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I am working on projects for which having very direct access to relevant reference materials on the subject (linguistics) is basically essential.

I have come to understand that there is no satisfying alternative to being part of a research library, as a researcher. There is no similarly convenient way to have direct access to the materials you want.

I feel like this is something I’ll probably want my whole life. I sometimes move to new countries, and I’m someone that just inherently always wants to look things up in the most authoritative reference materials.

There are workarounds / “hacks” - strategic loopholes that have the same outcome. For example, just by applying to an evening language course, I become a student at that university and gain off-campus access to databases.

That isn’t satisfying. I need a legitimate, long-term way to be part of a research library, regardless of if I am a student at that moment or not.

I can only think about trying to meet with some officials at local universities to see if they can recognize someone as an independent researcher for a good/valid reason.

Other than that, I am wondering if you can propose “research” of some kind to a university, which they can approve, regardless of you doing it as part of a program (like a Ph.D. program).

Bottom line: what is the most flexible and general way to be part of a research library, not a particular and somewhat finicky way?

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    Have you tried public libraries? Some public library may have inter-library service with research libraries.
    – Nobody
    Nov 25, 2022 at 14:48
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    @Nobody. My small village library has good relations with the local university librarian. It might be informal, but it works.
    – Buffy
    Nov 25, 2022 at 15:23
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    If you are near enough to a university library, go and have a chat with the librarian and ask what is possible.
    – Buffy
    Nov 25, 2022 at 15:24
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    Are you talking about regular university libraries? Can't you just sign up for a library card? At least in Germany most university libraries will let anyone sign up if they live in the vicinity. I would have expected this to be the case, at least with public universities, elsewhere as well.
    – Maeher
    Nov 25, 2022 at 15:29
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    (1) Are you willing to pay? How much? (2) Do you have a previous university degree? Some institutions grant library privileges to alumni. (3) Is your research regularly published in peer-reviewed journals? Nov 25, 2022 at 15:55

4 Answers 4

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At some fundamental level, what you are asking is the following: "What is a universal way how people can access a service that costs money, but for free?" Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no universally good answer for this question.

You have to remember that universities have to pay money to publishers -- a lot of money in fact, millions of dollars! -- to give their students, faculty, and staff access to scientific journals and text books. In some cases, universities in addition pay a cost for every research article downloaded from publisher websites. It may not come as a surprise, then, that university libraries are not eager (or simply not able) to give access to that service to just everyone. Equally, publishers will likely have clauses i their contracts with universities that restrict who they can give access to publications to. That doesn't mean that universities don't have way to allow others access to their resources -- for example by making someone an unpaid adjunct, or by letting people enroll in classes for credit -- but it means that you will likely not be able to just walk up to a library and say "I'd like you to give me access to all the services you pay for".

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    In many countries, education and access to books and information are seen as public good and heavily subsidized. Even in the US, library services are often free of charge. May 11, 2023 at 6:09
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    @henning Yes, public libraries are subsidized and free, and typically run by cities for its citizens. But that generally does not include access to scientific literature. May 11, 2023 at 15:45
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You're lucky.

This may depend on the country, but in many places, access to libraries is heavily subsidized or even free of charge. This often includes large university libraries. You just walk in with an ID, ask for a library membership, and pay a small fee.

Examples:

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  • That's correct, but if one needs online resources one should definitely check what is included in the library membership. I think in some cases the contracts that the libraries have with the publishers would restrict access to the students and staff of the university, and e-journals etc. might not be accessible with a simple library membership.
    – silvado
    May 11, 2023 at 9:22
  • Not in the cases cited above. I don't know how they do it in the US, but the European libraries I've used have no such graded membership. May 11, 2023 at 10:46
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I don't know anything about Linguistics, but there are university research centres in my field (Statistics & Machine Learning) which "external" researchers can apply to become a centre affiliate (with/without a specific project). You will have access to research facilities of the centre (university) if your request is approved.

It is not always difficult for research students (with relevant experience) and faculty members from these universities to apply for membership. There are some requirements applying to all members of the centres such as research contribution, progress reports, etc.

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As @Wolfgang Bangerth already mentioned, this is a question is essentially "how do I get something that costs money for free". The answer is, you don't. Its unlikely you'll find a truly free or passive solution.

That being said, in my experience, it is not unusual to request access to resources as a "guest" researcher. I would expect most major universities have an official process in place to facilitate this. I've most commonly seen this in the case of former students continuing work on an existing project or visiting students/researchers from external institutions.

In your case, since you are neither a former student nor affiliated with a friendly university, it would require developing a relationship with a professor that is established enough to request access for a "volunteer" lab member. It would also require actively collaborating with that person as long as you want access to university resources. Whether or not this is a "finicky" process or not is for you to determine.

Something like this is might be hard to establish but easier to maintain. Frankly, once you're in the system, as long as you maintain some goodwill, its unlikely anyone would ever revoke your access. I would imagine that if you contribute regularly you could be listed as a lab member or research affiliate indefinitely.

To make this a reality, I would suggest looking up researchers whose work you find interesting. Then you could try cold-emailing them and requesting to collaborate. This will go smoother if you have published some work or are otherwise established in the field. I would NOT suggest emailing anyone asking for access to library resources - this comes after someone is already interested in working with you.

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