libraries as storehouses of content

A brief response to Aaron Schmidt’s excellent post on the possible end of libraries role as content providers. (this is an expanded version of a comment I left there).

I agree entirely with Aaron that there’s a future to libraries beyond content provision — we could go into details if some folks are still worried about that, but I’m not. And if users get their content from somewhere else due to natural changes in the environment, we need not be alarmed, but instead focused on other remaining needs we are positioned to fulfill.  Libraries undoubtedly face great challenges right now, requiring a re-orientation of organizational resource allocations, but it’s not the end of the trip for libraries.

But we also ought not to sanguinely accept publisher’s attempts to illegalize libraries’ traditional content provision business in the “1s and 0s” market, like they would have liked to even in the print market. We should fight it with tooth and nail.

It may (soon) no longer be necessary to have a whole bunch of content in one place to provide a good research environment. But that’s not the only reason libraries have been in the content provision business. We’ve also been in that business in order to provide affordable access to content via collective purchasing and cooperative sharing, access to content individuals would not be able to afford on their own. This is in fact a common mission to both public and academic libraries.

If the need for that kind of collectively purchased content provision were to go away, so be it, no cause for alarm. But if the need is still very much there but publishers and rightsholders are trying to push us out of filling it in the digital market the way they’d like to but can’t push us out of filling it in the physical market — that’s cause for alarm.  And I don’t see the need going away, I see it only increasing.

Publishers would like to charge us a per-use fee even for the printed materials in our collection. Why, they might think,  should we be able to buy a book once and let lots of people read it? That’s book sharing!    There are historical accidents and precedents that are one explanation of why they can’t get away with this, but the reason they should not be able to get away with this is because by collectively purchasing and sharing content libraries are able provide collective access to information that is necessary for a democratic civic society, for personal enlightenment and improvement, and for teaching and scholarship.

Just as neccesary in the coming digital world as it is in the Guttenberg world, and indeed was in the pre-Guttenberg world.  The printing press made it more possible and feasible for libraries to collect recorded human output and share it affordably with those libraries users. Will the digital transition make it less possible and feasible instead? The technology of the digital transition, bringing the marginal cost of reproduction of recorded knowledge close to zero, ought to facillitate libraries content provision mission. But the legal environment, managed for the benefit of rightsholders instead of the public, is accomplshing the reverse, and that would be a step backwards. It is the historic role of libraries to push back. How are we doing?

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