Open Access: Communities of collaboration

I’m writing a short statement of the significance of Open Access for the OU History of Science Collections. It’s intended as a concise overview and introduction, not a detailed policy or white paper. This is my rough working sketch.

Communities of Collaboration

Open access has two dimensions: technological and cultural. Our aim in the History of Science Collections is to pursue open access as a means of establishing communities of collaboration. These communities freely range across demographic and disciplinary lines. The challenge of fostering communities of collaboration is what defines the modern university library, including special collections. Conceived in this way, the open sharing of ideas is a cultural task that requires more than just a merely technological approach, although the technological infrastructure of open access is a prerequisite. Without a humane approach to technology that attends to the needs of various communities and appreciates the nature of their work, the communities of collaboration we seek to support will not actually flourish.

Unexpected partners

As a special collection we strive to provide technological infrastructure in the specific ways that collaboration requires, developed in dialogue with research partners and with attentiveness to other creative users of collections materials. We cannot anticipate a priori who these users might be or what kinds of communities of collaboration may result.

For us, one actual need we discerned and determined to provide is open-access high-resolution images. When I began working for the libraries in June 2000, image requests came in immediately. Even my first month on the job made clear to me that resourceful researchers, artists, and lay persons in unexpected pursuits could put images from our books to so many creative purposes. Over the first few years we received image requests not only from historians of science and scientists (whom one would expect), but also from K12 schools and educators, artists, from organizers of conferences for event programs, from restaurants for use in their decor, and even from churches for use in bulletins! From that time, I made it our goal to make providing open-access print-quality images a distinctive service of the OU History of Science Collections.

So with help from volunteers(*), we began creating a website of online galleries populated with images in high demand by scientists, educators, and researchers. By 2009 or so, we had roughly 60,000 images online available for download for free in print-quality resolution. With systematic digitization of entire books mostly beyond our means, we selected for digitization images most commonly found in survey textbooks with which science students and science educators would be most familiar.

Eventually OU Legal advised us that, while we might continue allowing direct downloads, the images must be copyrighted, and the question of their continued availability always seemed precarious. Thankfully, however, after Rick Luce became Dean of Libraries in 2014, OU Legal reversed themselves and approved a blanket policy of open access applied to all of our images. This open access policy remains in effect today for the History of Science materials in the new repository ( The old online galleries are now deprecated and no longer available on the open internet, and sadly, our current repository does not support direct downloads of print-quality images. Nevertheless, the service of providing open access images appropriately reflects our home within a public research university library.

Visibility of the Collections and awareness of materials

In addition to serving users in ways that support multiple communities of collaboration, the provision of high quality images without cost (and without delays due to time-consuming human mediation) was also (while it lasted) an advertising and promotional strategy that money couldn’t buy. Open access increases the visibility of a special collection located obscurely in a flyover state and allows us to achieve an international reach. Until the online galleries were deprecated, we developed a fairly successful strategy of using open-access print-quality images to increase our visibility in the profession of the history of science and also among science educators, journalists, and publishers.

The distinctiveness of an open access policy for high quality images immediately became clear to me back in 2000 when a PBS documentary on Galileo began production that would eventually list us as the first institutional credit. As another example, in the first decade of the 2000’s we frequently saw our images appear in the pages of Sky and Telescope, which was at that time the most popular monthly periodical for amateur astronomy. Or fast forward to 2011 when the most important book on Copernicus to be published in a generation included this sentence in the preface:

“I wish to register special thanks to the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections for its enlightened policy of making available free online use of visual material from its rich collections of rare primary sources.”

Providing high-quality select images at no cost increased awareness among many communities and readerships that a History of Science Collections exists in Oklahoma.

While we are unfortunately no longer in the business of supporting unmediated direct downloads of print-quality images, there are other ways we have been able to use open access to increase awareness of materials. For example, via the ShareOK repository, documents such as the critical edition of the most important medieval treatise on the astrolabe, or the annual newsletters of the International Commission for the History of the Geosciences (INHIGEO), now draw attention to OU from global communities distributed far and wide. The INHIGEO newsletters were discovered and cited by the writers of an obituary of Ursula Marvin for the New York Times. Marvin was a pioneering woman geologist who had been interviewed in the one of the newsletters by Kenneth L. Taylor. The discoverability features of ShareOK made those newsletters visible to writers who would never have thought to look for that information in Oklahoma.

Research collaborations

Open access is the basis for collaborations with partners in research. Consider, for example, Darwin Online and Galileotheca, the two digital libraries which support research on these major figures. The History of Science Collections is a major contributor to Cambridge University’s Darwin Online. Having provided digital versions of nearly 40 obscure editions, the Collections’ contribution is second only to that of Cambridge itself. Similarly, the Collections provided many works related to Galileo to the Museo Galileo in Florence, the leading research center for Galileo studies. For example, the OU copy of the broadsheet Apiarium, the first publication of observations made with a microscope, is one of only a handful of copies that exist. When Rick Luce and I visited the Museo Galileo for the first time, we presented the Director Paolo Gallucci with a 2GB scan. We were gratified when, a year later, Prof. Gallucci unveiled the Galileotheca digital library in an academic symposium held on the Norman campus as part of the Galileo’s World exhibit. These two international partnerships would be impossible without a policy of open access for high quality images.

Moreover, when Rick Luce arrived in 2014, the very first month on the job he visited Berlin to open a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. With Jürgen Renn, the Director of the Max Planck, Luce agreed to co-develop an open access academic series of primary source editions. Edition Open Sources (EOS) resulted: a peer-reviewed, scholarly publishing series in both digital and physical formats. Digital-format publications in EOS are free and immediately accessible to the public worldwide under a creative commons license. Development of the platform was led by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (MPI). Francesco Luzzini’s Theory, Practice, and Nature In-between: Antonio Vallisneri’s Primi Itineris Specimen, the first title published under the editorial supervision of OU, was published in March of 2018. More recently, Mahdi Abdeljaouad and Jeffrey Oaks published Al-Hawārī’s Essential Commentary: Arabic Arithmetic in the Fourteenth Century November 24, 2021, the 14th title in the series overall. The project was a collaborative venture between MPI and the Department of the History of Science, OU Libraries, and the History of Science Collections. Although we do not expect to continue in an editorial role, the History of Science Collections will continue to supply open access works which scholars may wish to publish in the series.

These three examples — Darwin Online, Galileotheca, and Edition Open Sources — show that open access in support of communities of collaboration has an international reach.

* Two volunteers deserve particular mention: Eric Bruning and Carilyn Livesey. Eric — then an OU student in meteorology and now professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech — generously created an online image gallery for us in python. Carilyn spent weeks at a time with our digital camera to create thousands of high resolution images selected from textbooks in science and the history of science.

Why open access matters — the following 6-minute video is an excerpt from a longer interview with Rob Reynolds, recorded at the NextThought studio on May 20, 2015. Thanks, Rob!

Kerry Magruder and Rob Reynolds – Open Access from Kerry Magruder on Vimeo.

“The defining challenge for a research university is how to establish these communities of collaboration that work across disciplinary lines.”

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