Saturday, August 13, 2011

Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World

With every budget cut, libraries incrementally cut their services. User protests evaporate when they find alternative information sources on the web. When the cuts are absorbed without major problems, the stage is set for another round of cuts. The current economy exacerbates the situation by increasing the size and frequency of the cuts, but the real crisis is a version of a well-known scenario, extensively documented by Clayton Christensen in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” (This book deals with profit-making enterprises, but in later work Christensen expanded his theories into the nonprofit realm.) When a disruptive technology invades a well-established field, the establishment is institutionally incapable of letting go of its existing business models until it is too late.

In this post, I am setting the stage for a proposed new mission for libraries. For this new mission to succeed, old business models must give way. This is the kind of radical change institutions commit to only when there is no other choice. The goal of this post is to make it absolutely clear: Libraries have no other choice. If this post strikes you as too negative, please be patient. Future posts will be constructive.

Today’s libraries have used technology mostly to improve operational efficiency. Databases replaced card catalogs and various indexes. Site-licensed journals replaced journal subscriptions. With the advent of e-readers, some libraries are replacing book acquisition with site licenses to collections of digital books. This is not innovative use of digital technology; it is a digital implementation of the paper-based library. Real innovation must address the core issue, how digital technology eroded the traditional library’s mission: distributing, subsidizing, and archiving information.

Distributing Information. Paper-based libraries buy or collect information (books, journals, multimedia, databases…) from various sources and make it available to their local communities. Does it really need explaining that the web is a global distribution mechanism for digital information? Digital information may reside anywhere and does not need local intermediaries for distribution. Buying information in bulk for the mythical “typical user” is rather incongruous in the era of iTunes. In terms of pure distribution, intermediaries only complicate the information landscape.

Subsidizing Information. Libraries are a source of subsidized information. Libraries and publishers perpetuated the same mechanism by which information is subsidized when transitioning from paper to digital. Libraries receive the funds from their controlling authority (government, university, corporate entity…) to acquire information on behalf of the communities they serve. With digital information, we have the choice to subsidize users directly. This would be simpler to administer and users would be able to acquire exactly the information they need.

Commercial systems like iTunes, the Kindle Store, and others can easily be adapted to accept direct user subsidies. The problem is not a technical one. The idea of direct user subsidies forces an uncomfortable renegotiation of the library-user-society compact. For current libraries, managing collections is a core preoccupation. Direct user subsidies may take many forms, and the libraries’ role is not clear. This might even ignite a debate along liberal/conservative lines whether information should be subsidized. No matter where one stands on this issue, it is a debate worth having.

As discussed previously, buying site licenses on behalf of users is an expensive method to subsidize information. Negotiating and managing site licenses is expensive. Tools that assist the users in navigating the library’s site licenses are costly and add to management overhead. Finally, the anticompetitive nature of site licenses distorts the free market and is likely to increase prices.

Archiving Information. Paper-based libraries are effective archives. Storing multiple copies in many different locations around the world protects against natural and political disasters of almost any magnitude. With appropriate technology and with regional, national, and international cooperation, libraries could safeguard digital information for the long term. Unfortunately, their role in archiving site-licensed information is severely limited, because site licenses provide only temporary and community-restricted access. (This is fundamentally different from paper-based information: libraries own the books.)

The public sector can develop the technological infrastructure for digital archives, but owners of information decide whether to participate and for how long (subject to contracts). We can only hope that voluntary efforts are sufficient for public archives to acquire important information before it is lost. This is not satisfactory for digital objects of cultural and scientific significance. It is too late for information that is already under private control. We must develop more opportunities for public ownership.

Digital technology has eroded the three pillars of the mission of current libraries. As is common with disruptive technology, existing business models are inadequate. Buying information to make it available to a limited community no longer makes any sense. Instead, libraries should focus on collecting and managing information from local communities and making that information available as widely as possible. This is a mission with future, and it is a topic for future blog posts.


  1. It's worth noting that there are archives of digital content, and these can and do use the multi-copy model and preserve DRMed content. e.g.: LOCKSS, Portico, Hathi Trust. And libraries are part of that.

    I'm interested in seeing where you take the argument; just wanted to be sure these had not been missed.

  2. @andromeda Not missed. You are a step ahead of me... However, any digital archive involving publisher-owned content depends on the voluntary cooperation of that publisher. LOCKSS, Portico, Hathi Trust may have interesting technology, business models, and/or unique organizational strength, but they have to entice publishers to submit content. This is quite different from the paper archive, which guaranteed that ALL content deemed interesting by libraries was preserved.