A few days ago, a high school student and his mother came to the reference desk in need of research assistance for an important paper on a semi-famous literary figure. Without thinking twice, I began to show them Gale’s excellent Literature Resource Center, a large collection of literary criticism, biographical overviews, and much much more – the perfect starting point for easily finding credible and useful sources. While they were excited that such a service exists, the mother expressed an opinion that I found interesting. She wondered why we (the library) were “shooting ourselves in the foot” by showing off an online database rather than going straight to the stacks. Why, after all, would people need the library if they could get all of these resource online?
I had two answers: Without the library, they would neither know about the Literature Resource Center nor would they be able to access it since it sits comfortably behind a high pay wall. Yet, because my ears are always perked up to the public’s perception of the library and library services, I filed the interaction away for future reference.
Now, as I’m thinking about what she said, I find myself sticking her comment into the same cubbyhole as arguments that parallel the downfall of the public library with the demise of books. Both this larger argument and the mother’s specific case are based on the false premise that the library’s existence is tied entirely to its physical collection. While this is certainly true, to an extent, for academic libraries, I am beginning to believe ever more strongly that the value of public libraries lies beyond the stacks.
It is clear to me, as a young librarian and a member of Generation Y, that the future lies in digital collections. Before I hypothesize on the delivery method, I must explain the assumptions upon which this opinion is based. First of all, in the foreseeable future mobile devices like smart phones, ebook readers, netbooks, and tablet PCs will become as ubiquitous as portable music players became with the advent of Walkman, and later the iPod. While I feel that the tremendous success of single-function ebook readers like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader is largely marketing fluff, many of the mobile devices that are capable of carrying and displaying content are already in almost everybody’s pocket or purse. It isn’t long before the next generation of e-ink devices catches up to smart phones in functionality and affordability. Second of all, despite all of the ways I feel Overdrive and NetLibrary can improve, the recent release of Overdrive’s mobile app shows the direction in which these content clearinghouses are heading. Vendors of termed digital content, and the public’s demand for their services are converging with the public library, by default, serving as the middleman. Unless libraries want to license content directly from providers, they will be forced to hand-sell someone else’s goods; as mentioned in my opening example, I already pitch Overdrive, Netlibrary, and Gale’s products. The question here is not whether this is a good thing – it is already our method of operation – but what are some avenues by which we can critically consider the future of our collections.
In relying on outside collections, the library’s holdings are fragmented. Whereas with a physical collection owned by the library (or if we include ILLs, a library), all holdings can be retrieved with one search box. On the other hand, subscription-based digital collections (SBDC) require searching each vendor’s interface separately, a process that is inconvenient in a situation when there is time pressure (read: most reference interviews at my busy library). Another downside to sole reliance on SBDC is that downtime, site errors, and difficult interfaces reflect badly on the library itself while actually being the fault of the vendor who may or may not resolve the issues quickly. When it comes down to it, the absence of a unified collection points to loss of control. This loss is felt most strongly if budgetary restrictions force a library to cancel or downgrade a subscription; in the absence of its own collection, what the vendor provides is the collection, meaning that in the worst case scenario, the library-as-an-owner-of-objects becomes nonexistent.
Control also figures into the processes of collection development. Current physical content distributors cover a large swath of the major provider’s output, meaning a library can purchase the items it needs at will, responding quickly to community demands. Additionally, if popular distributors don’t have what is sought, there are many places that obscure books, CDs or DVDs can be found. Being ignorant of how contracts for SBDCs are drawn up, I cannot speculate about whether terms can be renegotiated as quickly as physical items can be acquired, nor about how deep SBDCs run. I know from my own experience as a patron with Overdrive and NetLibrary, that collections are currently rather paltry. This may be a result of a specific library’s contract, or it may be a reflection of the state of affairs between vendors and publishers. In time, I expect that intellectual property issues will be ironed out so that any mainstream item currently available can be “checked-out” digitally. This still leaves doesn’t cover the question of long-tail items like out-of-print, self-published, or technical books, not to mention those printed by independent presses. Large transnational vendors may not find it worthwhile to bother with obscure, but locally important cultural items. How will libraries who rely on outside vendors for their collection management be able to fold in items by local authors, for example?
