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There’s a choice academic and public libraries face. One  is to focus entirely on providing access to the published information that our community members want. The other is to make libraries a platform for creating and sharing culture. 

The first option – the one libraries are most closely identified with - makes it possible for people to participate a little more equally in consumer culture by managing collective resources to buy things that can be shared. In this way, libraries become a bit of an oasis for sharing in a system that is designed for selling. The tension between sharing and selling is growing particularly stark in public libraries. Large trade publishers think sharing is a bug, not a feature. Even when libraries are willing to impose the same restrictions on ebooks that print books have – one user at a time for each ebook purchased – and even though they have agreed to pay more for ebooks than for print books (the opposite of what consumers expect) the biggest publishers are saying, you know what? We actually don’t want ebooks in libraries. This is publishers’ opportunity to remove from the book trade the kind of sharing libraries have done in the past, and they’re digging it.  

The other option is to reject the idea that culture is a consumer good and play an activist role in enabling cultural production, not just cultural consumption. Libraries that embrace this role redefine themselves as a lab, a workshop, a maker space or hacker space where community members can create shareable culture. These librarians see culture fundamentally as participatory and question why we should be slavishly limiting ourselves to what the marketplace provides now that the people can own the means of production.

Of course, it’s not that simple. People are used to getting the books they’ve heard about on NPR and the Daily Show at the public library. They don’t want a memoir written by their neighbor, and if they decide to write their own novel, they’re going to sell it through Amazon without the library’s help. (They might, however, ask the library to buy a print-on-demand copy and host an author event for them.)

I don’t envy my colleagues in public libraries. I am totally in sympathy with everything the Librarian in Black has to say about this sorry situation, but I know it’s hard to explain what’s going on to a member of the public who asks how to download a popular book to their Kindle and leaves in a huff, muttering that the library is stupid and backward. It’s even harder to keep your cool when so many librarians are running around in a panic, whimpering that irrelevance is nigh.

Things are a bit different in academic libraries. The open access movement is gaining traction, largely because scholars think sharing is pretty much the point of publishing. As authors, they have some leverage. They still think of the library primarily as the wallet that pays for stuff they want, not as a platform for making their work public; libraries are local and disciplines are not. Still, academic libraries are not in quite the turmoil as our public library colleagues, mainly because we’re used to things being broken. They’ve been broken for twenty years or more.

But we too have choices to make, both libraries and scholars. The next time your library spends $40 to get you an article you want to read, think about the implications. Is this really how we want to do it? Do we conduct research and write it up so that those who are affiliated with institutions that can afford to subscribe to lots of journals or can pay $40 for the temporary personal use of an article can have that knowledge, but nobody else can? Really?

The fact is, academic libraries should be all about participatory culture. They are labs, they are workshops, they are studios for making new ideas inspired by old ones. We’ve gotten distracted by trying to look more like Google and Amazon (even though our pseudo-shopping platforms are never as slick). We’ve been paying too much attention to delivering what scholars ask for efficiently and helping busy student shop for quotes they can use in a paper. That’s not really what libraries are for.

Apart from the high cost of content, do you know how much time and money your library is spending on making commercial platforms work together? Ask a librarian what a discovery layer runs these days and how many staff hours have gone into trying to make the blasted thing work. Then ask yourselves whether it wouldn’t make a hell of a lot more sense to take all of the labor, money, and skills you and the library put into trying to make commercial systems work and put it into systems that actually do what they are supposed to do: share knowledge.

Just a thought.

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