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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2007

Book Reviews

Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice

Jane Duffy
Associate University Librarian
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Copyright 2007, Jane Duffy. Used with permission.

Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: from theory to practice. Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, eds. MIT Press Cambridge: MA, 2007. List Price: $36.00. ISBN: 0-262-08357-4

Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom have assembled an outstanding collection of essays that are arranged to provide both a historical and systematic overview of the development of the Knowledge Commons (a shared collection of resources freely and openly accessible to a defined group of stakeholders) in theory and practice.

The product of a series of discussions held at the "Workshop on Scholarly Communication as a Commons," hosted by the editors at Indiana University in 2004, this volume offers an ambitious exploration of all current and emerging aspects of what we call the "Knowledge Commons."

Beginning with the section "Studying the Commons," the first three chapters present perspectives on the beginnings of the "Commons as model." The first chapter in particular, written by the volume's editors, offers a tantalizing tour of the philosophical and political components of the discourse of Commons. In this inaugural chapter, the reader is also led through the list of topics dealt with in depth in later chapters, such as how do scientific and other academic communities advance their scholarly missions in the new Commons paradigm, how are strategies to be devised to prioritize access and enhance further research, and -- very practically -- how do we think about the traditional journal and challenges of preservation.

Flowing from the parameters set out by the volume's editors in the first chapter, the second and third chapters provide solid narratives on selected chronological developments and organizational implications attending the "Commons as model." Pointing out that the Commons and the free market are not natural adversaries, David Bollier's "Growth of the Commons Paradigm" presents a theory of how the growth of the Commons depends upon the relational exchange between the practitioner and the theoretician, noting that the notion of the Commons leads naturally to "practical new models" for representing, organizing and controlling Commons resources. Written by the volume's editors, the third chapter "Analyzing the Knowledge Commons" presents the Institutional Analysis and Development framework as a means to maximize opportunities for research and development presented by the ongoing use of the Knowledge Commons.

STM librarians have a special and ongoing interest in the protection of access to the Knowledge Commons, as well as in their particular professional role in providing that access. As the book progresses into more specific discussions of practical examples of the Commons, the second section explores such issues as who owns the Commons, who regulates its access and use and lastly who preserves it. Nancy Kranich in "Countering Enclosure: Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons" takes aim at the challenge of promoting access to scholarly information through engagement with the development of the technology that will make such access possible. Pointing to several instances of the construction of new information models, Kranich closes with the challenge to provide a single framework, one overarching "institution" to enclose all these. James Boyle in Chapter 5 "Mertonianism Unbound? Imagining Free, Decentralized Access to Most Cultural and Scientific Material" offers a glimpse of what the Commons would resemble and how it could function should there be fewer concerns about intellectual property, copyright and other constraints. While acknowledging the value of constraints in developing many "comedic, well-run commons," he presents a persuasive and attractive scenario for pan-disciplinary universal access to the entire corpus of both academic and non-academic information. Rather than lamenting the loss of what the discrete or exclusive Commons provides to highly specialized groups, a situation that he suggests encourages passive consumption, Boyle anticipates that radically barrier-free access would generate the quickening of knowledge-building, "a world of potential colleagues."

Preservation issues, of continuing concern to STM librarians in the acquisition and management of digital collections and resources, is the subject of Chapter 6 "Preserving the Knowledge Commons" by Donald J. Waters. Essentially, the matter of preservation is a collective issue as well and Waters presents several suggestions for various models of distributed responsibility for this function. While Waters clearly believes that an infrastructure of incentives is of central importance to ensure this shared responsibility is effectively carried out, his position on the value of appropriate archival business models and legal protections is of equally high value to the STM collection manager and service provider.

Drilling down to even more applied analyses of the construction and custodianship of the Knowledge Commons, is the third and final section of this volume "Building the New Knowledge Commons." Peter Suber grapples with the question "What is Open Access" in Chapter 7 "Creating an Intellectual Commons Through Open Access." He demonstrates that finding our way through various questions on which the initial implementation of OA can stumble such as Royalty-Free and Royalty-Producing Content, types of Intellectual Property in Relation to OA, legal foundations of OA and so on, is the necessary first step to building any Commons of real value. The STM Librarian would benefit from noting that he points particularly to the need to engage the barriers perceived by authors to ensure the OA Commons' success. For an instructive essay on the perceived barrier of intellectual property, the eighth chapter of this volume, Shubha Ghosh' "How to Building a Commons: Is Intellectual Property Constrictive, Facilitating or Irrelevant?" is well situated within the practical and is perhaps the best current explication available for STM librarianship regarding Knowledge Commons access concerns particular to those disciplines.

The concluding chapters of this section target specific points of discussion in the physical and intellectual construction of a Knowledge Commons. A discussion of the strategic skills needed for Commons building is outlined in chapter 9 by Peter Levine: he argues that the most effective skill in building the Commons is to view members of the scholarly commons as co-producers rather than merely consumers. This position is amplified and deepened further in Charles Schweik's portrayal of the FOSS collaborative paradigm, through which he demonstrates an important distinction for STM knowledge managers: this model of collective action enhances a "public good" rather than ameliorates a "public bad." The imperative of a constructive rather than counter-destructive philosophy in building a Commons informs Wendy Pradt Lougee's review essay "Scholarly Communication and Libraries Unbound: The Opportunity of the Commons" and will be rich reading for any STM librarian. Lougee approaches the Library's situation in the emergence and development of the Commons from a variety of perspectives on its role, such as "control zone," a place defined by "systems and services" and as a "functional catalyst," now challenged to work well beyond processes that "act upon" the resources it houses and to become instead a series of activities working within these processes. The last chapter "EconPort: Creating and Maintaining a Knowledge Commons" takes the reader through a highly detailed discussion of an example of the "new knowledge commons," the EconPort, produced by the Economic Science Laboratory and the Artificial Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Through this chapter, James Cox and J. Todd Swarthout lead the reader through fact-based considerations of the political and institutional supports necessary to ensure the sustainability of the Knowledge Commons of the future.

The STM librarian will find enormous value in this volume. The editors have gathered and arranged a work of outstanding contributors, making available a collection of essays that provides both a practical discussion and coherent theoretical models of the Knowledge Commons. The STM library practitioner will appreciate particularly the organizational framework of this book as well as the value added by its first chapter. While some of the chapters dealing with specific Commons models would have benefited by the inclusion of illustrations, the index and glossary add much to the navigation of this book's more abstruse discussions. This book is highly recommended for all academic library practitioners, particularly in science and technological disciplines, as well as to researchers in these fields. It is also highly recommended for all stakeholders, both academic and political, in the protection and development of knowledge as a shared resource.

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