Updated: Dec 2, 2020
It is not a pre-requisite to be associated with a scholarly institution to listen to a history podcast or to enjoy a historical fiction novel, television show, movie, or non-fiction book, nor should it be. However, many historians (myself included) often bemoan the plethora of misinformation that circulates and sometimes we even shake our fists at the sky with rage because things that we in the field know to be false are accepted by the general populace as solid truth. But is it fair to be upset about misinformation when in many cases access to scholarly information is simply impossible to obtain from respectable databases without association with a subscribing institution?
I hold a graduate degree in history and use this training to present history to the public nearly every day of my life. First, I use it to research, write, and present scholarly history to a general audience through my podcasts and social media posts for Footnoting History. Second, I use it to do my personal best to create legitimate, accurate worlds and characters when crafting historical fiction. To achieve the level of research that I believe to be acceptable requires more than just a few Google searches and books (though I love both of those things). I view the use of scholarly journal articles and databases to be imperative to my success. These articles often provide new research that has not yet made it into a book or in-depth illuminations of niche topics.
When I was a student, access was so easy I took it for granted. I had the world at my fingertips no matter the location. I could log in to the University’s library and search the myriad databases without a care in the world. Once I graduated, I was on borrowed time. Although I would always retain the right to use their library, after a few months my access to the databases was revoked unless I was able to physically place myself on the campus – something which you can imagine is not always possible.
Seeing as I rely heavily on databases and am thrilled that they exist, I pondered how much it would cost to simply purchase subscriptions to them as an individual. After all, I am far from the only person who does scholarly research on a regular basis without a student or employee tie to such an institution, and although I am personally able bodied, I cannot help but continue to think about the many people who would eat up having access to such a plethora of information but are physically incapable of making the trek to an institution they once attended. Further to that, what about the people who never went to college or had the privilege of being exposed to such places through any possible means of association and employment? Basically, as far as I see it, innumerable people would benefit from the ability to subscribe without an institutional affiliation.
So, I did what I always do, and I decided to research how much it would cost to access some of my favorite databases as an individual. (As you read this please keep in mind, I am not trying to throw these places under the bus. They are unequivocally some of my favorite databases, which I utilize on a regular basis, and quite frankly, love. I am using them as examples because of how important I view accessing them to be.) Here is some of what I found, first for all-important biographical sites and the informational hub that is ProQuest:
-Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online: $29.95 (monthly) / $295 (annually)
-American National Biography Online: $14.95 (monthly) / $89.00 (annually)
-Dictionary of Irish Biography: Subscription only available through institutions
-ProQuest: With no prices listed, they suggest contacting a local library to see if they provide access
Then for JSTOR, my absolute favorite database, the holder of all-things scholarly, which offers tiers for subscription:
A wide portion of articles are available as Open Access, but these are the ones that are public domain so therefore are (in many cases) nearly a century old
Alumni of some universities are still granted full access, and JSTOR has a list of them. Lamentably, my alma mater is not among them, though I wish they were more than I wish for a lot of other things.
MyJSTOR is a free account, which is infinitely better than nothing, that allows you to read up to six articles a month for free. (I often need far more than that, so ultimately this is only a band aid on the issue for me, but I give them credit for even creating this and hope some people who come across this post will take advantage of it.
But in truth, what I would love is JPASS. JPASS allows you unlimited reading privileges. If you do it monthly, you can download up to 10 articles a month, while if you do it annually, you get 120 article downloaded per year. The price? Either $19.50 (monthly) or $199 (annually).
While I am thankful that some places are offering individual subscriptions, the costs of many of them are too much to handle easily. Perhaps if a researcher chose one database only it could be affordable, but that is not even true for everyone. I know that I certainly could not afford to subscribe to all of the examples above, no matter how much I’d love to, and if I can’t, how could I expect that of my listeners and readers?
I love curating Further Reading lists for my podcasts. They’re usually fairly decent in length and combine books, digital sources (like the mercifully-free images and texts from Gallica, New York Public Library, British Library’s Illuminated Manuscripts, and the Fondation Napoleon), and academic articles. I always hope that those who listen to me then read these and use the sources I list as jumping points for their own education, but when it comes to the articles I often have a broken heart when I realize how complicated accessing these important contributions to written history will be for people, if they can manage it at all.
I understand that not everything in life can be free, and that information sharing and publication are as much businesses as anything else, but I do wish they were more affordable for those outside of academia. Having my remote access revoked by my institution following graduation caused a strange feeling of being cast out to sea without a raft. I was trained to do a job, but without remaining in that setting or jumping into another one just like it, I was largely cut off from the tools of the trade. Although I make it work the best I can, it does often feel like academia does not want you there if you are not employed within its walls. We cannot lose by allowing independent researchers and the public greater access to the scholarly world from their homes, especially in a time when so much information is available through tapping into phone or laptop, but the prices listed above are among the many that are simply too much for the average person to afford. Sadly, I looked up my own public library and found it lacked subscriptions to all the places above, save some areas of ProQuest. For now I will have to do my best to make the hour journey to the university library and be thankful that I am able to do so, despite the extreme inconvenience.
As for my non-academic listeners and readers? I have to hope they will find ways to read these sources, even if it means trading university remote access passwords the same way they do Netflix logins, because no one should have to go broke to gain knowledge.
 All prices are based on the internet-listed prices as of August 2018. Some will vary by geographic location of the subscriber. I attempted to post the prices in regards to a person living in North America, as that is my location.