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Yes, I know this is a deliberately provocative title, and I am not implying that Prof Murray-Rust needs teaching more than most, nor that he is particularly difficult to teach.

But, as his blog posts show (start here and read on), here is a prominent academic, who is well-known in the library world, who doesn’t understand why – or indeed how or when – the BL have DRM (digital rights management) on their electronic inter-library loans. (please note: I’m not going to discuss here whether they should have or not – merely that they do).

I understand why, although I couldn’t tell you when I learned. I’ve never worked ILL – is it some kind of librarianly osmosis? I’m sure you, as librarians and info profs, understand too (and if you don’t, go read Steph Taylor’s (@CriticalSteph) response on PMR’s blog).

So here is an issue which librarians understand, and which fundamentally affects the relationship of our users – arguably of our most sophisticated users – to the library. As PMR’s blog (and comments) show, it’s an issue which very negatively effects that relationship. It’s seen as a barrier to scholarship – PMR says ‘I believe that these represent a serious reduction in academic freedom‘.

If this is issue is so vital, why don’t they know why we are doing it? Prof Murray-Rust says ‘The BL’s responses are often masterly Sir Humphreydoms that say nothing‘, and he asks for professional advice from librarians about how to interpret the restrictions.

Why does he need this? I appreciate the need to have the legal disclaimers in place, but our primary role, as information professionals, is to get information to our users. We have obviously failed here. Why is there not a simple, accessible guide to DRM on ILL articles – in fact, to the role of copyright in ILLs as a whole?

The Cambridge University Library website inter-library loans page makes no mention of DRM – but that may be because it makes no mention of the fact that you can obtain journal articles electronically, through SED (secure electronic delivery). Surely Cambridge provides this service? Indeed, why else would PMR be questioning it? Yet no mention – that I could find. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong!

I’m not singling out Cambridge for condemnation here – it merely happens to be Prof Murray-Rust’s institution. Let’s look at some others, shall we? Manchester? No mention. Oxford and Sheffield? Some mention – they at least acknowledge the existence of SED. Edinburgh? Getting better – advice about the service, and a mention of why you can only print one copy. ‘Copyright restrictions’ is a pretty bare-bones explanation, but at least it’s a start.

So there is some information out there – but surely you’re not suggesting that this is providing an acceptable service to users? That to find information on a service you provide they have to find information on that service as provided by other libraries, and extrapolate from there?

(This is just a whirlwind tour of a few libraries that sprung to mind – if you know of a particularly good example of how libraries are communicating these restrictions, please let me know!)

So, on to the BL. After a bit of digging, I found the SED FAQ – it’s certainly not in a prominent or easily accessible place. And yes, it answers the technical questions. But nowhere is there a mention of the ‘why’. And without the ‘why’, it appears that we are restricting access to information for our own fun and amusement.

DRM on articles may or may not be deliberate barrier to scholarship, but not providing easy access to (in effect, withholding) all of the information users need to make the best choice about how to access those article, and how to make best use of them once they have obtained them, is. If we have to live with DRM, we have to learn how to make sure users get the most out of it – and that they understand why it is there. If we don’t, we’re failing in one of our fundamental trusts: to make the information our users need available to them – even if they don’t know they need it.

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