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Updating a Commitment to Openness

In 2021, the Iowa State University Library passed a new Open Access Commitment, replacing an outdated document with one that better supports the diverse range of work done by the library staff at Iowa State University.

Published onMar 09, 2022
Updating a Commitment to Openness
Pull quote: This commitment is an opportunity for all University Library employees to think broadly about our diverse array of outputs and how we can highlight them in order to meet our own professional goals and support Iowa State's mission to create, apply, and share knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place. (2021 ISU Library Open Access Commitment)

In 2021, the Iowa State University Library passed a new Open Access Commitment, overturning an outdated document that had been adopted in 2018. I want to share how we accomplished this work and why our new Commitment is uniquely tailored to support the diverse range of work done by the library staff at Iowa State University.


In 2018, following a trend of departments and institutions across the country that were adopting similar policies, the University Library developed its first Open Access Commitment.[1] Spearheaded by a small team of academic librarians, the original Commitment was based on Harvard’s Model Open Access Policy, a pledge that staff would either publish their works openly or self-archive them in an appropriate open access repository, such as the ISU Digital Repository.

We wanted the Commitment to showcase the options that librarians have for making their scholarship open. Green open access, or self-archiving, is a powerful option for staff because it does not limit publication in closed venues, and this freedom to choose can assuage the concerns of librarians who have a limited range of places in which to share their works traditionally.[2] While the intent behind the 2018 Commitment was to empower library staff to share their work openly, much of the language within the document was flawed, focusing on traditional scholarly outputs, such as journal articles, book chapters, and conference papers.

You might wonder “why is focusing on scholarly outputs a flaw?” The answer to that is complicated. Besides a few librarians who retain faculty status, the staff at the Iowa State University Library have not held faculty status since 2012, and many do not publish scholarly works as part of their regular duties. In fact, some library staff who might be called “librarians” at another institution do not even hold this title, since that comes with the implication of a specific Professional & Scientific job class at ISU. By modeling the 2018 Open Access Commitment on policies put in place for faculty at other institutions, we had devalued the work of library staff who create content that might not fall into this category and neglected to recognize which library staff members’ work would be rendered invisible under that Commitment.

As Jesse Garrison, an academic librarian in the Research Services Department explained,

Much of academia, and libraries are no exception, treat traditional research and publication in the traditional venues (i.e. journals) as the benchmark and goal of “everyone.” This ignores the segment of the community who are not employed primarily as researchers who would rather just get on with the work of, in my case, being a librarian. I have not and do not plan on “publishing” in the traditional sense, but our OA policy applying more broadly means that any subsidiary works that I generate in the course of my daily work are still valued.

Assessing the 2018 commitment

An audit of the university library’s research & scholarship in 2021 found that most of the research done by academic librarians at Iowa State since the passing of the original OA Commitment were made open access. However, many library staff members were unaware or uninterested in the 2018 Commitment, feeling that it did not apply to their work at all. Furthermore, the non-scholarly outputs of library staff could not be quantified in our audit, since this work is not typically reported or able to be tracked through tools like Google Scholar. To address these concerns and others, a working group was established in 2021 to develop a revised Open Access Commitment.

The new Commitment working group included staff from Research & Instruction Services; Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion; Digital Scholarship & Initiatives; and Special Collections & University Archives. Among our members were staff whose positions are labeled as academic librarians, a faculty librarian, and a library specialist.

During our initial meetings, the working group sought to respond to some of the questions which arose from the previous Commitment’s shortcomings. The sections below outline our questions and how they were addressed by our working group.

Why wasn’t the 2018 Commitment known?

The first question we addressed was the Commitment’s visibility: why did library staff members not know about the 2018 Commitment, and how could we do better this time around? The answer was surprisingly simple: the 2018 Commitment was passed through Library Assembly (known at the time as “Librarian Assembly”), a meeting intended for, and largely attended by, academic librarians. The initial review, working group, and vote for the 2018 Commitment were inherently flawed because these actions were all undertaken through a group that lacked representation from some library departments and a large portion of the library’s staff.

To address this concern and ensure that our 2021 Commitment would be a truly Library-wide endeavor, we needed to invite everyone to contribute and share their thoughts through multiple venues. Therefore, the 2021 working group chose to share our draft commitment openly through an email to all library staff, to send out a survey to all staff about their thoughts on the draft, and to hold two open town halls for staff to comment on and collaboratively edit the 2021 Commitment.

Who is included?

