But I am railing at attempts to discuss the New Golden Age of Electronic Research in ways that do not acknowledge how localized that Age is currently proving to be. Yes, we have more free stuff; we also have lots more stuff that only a few, relatively well-funded colleges can purchase.The Little Professor links to Professor Awesome Researcher's article in the New York Times arguing that "that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances." Thanks to good connections--a friend at an Ivy--he found a bunch of hits in EEBO and can crank out a book faster, so what's wrong with the rest of us slackers that we're not doing the same?
Now, Professor Awesome has a point: it's easier to search for things electronically than to be to lug a stack of index cards to the long tables of reference books. But Little Professor's point, with which I would entirely agree, is that these resources aren't free and available to everyone, and access to them shouldn't depend on being a faculty member at Moneybag$ University or on having an obliging and well-connected friend who doesn't mind lending an access code.
This is one of the things that the NEH Digitization Projects do right; they state up front that "We strongly encourage projects that offer free public access to online resources. All other considerations being equal, preference will be given to projects that provide free, online access to digital materials produced with grant funds." But even NEH funding doesn't guarantee access; the Brown Women Writers Project, for example, is a subscription-only database despite its NEH funding. The question of access sometimes takes a back seat to the issues of preservation and digitization.
Although talk about the "digital divide" focuses, and rightly so, on the gap between those in the general public, especially schoolchildren, who don't have access to computers and the Internet, there's also a gap in the resources available to universities with less funding. If the "digital divide" is the Grand Canyon, maybe the academic version is the digital equivalent of climbing over a wall--a subscription wall. Pretending that digital access is universal and that the wall doesn't exist doesn't help anyone, least of all those who don't have a handy ladder in the form of a nearby institution that subscribes or a conveniently well-connected friend.