The KU Story

How Knowledge Unlatched was founded by Frances Pinter
Libraries Publishers Consortia
Libraries, Publishers, Consortia – play video >

‘I’m worried, I’m very worried’ were my opening words at one of the first public presentations I made about the decreasing availability of monographs around the world called Libraries, Publishers, Consortia.

We had at our disposal the new digital technology that could solve the delivery problems, Creative Commons licensing was around, but not everyone understood it and the business models were absent. If free at the point of use was to become a reality there had to be a way of finding sustainable mechanisms to pay for the publishing process.

I had recently convinced Bloomsbury Academic, where I began as founding publisher in 2008, that if they published books with a Creative Commons non-commercial license online they would probably sell at least as many copies in print as the free version, which would act as the marketing piece for the print copy. By 2010 I had realised that the matter would be complicated by the growing sale of ebooks to libraries.

Early in 2010 I gave a presentation at the very large Tools of Change conference in New York. I spoke just after Arianna Huffington to what seemed like a huge sea of black clad techies. I introduced an idea, one that didn’t have a proper name. The proposition was that if enough libraries were to collectively pay for the initial publishing costs (getting to first digital file) out of the acquisitions budgets then publishers would be willing to release the books on Open Access. The clumsy working title for such a crowd-funding group was the International Library Coalition for Open Access Books, or ILCOAB.

KU Research

For two years I talked about the idea and offered a bottle of champagne to anyone who suggested a better name. Finally my husband came up with the name Knowledge Unlatched. We drank the champagne together! But before that I got tremendous support from people like Robert Darnton (who hosted a workshop of publishers, librarians and funders at Harvard), Peter Suber, who later organized a workshop for me at the Berkman Centre, and Lynne Brindley from the British Library who gave me desk space in a corner of the BL.

The first financial commitment came from Australia. Following a workshop that Lucy Montgomery organized for me at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Tom Cochrane solicited sufficient funding from QUT, University of Melbourne and University of Western Australia to get our first pilot project launched, KU Pilot Project Report. The Open Society Foundation gave us a small grant and The Big Innovation Centre in London provided help with incubation and gave Lucy Montgomery some space to work from when she moved to London to become KU’s Deputy Director (on secondment from QUT).

KU full team

The home team was now complete with the very experienced Leon Loberman joining as technical and operations director. And Christina Emery joined initially to help with admin, and was rapidly promoted to Partnership Manager. Despite having bases around town we often met at my home and let the creative juices flow there.

KU Team

I travelled around the world trying to convince people that this model had legs. At first librarians said publishers would never agree to it and publishers said librarians wouldn’t cooperate. As we hammered out the details of the model, consulting both sides, continuously I was reminded of shuttle diplomacy between warring countries. But peace broke out and I believe there is now a much better understanding of constraints and concerns on both sides.

Inevitably the KU model went through many iterations, but finally boiled down to this diagram:

KU Model

What is Knowledge Unlatched?
We produced this infographic video:
What is Knowledge Unlatched? – play video

Now it looks easy, doesn’t it? But then there was a very complex workflow that Leon built for us:

KU workflow

KU Workflowclick for larger image

It took five months to convince 13 publishers to give it a try and after we listed the 28 titles they gave us and promoted to libraries it took another six months to get enough libraries to pledge support. We had help from Informed Strategies and Lyrasis in North America and JISC in the UK (along with a matching grant from HEFCE to libraries that supported KU). Christina and Lucy phoned libraries directly in Europe and Australia. We all kept our fingers crossed. In the end it was a great success with nearly 300 libraries from 23 countries pledging support. We won the IFLA/Brill award for Open Access in 2014, followed by an award for Innovation in Education from Curtin University in 2015.

We paused for a while. Lucy returned to Australia and I was by then CEO of Manchester University Press. We had proof of concept; I thought others could pick up the reins. However, encouraged by others we thought we’d see if we could scale up a bit. The not very elegant title was given to our 2015 call – Round Two – and off we were again! To explain the changes we used this handout:

KU Flyoer

By 2016 KU was ready to scale properly. It was time to hand the reins over to someone who would be able to take KU to the next level. Sven Fund took responsibility for KU. What we have come to call the ‘operations side’ of KU is a German company with offices in Berlin. KU now enables hundreds of books to be unlatched every year through its KU Select programme; it's also experimenting with variants on the basic crowd-sourcing model and is expanding into journals and STEM books.

Christina is now marketing manager of Springer Nature’s Open Books programme and Leon flies small planes and plays golf in between visits to his grandchild in California. Lucy is Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University in Perth while also Research Director of KU Research.

KU Research grew organically out of KU. Lucy and I found ourselves increasingly captivated by the problems around usage, impact and how data can improve decision making about OA and its sustainability going forward. We work collaboratively with a number of organisations, and are especially pleased with our new base in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan Library.

Open Access for books is now considered by most people to be viable. Valid questions remain on how willing people are to alter business models, adapt workflows and harness the benefits of OA for books, but these are all issues that can and will be resolved.

Frances Pinter, August 2017

See also Knowledge Unlatched on Wikipedia