Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libraries and The Fear of Free

Let us speak plainly.

Ebooks are the proverbial iceberg on the horizon of libraries. If the library profession doesn't act appropriately, decisively and soon, libraries are screwed

We need to stop insisting that the value of the library is made by the subsidy of objects alone. At the moment, our primary value is that we provide free items that only cost the user the inconvenience of having to physically come to the library to pick up the item when that object is available. But when the price of the such items drop, then the relative cost of the inconvenience goes up to the point that paying $8 a month for Netflix becomes much more attractive than paying for parking twice a month at the public library across town.

Academic libraries are not immune to the forces of cost vs. convenience. There is a growing interest in Activity-Based Budgeting (ppt) or Incentive-based Budgeting at public universities (book) and this means that the campus library, once a shared resource, explicitly becomes a cost centre that must be paid for directly from the other faculties on campus. (The University of Toronto started using ABB since 2007 and two years later, their libraries started charging graduate students from other schools a substantial fee to access their collections). Now imagine a future scenario in which the largest commercial publishers decide to drop the cost per article to $5. Those faculties who will be able to do research without their campus library will advocate that they shouldn't have to subsidize the other faculties that do. Now, I'm not trying to make the case that this particular scenario is likely to occur and play out. I'm just trying to make the point that if the library is seen only as a subsidy, then our future will be controlled by those who set the cost and convenience.

Libraries can change course. It may even be easier than we think. But in order for us to do so, we need more hearts and minds to re-interpret our collective mission and express it in new ways through the communities we serve.

First, we need to stop making free the enemy of the library. 

My own personal epiphany of the matter came through a conversation at OLITA council about the reticence of many public libraries to promote free books from such ventures as Project Gutenberg. One observation was that libraries aren't interested in promoting resources that don't result in an increase in library circulation counts. The stakeholders of public libraries don't think highly of connecting users to free educational material on the Internet.

In the academic sphere, there are similar forces at play. Every time, I hear a librarian say that the library is the place to find "trusted" and "quality" information, I cringe because such thinking implicitly debases open access research because it's free to readers. Librarians don't want institutional repositories (campus research free for the world) at the expense of being able to buy commercial research for our campus.

Next, we need to start expressing the value of libraries through gate-counts (and website hit counts) rather than circulation counts. Not through books, but through book clubs. And writing circles. Letter press workshops. Wordpress bootcamps. Book digitization.

Then, we need to stop waiting for a commercial product to save our profession. It is maddening to see the extent that public libraries are willing to spend their energies castigating Overdrive and Harper-Collins for acting as a business rather than partner with the Internet Archive to lend ebooks. It is troubling to see academic libraries collectively spend millions of dollars on "Google-like" discovery layers and outright refuse to even consider simply using Google Scholar (or customizing their own Google Search Engines or taking on the responsibility to build their own digital library for themselves).

And my last recommendation (for the moment) is ask libraries to stop spending money licensing commercial products that they can never own (nor preserve for the future). Instead, libraries need to use, support and develop open source tools and collections - for ourselves and the communities that we serve. Again, there is resistance from many libraries to use free software. Ironically, if you ask them why not, these libraries will tell you that they don't feel that they can own a product if they don't pay for it. My own personal observation is that the ability to pay for a service contract from a dedicated developer or support company encourages organizations to use open source software.

I haven't read it myself, but I understand that Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" makes a convincing case that software should be thought of as a service and not as a product. As soon as my Sunday afternoon reference desk shift is over, I'm going to head upstairs and borrow this book because I think this is the same transition that libraries have to make.

There is still time.

1 comment:

Mita said...

I made some minor edits since I first published this on Sunday.