By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
In the book world it’s easy to get stuck in your own little corner talking about what digital is doing to – take your pick – readers, or authors, or publishers, or booksellers. There is opportunity and disruption to be found in all of those communities, but one change publishing’s digital transition has undeniably wrought is bringing these separate conversations closer together and connecting them in unexpected ways.
Libraries, though… it’s easy to see them as the odd man out, since they’re not typically viewed as participating in the commercial value chain (even though their collective spending on books and journals tops $1 billion) and for now it’s hard to see where they fit into the shiny new world of transmedia and enhanced content.
Libraries are undergoing their own digital-induced identity crisis, however, one that only partly has to do with providing books and other resources in electronic formats. One big part of libraries’ mission has always been providing access to reliable information, but (as technology developer and blogger Eric Hellman points out in an excellent post for Library Journal) the internet allows widespread access to competing information providers in any number of areas both general (news, reference) and specialized (finance, astrophysics). A big piece of the library budget has always gone into building and maintaining a collection, but we’re nearing a moment when all books will potentially be available digitally in all places - the stated goal of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and presumably the end point for Google’s book project as well.
Heading into the Library Journal‘s eBook Summit, I thought it was worth looking at two major existential dilemmas facing libraries as books go digital:
- What happens to the curators when we can all access all books?
- How do libraries balance their need to serve a local user base against the opportunities and challenges presented by the world wide web?
The Curator vs. Universal Access
One significant role libraries have played since they came into existence is to collect and preserve knowledge. Each decision a library makes about which books it acquires has an element of whether that book belongs in the library’s collection, whether it will be relevant to the library’s users, and whether it’s worth the effort of cataloging and preserving.
On one hand, the advent of ebooks has offered libraries the chance to create digital copies of their collections to serve as a backup to print and potentially offer wider access. On the other, the acquisition of new titles as ebooks is almost always in the form of a license wrapped in a number of restrictive limitations. If a library buys new titles in ebook form, or access to an online database for its users, its license generally stipulates that it cannot offer access to any readers outside of its local community (a replication of the print model through DRM) and it does not own a copy of the files (a reversal of the print model through DRM).
While most librarians have accepted the first limitation, the second is cause for concern, as noted by Jennifer Howard, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“If you buy a print book and stick it on a shelf or put it in deep storage, you own it, your institution has a copy. But if you buy access to a database, that access could go away. That’s a big concern. I think it’s something that librarians think about a lot as they’re acquiring materials. One of the things that librarians told me is that they’re really interested in A) making sure that the material is being archived properly in perpetuity, or as far as we can see at this point, and B) that they’re guaranteed access to it. That’s where the question of rights comes into play, what kind of rights package are you buying along with your content.”
If libraries no longer own the material they acquire, they are essentially abdicating the archival function of the library to private companies with entirely different motivations and values, few of which have to do with ensuring public access to information.
Then there is that curatorial role, filtering content according to relevance to the library’s patrons. If the Google Book Search Settlement is approved, Google will provide one free terminal with access to the millions of books in its database to all of the libraries that participated in the scanning project, and would presumably license that database to any other interested library (or potentially any individual or organization) that was willing to pay the price. As Hellman puts it, this plan would be “very much a game-changer because it will make a lot of things available in places where it was never available.” Many distinctions between libraries in terms of the richness of the collection or tailored focus would be flattened, Hellman continues, “in that for a relatively modest expense the smallest library will be able to all of a sudden have a digital collection with the same collection as your Harvard, Princeton, Yales, etc.”
In this scenario, it’s hard to see why curators would still be needed. But Howard disagrees that these first steps toward universal access eliminate the need for gatekeepers.
“Just because the information is available digitally doesn’t mean that you can just do away with some sort of organization of it, and some kind of filtering of it so that users can find it and know what they’re finding,” Howard says. “In that sense libraries’ mission hasn’t changed, it’s just taken on a digital overlay. It is true that scholars now are very sophisticated, they don’t necessarily need a librarian to tell them where to go to find the primary materials in their discipline. But they may still benefit from a librarian looking through all the offerings that are coming out from publishers, reviewing all the database options, figuring out what a particular campus or institution is going to find most useful.”