Following our discussion of the original Commitment’s invisibility, our team wanted to address how inclusive the 2018 Commitment was. Since it was based on other institutions’ policies, the 2018 Commitment was focused on traditional research outputs, such as journal articles. However, the works put out by library staff are often more varied. Just as we acknowledge that the formats and types of scholarship put out by disciplines differ based on the fields’ norms[3], we ought to acknowledge the diversity of outputs created by library staff working in different departments within the library, and celebrate, share, and uplift that work. This work includes things like educational materials, policies, multimedia, code, and other materials that don’t always fall under the traditional definition of “scholarly works.” 

How could we address this diversity of both support and internal work happening at ISU in our documentation? Although we did not want to create a laundry list of items that “count” since this would naturally leave out additional items that weren’t obvious to our team members, we did end up providing a list of materials as an example, with an additional note that even if a type of work is not listed, that doesn’t mean that it cannot be a valuable or worthwhile thing to share:

If a staff member is not sure whether their work might be included in the list of material types presented above, they should consider the value their work might have for an external audience of peers, and the many ways in which sharing could benefit the wider community.

Next, we wanted to address concerns from staff about why they should share their works openly.

Why would anyone share?

The next thing our working group had to grapple with when revising the 2018 Commitment was the question of why a librarian might want to share their work openly. Why would anyone feel compelled by the Commitment? The moral case for OA and its tie to our institutional land-grant mission might be enough for some librarians, but others are more hesitant and would prefer to have tangible reasons for making their works open.[4] After all, external impact and scholarly reach are not intrinsic to many of our job duties. Why should a library staff member share the outputs of their labor openly if this is not a part of their work already?

We ended with the perspective that sharing openly is not done simply for promotion and tenure, but also to contribute to the field and support peers working on similar projects who might otherwise reinvent the wheel.[5] Acknowledging this alongside the moral and professional cases for making one’s work open, our final document includes this text:

This commitment supports an equitable and inclusive scholarly ecosystem, one in which each library staff member has the ability to participate and contribute something meaningful to the scholarly record. Sharing our work openly is a way of increasing the impact and transparency of our work. It helps us build our portfolios, work toward a promotion, and provides peers and the public with examples they can learn from and build upon. In addition to having positive personal impacts, sharing openly democratizes access to information for all, an essential piece of Iowa State University’s land-grant mission.

Moving forward

After identifying the major areas in need of improvement and spot-checking our work, our team spent the summer drafting new content and, where relevant, bringing in text from the 2018 Commitment. We knew that these efforts would only constitute a first draft, which would then be tweaked and improved after being shared with the rest of the library.

Calling for help: Reviewing the draft 2021 Commitment

In an effort to make the 2021 Commitment inclusive for all library staff, our working group released an anonymous survey to receive feedback on our original draft. From this survey, we identified that staff had concerns about the use of the term “publications” since it implies a certain type of output, that the examples of works we had included, although broad, were more common among reference librarians and might not apply to those in Metadata, IT, or other technical disciplines, and that some staff had concerns about the expectations for how much of one’s work should be shared.

Following this, two open town halls where library staff could ask questions and collaboratively comment on an open Google Doc. The major areas of concern identified in our survey were reaffirmed during this open editing period, and would lead to the final edits and additions to an FAQ document developed to accompany the 2021 Commitment.

Finally, a survey was sent out to all library staff for a vote on whether to pass the revised 2021 OA Commitment. Due to the nature of these sorts of emails, we were not able to get feedback from all staff; however, we did receive 37 votes, of which 34 (92%) were in favor of passing the newly edited Commitment.

The new Iowa State University Library Open Access Commitment is now available for review in the ISU Digital Repository. To keep the commitment fresh and to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the library staff, the document will be reviewed biannually, beginning in the fall semester of 2023.

What we learned

Reviewing the ISU Library’s 2018 OA Commitment helped bring to light all the places where a small committee of like-minded peers can fail to capture an organization’s diversity, but thanks to a tremendous team of library staff and faculty and a truly open comment and editing period, we were able to develop something much more representative. If you are seeking to create a values-based document like this, I would urge you to consult widely with the faculty and staff in your area to ensure that whatever you create is both relevant to your audience and accurately aligns with their needs. If any single member of our working group had come into this project alone, we would have missed something. It was only together, and with the feedback of additional library staff, that we were able to bring together a broad yet inclusive document to showcase our library’s commitment to openness.

I’m excited to share this new revised document, and I hope it will lead to more productive discussions around the immense value of all the work done by our staff in the future.

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