“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Kofi Annan, 22 June 1997.1

Freedom of information is a condition of a free society. Access to information is prerequisite for education and learning, development and progress but many people find access to be impeded because of commercialisation in the supply chain. This inequality is particularly pertinent in low-income countries, where information can transform practices in every field of human endeavour, including health, agriculture and environmental management, and underpin sustainable development1.


Open access (OA) to scholarly information removes the affordability and access barriers and allows a broader audience to benefit from the knowledge in research papers, including those outside academia, such as business owners, educators and third sector organisations. The serials crisis, in which journal prices have risen rapidly and the need to reform scholarly communications have given impetus to the OA movement. There was, however, a different agenda in Central and Eastern European countries after 1989.

In the last in our series of posts for International Open Access Week we focus on the importance of information in a free society. This account of the role of libraries during the democratic and economic transition in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) will draw examples from library assistance programs and initiatives to distribute academic journals to illustrate the importance of free and unrestricted access to information to support democratisation and other reforms. The signing of the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002 followed a decade of work by the OSI to instigate a sustainable model to supply depleted libraries with valuable journal content. OA would have been ideal to support scholars who are not privileged with journal subscriptions.

In a keynote speech, Russell Bowden of the Library Association outlined the need for information to sustain and assist in the development of emerging democracies. In the communist regimes of CEE, the Communist Party nomenklatura understood the importance of information and, specifically, the need for effective information control to retain their power. Newspapers were censored. Book production was centralised and publishing decisions were closely controlled, which is why illegal samizdat literature was distributed by dissidents2.

Behind the iron curtain, vast networks of libraries functioned primarily as propaganda agencies. Librarianship involved political duties and collection development was constrained by strict ideological adherence3. Book collections were usually closed with access to certain parts being strictly controlled2.

These measures were utilised, primarily, to restrict access to information and were discontinued after the collapse of communism that began with the revolutions of 19892.

The fall of communism and a tremendous thirst for knowledge

Soon after the communist regimes were removed, concerned librarians arrived in the former Eastern bloc to assess the state of libraries and librarianship after years of deprivation. Accounts of the impoverishment they encountered abound in the professional literature during the early 1990s. Ulla Højsgaard represented the Danish National Library Authority in a Danish-Swedish team that assessed Bucharest’s libraries in March 1990. Højsgaard reminds us:

It is necessary to try to understand how much the libraries have suffered, how much harm has been done through the total isolation from the international library community, the financial starvation, and the constant political control4.

The Scandinavian librarians concluded that the scarcity of photocopiers, lack of automation and methods of interlibrary cooperation resembled Western Europe in the early 1950s. Gheorghe Buluta, Bucharest Municipal Library Director, concurred, describing the situation as a ‘slip in time’, that resulted from segregation5.

Tanja Lorkovic, curator of Slavic and East European collections at Yale University Library, toured CEE in May 1990 to investigate the impact of the political and economic upheaval on library systems. She saw ‘evidence of economic devastation reflected directly in the status of the libraries… [which were] near the bottom of the list of priorities for reform’6 The use of library resources was hindered by: deteriorating facilities; staff shortages; preservation problems; a lack of photocopiers; and, on occasions, exorbitant fees7 Furthermore, access to collections was frustrated by closed stacks in most libraries8.

A hunger for books was prevalent in the fragile new democracies of CEE. However, the ideological constraints on collection development were replaced by limitations resulting from a scarcity of funding and lacunae remained plentiful in the book and journal holdings of major libraries9. In Romania, ‘a tremendous thirst for knowledge of Western culture’ was observed10 and the ‘hunger for Western business information [was] almost physical’11.

Economic reforms prompted an increase in demand for business information8, but libraries in CEE had little or no experience of providing information services to democratic participants or the business community12. It was soon recognised that as gate-keepers of and gateways to information libraries had an important role to play in the post-communist transition13 But, library systems required an overhaul to meet the emerging information needs14.

