The Revolution Isn’t Just Digital

Posted Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - 11:06
For libraries, the growing importance of digital content has repercussions that go far beyond technology
The labyrinth of a circuit board

The digital revolution in libraries is not exactly a secret. Every day we read about some upheaval in the ebook industry, a new development in digitization, or yet another service from Google. And the recent announcement of an ALA-wide initiative on digital content and libraries, while important and necessary, won’t exactly make media headlines.

It is natural enough to focus on digital content, whiz-bang technology, and how libraries should provide innovative services for our communities. Yet there is more going on than meets the digital eye.

Librarianship, at least in the 20th century, was built on the cornerstone of professional control. Librarians were the deciders. Of course, we were deciders with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, librarians had considerable latitude in determining how best to serve their patrons, armed with a robust body of knowledge and professional norms. However, the digital revolution fundamentally changed librarian control. This shift in control becomes obvious when we think about it consciously.

Collections. Librarians controlled the analog stuff. We decided what content to acquire and we purchased it. We had exclusive control on how to organize it, based on taxonomies largely developed by the library community.

This control is now shared with publishers and other information-service intermediaries. For example, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster won’t allow libraries to lend ebooks, and Hachette and Penguin have suspended new titles from their library lending business. Publishers now play a significant role in defining the scope of materials available to libraries—at any price.

Online information is often subject to licensing terms more restrictive than those otherwise allowable under copyright. These terms are written by information-service providers and agreed upon (or at least clicked through) by users—and by librarians—with little or no ability to negotiate terms. The fiscal constraints that many libraries face make the situation worse, not only through smaller budgets but also by the forced retention of many analog services even as the demand for digital escalates.

Access. Librarians had virtually complete control over patron access to analog materials. We decided who could borrow materials from a library and for how long. We decided which materials were restricted for use within the library and whether there were any closed stacks (and if there were, who had access to them). When serving people with disabilities, librarians also had considerable latitude in providing needed accommodations.

License agreements typically manage access to digital content. These agreements dictate the basic terms of access, such as the HarperCollins limit of 26 loans per ebook license. They can also specify a wealth of requirements: The one governing the Google Book Project includes details on how much of a work may be displayed (for example, “snippets” for certain in-copyright works). Libraries must deal with a multitude of varying licensing agreements, almost exclusively written outside of the library community, that impose requirements upon library users and staff. These typically omit accommodations for users with disabilities, in contrast to copyright law and its mandates.

Archiving and preservation. Long-term access and protection of our cultural heritage represent an important mission of the library community. Under the first-sale doctrine and other provisions of copyright law, libraries have discretion on how to carry out this mission for analog materials.

Many questions and challenges revolve around the archiving and preservation of digital content. Licensing agreements rarely spell out these long-term rights, often clearly stating that a library has access to the content only when it is paying a monthly or annual fee.

Privacy. Librarians vigorously guarded the privacy of circulation and usage records, enforcing the profession’s longstanding ethical obligation to protect the patron’s right to privacy. To the best of their abilities, librarians prevented surveillance of reader behavior within library buildings, and individuals had personal control over their use of library materials and reading behavior.

Today, the tools and platforms that enable user access to digital content put reader privacy in peril. Borrowers’ personal information and materials-use records are in the hands of intermediary companies and content providers. Vendor education and privacy provisions in license agreements are critical in protecting user privacy, but even more crucial are strict mechanisms for ensuring that these agreements are fulfilled, particularly regulation and legislation.

Perhaps an even greater concern is the potential ability of content providers to track reader behavior through digital services, down to the specific pages that users read within a work and the words they highlight on the page. Once that data is shared or stored, it is vulnerable to accidental disclosure, theft, and legal discovery, and it offers intermediaries an outlet to market their products. If users choose to purchase content from intermediaries while logged on to library computers, their financial information could be disclosed or compromised. Libraries that host these services on their own server have a better opportunity to protect and control borrower information, especially by deleting user transactions.

Sharing control and seizing control

The first point to internalize is that we need to change ourselves, no matter what information service providers or others do. The digital revolution is essentially an organizational revolution for libraries.

Librarians must become more focused on sharing control, insofar as sharing (read: negotiating) is possible. For many years, collaboration has been a library strategy to improve efficiency, but it has been pursued more as a “nice to have” proposition—and properly so. The digital environment does not inherently respect physical or organizational domains, so collaboration becomes an essential strategy—both in its softer form as cooperative ventures and as hard-nosed negotiation.

The second point is understanding that progress is not merely converting existing services from analog to digital. We really do need new operating paradigms. Yes, that’s a cliché, but this time it is true.

