Image: Mission Impossible (1996)
No matter the cause — whether it’s relocating to a new job, leaving academe entirely, or just taking a break — most of us dread losing our sweet, sweet academic library privileges, even temporarily.
How to conduct academic research without being affiliated with an academic institution is one of the biggest challenges facing independent scholars. Likewise, the library privileges available to contingent faculty can vary wildly from place to place.
So what’s an academic solo artist to do?
As with all else post-ac and alt-ac, a little hustle can go a long way. I’ve been away from my campus for nearly four years, and I’ve discovered lots of back-door ways to access research materials without an institutional affiliation. The following list of options for physical and digital access to academic libraries — when you don’t have an academic title — leans toward the humanities and social sciences, but feel free to add other resources in the comments.
Your undergraduate or graduate-school alumni association may offer online database access as a benefit for members. Dozens of institutions participate in JSTOR’s Alumni Access program. Many colleges and universities also offer access to other online resources, including the electronic databases of Project MUSE,SAGE Publications, and Proquest. Depending on the institution, some of these services are offered to alumni free of charge, but others may require purchasing an association membership.
Your undergraduate or graduate-school alma mater may offer library cards to alumni. Often, complimentary library cards are really only useful if you live near enough to campus to physically visit. Alumni of the University of California, for example, qualify for library cards on any system campus, but they can only use databases, catalogs, and other online resources while on site. The cards may be offered through the campus library or through an alumni association, and obtaining one may require joining the association.
Most public campuses (and some private ones) allow free public access to library stacks. Policies at private universities vary — many do not allow unaffiliated visitors into the stacks. But most public institutions do. Stack access is usually fairly easy to obtain, though circulation privileges are another matter. Access may be limited to certain public visiting hours, or you may be able to use the library whenever it’s open. While you may not be able to borrow books, you can usually request items from storage for in-library use. Whether or not wi-fi access is public at campus libraries is hit or miss.
Some colleges and universities allow unaffiliated community members to buy library memberships. This is often an expensive option, but you may be able to purchase a library membership at a local university, which allows access to a limited range of resources. At Chicago’s DePaul University, for example, you can buy a $350 Friends of the Library membership annually. It allows users some borrowing privileges — but no database access, not even on campus.
If your options are limited at academic libraries, try your local public library. Join your public library, even if you have privileges elsewhere. Most public libraries offer access to some electronic resources and arrange interlibrary loans for patrons. You may also be able to access a state or regional cooperative-loan program, such as Illinois’ RAILS system. These programs may not be as robust as the campus version — for example, you may be limited in the number of active requests you can make, and you may need to pay the attendant interlibrary-loan fees — but they’re better than no access at all.
You can purchase access to some online databases and resource collections. If you don’t have alumni access, JSTOR allows individuals to purchase monthly or yearly memberships. Other institutional databases may allow you to purchase access to a single paper or journal, though that can be prohibitively expensive, especially in the sciences.
But there are also a range of companies that offer important research collections. Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com, for example, both have huge databases of scanned newspapers — often including local and regional titles that bigger companies like ProQuest may not have. Google’s somewhat limited newspaper archive is free; so is the oddly named Old Fulton New York Postcards archive of 34,000 titles. Newspapers published before 1922 may available through the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project. In addition, some academic publishers have separate commercial offerings for the general public. Highbeam Research includes materials from the Gale databases, for example.
Commercial resources can be costly, but most sites do offer free trials — with somewhat Byzantine cancellation policies in some cases, so read the fine print. They may also run membership sales (I joined Newspapers.com during a Black Friday promotion). And, depending on your tax situation, you may be able to deduct these subscriptions as a business expense.
Public domain ebooks — and sometimes other texts — are available from a wide range of sites. You can access public domain ebooks through Google Books, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Open Library also loans out some ebooks that are not in the public domain. In all of those cases, you don’t need a tablet or e-reader — you can read the books in your browser.
None of these options, taken individually, will meet all of your research needs, and it can certainly be annoying to have to juggle multiple library memberships and subscriptions. If you’re willing to patch some of these together, however, you can secure access to a range of resources wide enough that it approximates unfettered access to an academic library reasonably well.
It’s not easy — though it should be. One way institutions might improve labor conditions and increase parity across the academy is by enabling greater access to research resources. Until that happens, rest assured that it is possible to continue advancing your academic research agenda without a campus affiliation. Someday, when you’ve achieved all of your dreams, you can enjoy the satisfaction of telling the young people that you had to go uphill both ways.
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