Wealthy benefactors

From 1990, libraries had to justify their existence and compete for scarce funding15 Philanthropic foundations, including the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and A. W. Mellon Foundation, funded projects which brought major changes to libraries in CEE15 16 Simultaneously, European Union and United States Information Agency initiatives sought to raise awareness of the ‘importance of information in advancing democracy’17 18, improve the outdated information infrastructures, and instigate new practices in the neglected service sector17

The changes to library administration, budgeting, education, technology, and collection policies emulated Western practices14. Library reforms prioritised access to information. The availability of technology, expertise and funding produced an efficient exchange of information in the libraries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia which were quickly integrated with Europe17 19. Indeed, connecting the library networks of CEE to a global information network was a key element of the integration with the world community, based on freedom and democracy20.

Although exogenous funding made library development easier, Caidi questions whether it also imposed ‘the dominating discourse of development and modernity’, and, consequently, blocked alternative endogenous possibilities for more participatory processes15. This point is echoed by Robinson who states that ‘the motives for Western support… are, not surprisingly, an amalgam of idealism and self-interest’21. In the same vein, Pateman claims that genuine philanthropy was mixed with projects that sought to exploit a new market that rewarded information consultants handsomely22.

Deprivation of scholarly information

The deprivation of foreign scholarly publications in research libraries during the communist era had lasting, detrimental consequences for teaching and research at universities in CEE. Initially, international book and journal donations supplied much needed new texts but they also delivered masses of unwanted material. Acquisition grants helped a select group of research libraries update their book holdings and take five-year subscriptions to scientific journals. Informal networks of local and international academics were established quickly to ensure that partner libraries were receiving appropriate material23.

Professor William Hunt established the St Lawrence Solidarity Project to improve the holdings of research libraries in Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic and underpin the intellectual integration of CEE. He reported that ‘energetic and competent scholars in Eastern Europe are simply unaware of the existence of important western works in their field,’ and suggested that providing multiyear journal subscriptions would be the most efficient use of resources23. Single year subscriptions were a concern due to the implicit pressure to fund renewals24.

In 1990, Arien Mack founded the Journal Donation Project (JDP) to develop the research and teaching capacities of higher education institutions throughout CEE. By providing research libraries with subscriptions to high-quality English language titles and backfile collections, the JDP aimed to build journal archives in the countries of CEE that had, for 45 years previous, been unable to acquire these titles. The JDP was reliant upon subscription donations from publishers until 1995. From 1996, however, a reduced-cost subscription program was introduced with discounts of up to 50% available on over 5,000 journals25. Quandt suggests that it was a necessary resort because the expansion of the JDP eliminated any potential to provide all partner libraries with free access to requested titles. Through partnerships with major publishers, the JDP continues to offer libraries valuable assistance to acquire stellar journal titles.

A report by the Civic Education Project in 1994 assessed the effectiveness of Western assistance projects in fulfilling information needs in CEE. A general trend for prioritising quantity over quality and, consequentially, supplying libraries with material of limited utility was criticised and the difficulties encountered when librarians, who were often unfamiliar with market realities, were required to make selection decisions were also highlighted24.

Open societies in a digital age

The Open Society Foundations (previously the Open Society Institute) is a philanthropic network founded by George Soros to support the transition to democracy in the countries of post-communist CEE. Last week, on 17 October 2017, Soros transferred around $18 billion (£13.7bn) to the OSF, which became the third largest foundation in the world, with only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust being better resourced.

Soros recognised the importance of information in a free society and funded library reforms, journal donation programs and electronic information initiatives to facilitate access to published research. In 1992, the International Science Foundation (ISF) was launched in the former Soviet Union (fSU) to help scientists and encourage new approaches to funding and managing research. The ISF’s Library Assistance Program was established in 1993 to supply major libraries with academic journals. Over 100 titles were distributed to almost 400 libraries in 199426

In 1995, the Library Assistance Program was extended into CEE and provided libraries with complete 1994 and 1995 volume sets. From 1996, the ISF continued as the Science Journals Donation Program, which supplied hard copy journals costing approximately $2 million per year. A planned switch to e-journal supply was hindered by limited internet access that was a consequence of the dilapidated communication infrastructure in some regions26. But the potential to increase access to information in the digital age did not go unnoticed.

EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries) began as an Open Society Institute (OSI) initiative in 1999. Its mission is the enablement of ‘access to knowledge through libraries in developing and transition countries to support sustainable development.’ EIFL negotiated an e-journal license with EBSCO for full-text access to 3,500 journals in five databases; 1.4 million articles were downloaded in 200023.

For almost a decade, the Soros Foundations funded journal acquisitions and library reform projects to facilitate access to scholarly information and reinvigorate research institutions in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Digital information rapidly increased in importance during the same period but exploitative business practices had curtailed any possibility of an egalitarian turn in academic publishing. Establish EIFL and merging the Library Network Program and Internet Program with its Center for Publishing Development to form a new Information Program put the OSI in a strong position to utilise digital information. Open access to online information was an immediate focus for the Information Program27.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) was the outcome of a meeting convened by the Open Society Institute in Budapest on 1 and 2 December 2001. The meeting facilitated lively discussions between sixteen participants but often featured divergent analysis and critique of the dysfunctionalities of an outdated model of scholarly communications. It ended without an agreement and a position paper was crafted through online collaboration; convergence was reified in the document, bearing sixteen signatures, that appeared on 14 February 2002. The opening paragraph portrays a scholarly community in which knowledge is disseminated freely as a public good, thus removing the inequalities that exist when an expensive subscription is required to access commodified information28. This is not an unachievable idyll; it is the definition of open access:

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

Budapest Open Access Initiative, 2002.28

In 2002, shortly after the BOAI was agreed, the OSI Information Program committed at least $3million to promote OA during a three-year transition. By April 2005, it had provided grants to a total value of $1,766,632 for OA projects and realised that the transition to OA will take far longer than three years28.

It is fifteen years since the BOAI first defined OA and outline the dual strategies of self-archiving and OA journals for implementing an OA model of scholarly communications. These strategies are also known as green and gold OA.

Open access had achieved a 22% share of papers published by 2014; immediate OA accounted for 17% and embargo periods delayed OA to the other 29.

The damage to the library networks and research infrastructures in CEE that resulted from the information control of utilised by authoritarian rulers during the communism period are, in many instances, still being repaired. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries initiative modernised the public library network in Romania between 2010 and 2016 by providing IT and internet connectivity. Similar initiatives to improve public libraries have been completed in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Poland.

As libraries around the world are have internet connectivity and facilitate access to information. Access can, nevertheless, be impeded by financial barriers when information is commodified. Open access can provide readers with free access to the knowledge contained in research outputs. Depositing research outputs in an institutional repository can facilitate open access to current information that might otherwise be unaffordable and thus unavailable to fulfil information requirement of projects that support sustainable development.


1 Annan, K. (1997) ‘If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are conditions for development, says Secretary-General’. United Nations Meetings Coverage & Press Releases. Press Release SG/SM/6268, 22 June 1997. Available at: http://www.un.org/press/en/1997/19970623.sgsm6268.html (accessed 24 October 2017).

2 Bowden, R. (1995) ‘Emerging democracies and freedom of information: keynote address’. In Emerging democracies and freedom of information. Proceedings of a conference of the International Group of the Library Association (IGLA), Oxford, September 1994, edited by Barbara Turfan, 3-9. London: Library Association Publishing.

3 Smith, I. A. (1995) ‘Developments in library information services and access to information in the Baltic States since renewal of independence’. In Emerging democracies and freedom of information. Proceedings of a conference of the International Group of the Library Association (IGLA), Oxford, September 1994, edited by Barbara Turfan, 55-65. London: Library Association Publishing.

4 Højsgaard, U. (1990) Assistance to Romanian libraries: Results from a Danish-Swedish visit to Bucharest: Dan Shafran representing the Royal Library Stockholm, Ulla Højsgaard representing the Danish National Library Authority, March 11-18, 1990, and suggestions for action. Copenhagen: IDE, Danish Institute for International Exchange of Publications, Danish National Library Authority.

5 Mowat, I. (1990) ‘Romanian library development: Past, present and future’, Library Review, 39 (4), 41-45.

6 Lorkovic, T. (1990) ‘News special: service, collections in disarray: Revolution not over for Eastern European libraries’, American Libraries, 21 (8), 712-713. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25631974 (accessed 24 October 2017).