So we need to go back to such basic principles as library values and mission statements. Why do we do what we do?

To illustrate, let’s examine ebooks. The current philosophy assumes that libraries require lending rights for ebooks with the same flexibility as those for print books. Of course it would be nice to extend those rights into the digital world so that we can provide the best possible service to patrons; however, libraries do not enjoy this luxury.

The first question to ask about lending is: What kind of lending is most important? For some libraries, current bestsellers may be the overriding priority. (But are you certain this is the best long-term strategy for your community?) For others, the priority may be for a wide range of publications, especially nonfiction and literary works. We should not reflexively assume that universal book lending must continue as a core library service—print books made available through a distributed physical infrastructure built upon a library’s competitive advantage. The rules and opportunities are different with ebooks, and, indeed, we are now seeing for-profit companies providing ebook lending services.

Library missions may be best met, at least in part, through new services. We’ve heard about these services in articles and studies portraying libraries as enablers of self-publishing, libraries as job and career centers, or libraries as conversation (see The Atlas of New Librarianship by R. David Lankes, Association of College and Research Libraries/MIT Press, 2011).

This reassessment will no doubt evolve. For example, ebook lending is the hot topic today, but can DVD lending be that far behind, given the continuing shift of video to digital distribution?

We need more librarians who will seize the initiative—people who can assess the new reality of digital content and figure out how libraries fit into this world. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of time to make this shift.

Taking action

From the ALA perspective, we need to continue some efforts on immediate issues and make public responses. In cases where we can suggest proposals on behalf of the library community, rather than simply object to an unfavorable development, all the better. But even if we cannot articulate particular solutions, we can nonetheless call attention to difficulties caused by the policies of information-service intermediaries.

At the same time, we must recognize that we are not exclusively taking adversarial positions. The ecosystem of digital content and services is complex and evolving. All stakeholders are scrambling to figure it out so that they can best serve their constituents. Moreover, while there may well be no targeted ill will (no one is out to get libraries), certain policies and decisions can adversely affect libraries and the communities they serve.

But we must also assess the needs of the library community and the opportunities that are opening up. In particular, we must challenge assumptions and practices from the analog era and reevaluate them in terms of overall library missions and values. We need to revisit our goals for our communities, consider the alternate mechanisms possible, and choose the ones that best meet our needs.

We have some reasons to be optimistic. Libraries have multiple strengths and advantages. Public libraries can be marketed as the six Ps of people, place, price, principles, pride, and package as described by Roger Levien in Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for 21st-Century Public Libraries (see below). But these six Ps may also be reformulated for other types of libraries.

We can also learn from each other. For example, academic libraries have been entangled in digital licensing in a significant way for many years, and school libraries have enjoyed some successes. Additionally, we must reach out beyond the library community to other professions that are working on the same problems. 

The Six Ps

  • People. Librarians provide unbiased services and advice based on expertise and professional norms.
  • Place. Libraries are physical spaces conducive to individual or group contemplative work.
  • Price. Library services are generally provided at no charge to the user, and access is available regardless of individual ability to pay.
  • Principles. Library services are provided under the rubric of intellectual freedom, privacy, and trust.
  • Pride. An excellent library is an indicator of a community with quality public services and high quality of life.
  • Package. Libraries provide successful integration of information services across disparate functions.

From Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for 21st-Century Public Libraries (PDF file), a report by Roger Levien written in June 2011 for ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy.

Success depends on everyone

In fall 2011, ALA established a Digital Content and Libraries Working Group and an associated initiative. In an Association-wide effort, members and staff from ALA’s divisions, offices, and other bodies are being coordinated to pursue short-term and long-term activities to advance the interests of the library community. These activities will provide support for the library community, as well as communication and advocacy with the general public and other key stakeholders such as publishers, other information intermediaries, and government agencies.

But ALA can only go so far. You must take action to meet your own institutional challenges. Take a hard look at how you are doing business, assess what resources you have, and consider whether you are well positioned for the challenges ahead. (Confronting the Future provides some direction on how to frame this strategy development.) The main driver of change in the past 10 years may have been the digital revolution, but these changes also have serious organizational implications for libraries.

Get involved in grassroots action. You can negotiate directly with publishers and intermediaries, perhaps in collaboration with other librarians or such organizations as library cooperatives and state libraries. Spread the word among your patrons, local government officials, local newspapers, and other media.

What are you doing for your library and your profession?

ALAN S. INOUYE is the program manager of ALA’s new initiative on digital content and libraries. He is also director of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, based in Washington, D.C.