Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Annealing the Library

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.
John Dewey

What if a public library could fund a blogger of urban architecture to cover in detail all proceedings of the city planning department? What if it could fund a local historian to write an open-access history of the town? What if school libraries could fund teachers to develop open-access courseware? What if libraries could buy the digital rights of copyrighted works and set them free? What if the funds were available right now?

Unfortunately, by not making decisions, libraries everywhere merely continue to do what they have always done, but digitally. The switch from paper-based to digital lending is well under way. Most academic libraries already converted to digital lending for virtually all scholarly journals. Scores of digital-lending services are expanding digital lending to books, music, movies, and other materials. These services let libraries pretend that they are running a digital library, and they can do so without disrupting existing business processes. Publishers and content distributors keep their piece of the library pie. The libraries' customers obtain legal free access to quality content. The path of least resistance feels good and buries the cost of lost opportunity under blissful ignorance.

The value propositions of paper-based and digital lending are fundamentally different. A paper-based library builds permanent infrastructure: collections, buildings, and catalogs are assets that continue to pay dividends far into the future. In contrast, resources spent on digital lending are pure overhead. This includes staff time spent on negotiating licenses, development and maintenance of authentication systems, OpenURL, proxy, and web servers, and the software development to give a unified interface to disparate systems of content distributors. (Some expenses are hidden in higher fees for the Integrated Library System.) These expenses do not build permanent infrastructure and merely increase the cost of every transaction.

Do libraries add value to the process? If so, do libraries add value in excess of their overhead costs? In fact, library-mediated lending is more cumbersome and expensive than direct-to-consumer lending, because content distributors must incorporate library business processes in their lending systems. If the only real value of the library's meddling is to subsidize the transactions, why not give the money to users directly? These are the tough questions that deserve an answer.

Libraries cannot remain relevant institutions by being meaningless middlemen who serve no purpose. Libraries around the world are working on many exciting digital projects. These include digitization projects and the development of open archives for all kinds of content. Check out this example. Unfortunately, projects like these will be underfunded or cannot grow to scale as long as libraries remain preoccupied with digital lending.

Libraries need a different vision for their digital future, one that focuses on building digital infrastructure. We must preserve traditional library values, not traditional library institutions, processes, and services. The core of any vision must be long-term preservation of and universal open access to important information. Yet, we also recognize that some information is a commercial commodity, governed by economic markets. Libraries have never covered all information needs of everyone. Yet, independent libraries serving their respective communities and working together have established a great track record of filling global information needs. This decentralized model is worth preserving.

Some information, like most popular music and movies, is obviously commercial and should be governed by copyright, licenses, and prices established by the free market. Other information, like many government records, belongs either in the public domain or should be governed by an open license (Creative Commons, for example). Most information falls somewhere in between, with passionate advocates on both sides of the argument for every segment of the information market. Therefore, let us decentralize the issue and give every creator a real choice.

By gradually converting acquisition budgets into grant budgets, libraries could become open-access patrons. They could organize grant competitions for the production of open-access works. By sponsoring works and creators that further the goals of its community, each library contributes to a permanent open-access digital library for everyone. Publishers would have a role in the development of grant proposals that cover all stages of the production and marketing of the work. In addition to producing the open-access works, publishers could develop commercial added-value services. Finally, innovative markets like the one developed by Gluejar allow libraries (and others) to acquire the digital rights of commercial works and set them free.

The traditional commercial model will remain available, of course. Some authors may not find sponsors. Others may produce works of such potential commercial value that open access is not a realistic option. These authors are free to sell their work with any copyright restrictions deemed necessary. They are free to charge what the market will bear. However, they should not be able to double-dip. There is no need to subsidize closed-access works when open access is funded at the level proposed here. Libraries may refer customers to closed-access works, but they should not subsidize access. Over time, the cumulative effect of committing every library budget to open access would create a world-changing true public digital library.

Other writers have argued the case against library-mediated digital lending. No one is making the arguments in support of the case. The path of least resistance does not need arguments. It just goes with the flow. Into oblivion.


  1. Makes sense. The worst offenders are the University libraries who spent 10 Billion on renting information which is available formally to 1% of the population in THEIR countries. If we assumed for some sum (and it should not be set by the vendors as it is now) we could buy the literature for the whole population, that would show that libraries had a right to exist on public funds, which they increasingly do not.

  2. sorry - that was me in the previous post

    1. Actually, many public and private universities do grant access to their collections, including databases and some other electronic resources, to the general public, though the public must often come to the library to use those resources.

  3. Interesting that this perspective starts out with a quote from John Dewey. I had already envisioned a digital Dewey project in graduate school when Mickey Mouse (Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998)intervened. The entrenched interests of long-term copyright will not allow this to be rolled back, but perhaps the criteria for Fair Use can be adjusted to favor non-profit open knowledge.

  4. This post generated a lot of comments when quoted at:

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