7 Barr, T. (1993) ‘Three approaches to a brave new world: SEES’s special program’, College and Research Libraries News, 54 (9, October), 517-518.

8 Smith, E. (1995) ‘Facing the challenge of democratization’, College and Research Libraries News, 56 (5), 324-325.

9 Sigal, L. V. (1990) ‘The editorial notebook; Starved, for books’, New York Times, 21 May, 20. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/21/opinion/the-editorial-notebook-starved-for-books.html (accessed 24 October 2017).

10 Heald, T. (1990) ‘Books for Rumania’, The Spectator, 2 June, 264 (8447), 26. Available at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/2nd-june-1990/26/books-for-rumania (accessed 24 October 2017).

11 Mudrock, T. (1992) ‘Business librarian reaches out to Romania’, Library Directions: A Newsletter of the University of Washington Libraries, 2 (3). Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1773/20373 (accessed 25 October 2017).

12 Mowat, I. (1993) ‘Eastern European libraries: the worst and best of times’. In The Bowker annual: Library and book trade almanac, 38th edn, edited by Catherine Barr, 106-112. New Providence, NJ: R. R. Bowker.

13 CORDIS (1999) Library cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe. Available at: http://cordis.europa.eu/libraries/en/cee/homecee.html (accessed 24 October 2017).

14 Raymond, B. and Adams, K. (1993) ‘Former Eastern Bloc librarianship in transition: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia’, Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 18 (3), 36-50.

15 Caidi, N. (2003) ‘Cooperation in context: library developments in Central and Eastern Europe’, Libri, 53, 103-117. doi:10.1515/LIBR.2003.103.

16 Caidi, N. (2006) ‘Building “civilisational competence”: a new role for libraries?’ Journal of Documentation, 62 (2), 194-212. doi:10.1108/00220410610653299.

17 Caidi, N. (2004) ‘National information infrastructures in Central and Eastern Europe: Perspectives from the library community’, Information Society, 20 (1), 25-38. doi:10.1080/01972240490269979.

18 Hausrath, D. C. (1990) ‘United States Information Agency Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs: The Eastern European challenge’. In The Bowker annual: Library and book trade almanac, 35th edn., edited by Filomena Simora, 118-128. New York: R. R. Bowker.

19 Lass, A. and Quandt, R. E. (2000) Library automation in transitional societies: lessons from Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.

20 Stoyanova, N. (1995) ‘Conference reports: Development of information and library networks in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as a part of the global exchange of information 5-9 May 1995, Sofia, Bulgaria’, Electronic Library, 13 (4), 407-409.

21 Robinson, W. H. (1992) ‘Library has role to play in developing democracies’, Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 51 (January 27), 35-38.

22 Pateman, J. (1995) ‘Libraries under communism and capitalism’, Focus on International and Comparative Librarianship, 26 (1), 3-16.

23 Quandt, R. E. (2002) The changing landscape in Eastern Europe: a personal perspective on philanthropic and technology transfer (Europe in Transition Series). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

24 Civic Education Project (1994) Assessing the effectiveness of book and journal donations to Eastern Europe. New Haven: Civic Education Project. Available at: http://www.civiceducationproject.org/legacy/projects/mellon/mellon.htm (accessed 24 October 2017).

25 New School for Social Research (2013) Journal Donation Program. Available at: https://www.newschool.edu/cps/jdp/ (accessed 24 October 2017).

26 Hagemann, M. (2017) The Role of the Soros Foundation in disseminating scientific information in the former Soviet Union. Available at: https://www.aaas.org/report/role-soros-foundation-disseminating-scientific-information-former-soviet-union (accessed 24 October 2017).

27 Soros Foundations Network (2002) Soros Foundations Network 2001 Annual Report. Available at: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/soros-foundations-network-2001-annual-report (accessed 24 October 2017).

28 Budapest Open Access Initiative (2005) Grants: Open Access Projects supported by the OSI Information Program as of April 2005. Available at: http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/grants (accessed 25 October 2017). 29 Butler, D. (2016) ‘Dutch lead European push to flip journals to open access’, Nature, 529 (7584), 13.