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The Library as a Free Enterprise
December 13, 2012 - 10:05pm

Mita Williams, of the University of Windsor, recently posted her slides from an amazing talk that she gave last month. Anyone who follows me on Twitter might have noticed my ALL CAPS enthusiasm for what she had to say. It was a wide-ranging talk, but it projected the kind of future we can have if we pay attention to what’s going on and keep hold of one important idea: the future of the academic library is free.

Free as in freedom.  Free as in access to ideas without gatekeepers or tolls. Free as in enabling the creation of new things, of bringing the community to the world instead of the other way around. Free as in . . . well, libraries.

She points to our increasing dependence on corporations for both proprietary content and for access platforms. Library software providers are dwindling in number, being bought and sold like pork bellies by private equity firms, and in spite of all that market fermentation, the catalog still sucks. If academic libraries pooled their funds, instead of each being a customer individually negotiating with a limited number of vendors, we could do so much more. We have let the idea of libraries as nodes in a world of idea-sharing lapse in the face of license agreements and defining our hyper-local value propositions.

We’re also frantically trying to spend our way into making our websites look and act more like Google, which is really hard when we don’t have Google’s deep pockets for R&D investment or its enormous scale. Its stated mission, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is what libraries used to aim for. Now each library is more or less on its own, each one trying to recreate a Google experience by buying expensive discovery layer software that searches multiple databases and the catalog at once, spending countless hours making it work, then pleading with users to use it. From what I can gather, most libraries are marketing it to lower division undergraduates, even though we know students don’t want more results; they are already overwhelmed by choices. So why, exactly, are we doing this? 

So we license our content, we license tools to connect our databases, we license layers to hide all the messiness, and managing all that is messy, too, and while we talk about preserving the past and curation and enabling discovery, it turns out we’re really not doing much of that at all. But we could, and we should.

At about the same time that I read Mita’s post, I read about another talk given by the representative of a major publisher on how publisher and librarians can work together.  We both serve science, she said, publishers by getting reports of scientific research peer reviewed and organized for public consumption, libraries by helping scientists get their hands on it. As publishers’ revenue streams shift from subscriptions to author-side fees, librarians will still be useful because . . . well, we could license software to document our local scientists' productivity, which will help bring grant dollars to our institutions. Also, we can explain everything to students. 

Mita’s expansive vision of the future of academic libraries was exhilarating. In contrast, this felt like being told publishers will do the important work while we can try to make ourselves useful and take a seat at the children’s table because we’re so good with kids. 

No wonder non-librarians have trouble envisioning a future for us. We don’t really enable discovery; people turn to their local library to procure things they identified elsewhere. We don’t curate or organize knowledge; we license packages of it curated and organized by others. We do help students navigate it all, but it’s misleading to say we’re promoting information literacy. We’re teaching college literacy, helping students compete assignments by showing them how to find content that will become unavailable the minute they graduate. This is why Mita's alternative sounds so much more exciting. It's a return to what we originally cared about.

Around the same time I also read a piece by Cathy Davidson about technology and the thirst for education, and that led me to a Forbes article about MOOCs and the potential they have for new kinds of revenue generation by disaggregating education and selling it through giant global corporations, and I thought about Cory Doctorow’s warning about the war on general-purpose computing and all of these things seem strangely connected. We can let others take control of the things we value and hope we can afford to play, or we can do it ourselves, openly, and share it.

David Weinberger has written about the library as platform, as a real-and-virtual place where interactions happen and new things are made and shared. Yochai Benkler has written about the wealth of networks and the potential of "commons-based peer production.” We’ve seen endless hours of labor voluntarily contributed to Wikipedia, a project that hews to old values of providing sources, even-handedness, and the value of making knowledge accessible to all.

We have the capability of deciding for ourselves what we want out of libraries, or education, or technology, but we won’t be free to do that unless we are free to make our own choices. There isn’t an app for that.  

 

 

 

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