard bargains, and hit ProQuest where it feels the hurt, in the pocket-book.
Below is a bit more on why EEBO matters to Renaissance scholars. (PS: I’m not actually an English Renaissance scholar. I appreciate corrections). ProQuest EEBO is an electronic interface built on the back of generations of scholarly labor, including the Pollard & Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue, 1475-1640), 3 vols., and Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), 4 vols. James L. Harner in Literary Research Guide (a go-to-handbook for literary research) describes RSTC as “the indispensable resource for identifying and locating extant works” and “one of the truly monumental reference works,” and he explains that EEBO is “captured from the microfilms that up Early English Books, 1475-1640 and Early English Books, 1641-1700.” The digitization of these resources has enormous benefit to scholars–Harner calls it an “incomparable resources.” A far more comprehensive history of EEBO is at http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/History_of_Early_English_Books_Online. TCP is also a complex thing, which you can read about here. It is “transcribed by hand,” it advertises, but many of the hands that do the transcribing–“at Apex CoVantage, Spi Global, Aptara, and AELD, and especially their teams of developers, taggers, keyers, and managers based in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Manila” (link)–go unnamed. Other hands, including librarians at Oxford and Michigan, reviewed the transcriptions. Also, over time, the transcriptions will be released into the public domain.
But to continue, much of the labor that makes EEBO valuable is the accretion of labor provided over decades by scholars and scholarly societies and public moneys. And one of the things that keeps building it is outsourcing. The built-up reservoir of material in one interface makes it difficult to compete against it. I think #frEEBO is a nice idea (see John Overholt post here), but I think it underestimates the magnitude of the labor and scholarship already sunk into EEBO. Maybe, over time, #frEEBO could compete. And I don’t want to be cynical.
But I’d like here to see if we can crowd-source a tool that would allow college and university libraries to negotiate more successfully with ProQuest, and maybe use moneys that ProQuest is currently vacuuming up to spend on other priorities. Any one who could advise on what to do with this information if several institution rates are gathered, please contact me or comment.
3 November Update: Thank you to Ian Gadd, Professor of English at Bath University and President of SHARP, for notifying me that ProQuest has updated metadata, that TCP transcriptions were also checked by scholars at Oxford and Michigan, and that TCP transcriptions will be released to the public. He is responsible for those three corrections but of course not for any errors, which remain my own.