The opportune moment: why and how to leverage unexpected events

“If you were waiting for the opportune moment… that was it.”

—Johnny Depp as “Captain Jack Sparrow,” Pirates of the Caribbean

I never met Aaron Swartz, though I certainly knew of him. I’ve been teaching library-school students about him since his 2011 arrest for sneaking into an MIT server closet to mass-download the contents of JSTOR. I learned of his death by his own hand via airport wireless, early the morning of Saturday, January 12. Exhausted by a week of teaching a data-curation bootcamp for librarians and digital humanists, the most I could muster was a weak, aghast “aigh. no.

I frankly haven’t the strength to lay out the entirety of my thoughts about this horror. I feel culpable. I cringe at every time I’ve made light of Swartz’s situation in one of my classes. There’s an entire code of ethics that tells me that aside from trespass (which I can’t endorse any more than does Stuart Shieber) I belonged in Swartz’s position—it’s my job to “advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders” and “protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality” even in the teeth of federal prosecution. It should have been me fighting for open access to research—even grandstanding over it now and then—not Swartz. Public librarians risked their jobs and freedom to protect their patrons from the Patriot Act. Why have I and the profession I chose consistently, obstinately done less—nothing whatever, many of us—for seekers after research information?

Be that as it may (and I expect to be thinking and perhaps writing about this for a good while yet), when I ensconced myself on my sofa with my laptop Sunday morning to recover from travel, my Twitter feeds were buzzing with a new hashtag, #pdftribute. Researchers worldwide, in any number of disciplines including the very humanities disciplines most often hostile to open access, were posting their work to the open web as a memorial to Aaron Swartz.

The opportune moment. That was it.

It’s no news to librarians active in scholarly communication that academia is positively rife with myths and misconceptions surrounding open access. Moreover, throwing PDFs up higgledy-piggledy all over the web, while a lovely and extraordinarily important impulse, hampers discoverability (especially through library tools) and invites eventual 404s. Better solutions exist, often through academic libraries. As for copyright—well, I mostly wrote it off to “civil disobedience,” because finger-shaking and copyright-copping is no way to seize the opportune moment, and because the tweets I saw were already aware of the risk and clearly willing to accept it.

So I offered to point authors to their institutional repositories—and actually did so for several interested #pdftribute participants—introduced SHERPA/RoMEO to help them assess and manage their rights and risks, answered metadata questions, dispelled myths, retweeted tweets from fellow libraryfolk, and checked in on the hashtag throughout the day to see what else I might be able to add. I appreciate the several other librarians who tweeted links to their local institutional repositories, helped answer questions, and amplified the signal by retweeting me and each other. It wasn’t the most relaxing Sunday I’ve ever spent, but it certainly ranks among my most professionally-productive days ever.

Opening conversation with researchers—even with many librarians!—about their publishing choices is hard, often dispiriting work. It’s not the sort of thing that slips easily into conversation: “Oh, yes, I’ll help you put together that research assignment—and by the way, did you put the preprint of your latest article in our repository?” Most times, such conversations feel like shouting into the wilderness, especially when you’re the only librarian on campus even trying to have them. Backlash happens, too, and can be hard to accept, much less court.

Opportune moments like last year’s anti-Elsevier labor boycott and Sunday’s #pdftribute let us catch faculty attention while they’re interested and receptive, on a rather larger scale than we librarians can usually manage on our home campuses. Moreover, they let us market our services and offer help at the point of need, instead of forcing ourselves to be preachy evangelists. Though measurable outcomes of opportune moments may be minimal or even undetectable, they do move the needle of academic discourse; they do educate and enlighten, and even radicalize the occasional onlooker now and then. That, I think, is my answer to the librarians who direct-messaged me on Twitter wondering in a desultorily defeatist way why I was doing what I did. Look, if we don’t seize opportune moments to spread our messages, all we’re left with is the same old inopportune moments as always.

What does it take to seize opportune moments when they pop up? Not so much, really. Half an eye on the news and social media. Enough of a communications machine built up over time, on social media and off, to spread the signal. Enough knowledge to offer a meaningful contribution to (and in) the moment. Any academic librarian could have done what my fellow library tweeters and I did. It wasn’t hard, and the #pdftribute participants I tweeted with appreciated it.

Did I myself add anything to the #pdftribute pile? No, but mostly for the right reasons. Except for a book and a book chapter I signed copyright transfers for and therefore have no license to post, everything I’ve ever written professionally is already open access, some of it through the institutional repositories I’ve run, some through open-access LIS journals. I don’t have anything left!

Though if Information Today, Inc. would kindly grant me a license to post that book chapter—it’s years old, so its remaining commercial value must be near nil—I’d be grateful. It does seem the opportune moment to open access to “Libraries as E-Publishers,” don’t you think?

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”