We should also, in our examination of control, consider approaches to digital rights management (DRM) especially when it comes to lending periods. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, items “checked-out” from Overdrive are licensed to a patron with the assumption that the patron will remove the items that they have checked-out by the end of the lending period. There is no automatic method whereby content self-destructs making sure that the terms of the license are met. The problem I see in this system is simple: the only measure of when an item becomes available is the due date given by Overdrive – the fact that when the item is “returned” (before, on, or after its due date) does not matter in terms of access impedes my ability to perceive digital items as equivalent to their physical counterparts. Contrary to many of my colleagues, I see no inherent fault in allowing software to automatically remove due items from a patron’s computer as long as it can also manually be done before the due date. The vital point here is that the content becomes accessible as soon as possible – in a digital environment where there is no need to wait for materials to be shelved, this should be a no-brainer.
Licensing terms between vendors and publishers also wrest control of lending periods away from libraries. In the present, vendor lending periods differ, sometimes significantly, from the libraries where their digital collections are accessed. Since, as is mentioned above, the due dates aren’t strictly enforced, this doesn’t matter. However, when DRM becomes more dominant in enforcing lending restrictions, it should be the library that decides, within reason, what the lending periods are. This should be the case whether the SBDC is circulating in tandem with a library-owned collections or instead of the latter. The discussion of control is primarily important because libraries are not private customers, but organizations that are bound to represent the wishes of their stakeholders. Communities vary and so should the terms under which SBDCs are accessible.
Before we proceed, a distinction needs to be made. In part of the above analysis, I have been referring to SBDCs that offer content to lend. It should be noted that there are two other kinds of databases that public libraries subscribe to: article/newspaper databases and reference books online (ie the Virtual Reference Library). The obvious difference between these latter to and the former is that the collections held by these services are not exactly lent out. While articles from periodicals may be downloaded or printed, a patron’s main method of viewing them (along with reference books) is (sort of) ‘in the cloud.’ Hence, intellectual property issues in this transaction take a completely different angle. From the vendor’s perspective (I assume, of course), allowing their content to be unified with the libraries catalog (in order to allow simultaneous searching of various information forms) means missing the opportunity to brand the information as their own. In addition, an API allowing the library’s IT department access to a vendor’s collection means redefining the pay wall – here too it’s all about control.
The reason the distinction between the two subscription-based collection types is useful is that the information-seeking behaviors and use of the two are different. While content that is lent can be delineated as both fulfilling the library’s purposes of educating and entertaining, the periodical and reference databases almost exclusively serve researchers (at various levels) which is to say, education. When seeing a collection of periodicals (especially newspapers) as cultural artifacts, however, it is also correct to say that they preserve heritage. Thus, the risks associated exclusively contracting outside digital collections for periodicals and reference materials are different that those involved with to-lend content.
We must keep in mind when ceding control of our reference and periodical collections that these foundational elements of a library are more immediate to most library’s missions than to-lend content is; a library without access to back-issues of periodicals and a useful reference collection is a naked library. Frankly put, the latest novel can be considered a luxury, while a student’s need cannot. My biggest fear when it comes to discarding sturdy volumes of reference books is that though the online versions are always the latest versions, an interruption in service (for whatever reason) would be quite grim indeed. I also fear that when it comes to bargaining position, a library that is constantly dependent on an outside vendor is in a bad way. Despite my belief that through crowdsourcing and other methods, the price of credible reference information – like that of commercial listings (Varian & Shapiro, 1998) – on the web will eventually become negligible, there will always be something behind a paywall. As it trends now, public libraries will have to negotiate access to that information for regular people and so we must prepare.
Whether we are talking about content to lend or periodical and reference collections, the public library will not be the owner. Certainly there will be other roles for librarians (programming, research assistance to name two), our methods of collection development will shift from purchasing content to brokering access to it. Based on this vision, questions related to contracts, the fluidity of informational transaction, stability of budgets, library-vendor relationships, and internal structures of library service must all be closely studied. In order to be adequately prepared for future library work, students of library science as well as current librarians who plan to be in the field in the future must grasp the dynamics of information-as-a-commodity. Not doing so won’t kill libraries, it will, however, prevent us from serving our stakeholders to the best of our ability.