Local Library, Meet the World Wide Interwebs
Figuring out how to be useful to its patrons is of course fundamental for a library to continue to exist. While academic libraries are mainly in peril only if their institution has its funding slashed, public libraries have been put under private management or forced to move to alternative models to stay afloat in these lean times, even as a radical fringe suggests that now that we have the internet we might as well do away with libraries entirely.
For Hellman, there is a clear economic argument for the existence of libraries.
“You still need to have a way to aggregate usage. For a lot of works, you have more people who want to use the book a little bit rather than own the book and use all of it, that’s on the reference side. On fiction, there are books that you just want to read and be done with, whereas other books you want to keep and re-read and pass around. From an economic point of view, the role of the library is to aggregate all the people who want to pay less for a book or use less of a book into purchases of whole books. With the existence of libraries, [publishers] are able to sell copies of books to part of the demand curve while still being able to get full revenue from people who really want the book.”
For Hellman the biggest challenge libraries face in moving to a digital model is competing with the private businesses that are using free content to attract customers, or developing paid online resources for targeted audiences, both of which encroach on the value libraries have traditionally been able to offer their communities.
“Libraries will have to think about how they’re going to compete with an organization like Starbucks,” says Hellman, “or whether they just retreat into serving people who can’t afford lattes. It’s certainly true that there are a lot of things that libraries do, and many of those things will be easier to do with ebooks and others will be harder to do with ebooks, they just have to be prepared to change. It’s not clear whether they will expand or contract, but staying the same is probably not an option.”
University libraries have already been shifting their mission in an effort to attract a generation of students used to doing their research online. One strategy has been to make the experience of using the library much more personal. “Librarians are very interested in helping students figure out not just how to find information but how to assess it,” says Howard, “that makes libraries and librarians very relevant. Drexel University just started this personal librarian program, it’s not the first of its kind – every patron has an assigned librarian whose job it is to help that person figure out what the basic library resources are, how to get around the library. Librarians see that they can be very useful to the teaching mission of the university.”
At the same time, as resources move online, the purpose of the physical library building is changing, and many universities are doing a good job of working with this shift. ”The physical library is more and more a student space for gathering and working,” Howard notes, “not necessarily for working with books, but a meeting place or shared space. That seems to be a way to keep the physical library relevant, make the building itself a place [students] want to come even if they’re not getting any information in the stacks.”
This same usage shift is taking place in local libraries, but it can be harder for them to adapt in the face of financial straits and a funding model that is tangled up with local politics. “The organizations have not shifted as much as the usage patterns,” Hellman asserts. “If you were starting a library from scratch, and you wanted to focus on information literacy, internet availability, and cultural activity, you wouldn’t construct the organizations that exist in most public libraries today.”
The Big Question
So what is the purpose of libraries today? Why should communities continue to pay for them?
“Public libraries in particular, in addition to just having books, serve as cultural centers,” says Hellman, “they serve as symbols of a community’s value of knowledge, they serve as places for people to work, to gather, to learn and get assistance. There are a lot of roles that public libraries have, and a relatively small fraction of that actual value is tied up in the books that are sitting on the shelves.”
Howard agrees that libraries and librarians continue to have an important part to play as books go digital and access to information moves beyond the physical:
“One thing I’ve always liked about talking to librarians is how much they do try to take the bigger picture view, they look at this sea of knowledge and they consider it their job to help people sail it and find interesting destinations. It’s not they look at it as this is my little corner of the ocean, they see this great big sea and they want it to be navigable for as many people as possible.”
In this sense, the changes maybe aren’t so disorienting after all: librarians have been doing things like creating quality metadata and working collaboratively on a large scale for years. As for their redefining their mission for the online world, Howard says “I think they’re both thinking locally and thinking globally, too.”
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.