How Libraries Trump Big Media

June 22, 2011

There’s an interesting piece in The Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal on how the New York Public Library embraces digital innovation while continuing to continue serving its joint purpose – maintaining a world-class research library and providing for the diverse needs of millions of residents of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. (Queens and Brooklyn have their own public library systems.) NYPL, like many libraries, is finding innovative ways to take their content digital and to invite the public to participate online. He writes, “the NYPL has established itself as a beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape with smart e-publications, crowdsourcing projects, and an overall digital strategy that shows a far greater understanding of the power of the Internet than most traditional media companies show.”

Libraries, of course, are not media companies, and that’s a key distinction. A media company has to produce content - and profits. Libraries make content available for sharing and help their communities find and use it, and they don’t have to turn earnings over to shareholders or CEOs. It’s extraordinarily freeing to be owned by and accountable to one’s community. News organizations should be so lucky.

Libraries are moving into content creation, but mostly in order to help their communities share what they already create through institutional repositories and open access scholarship. They are also making available digital versions of unique archival material or special collections, typically material in the public domain. These efforts tend to be relatively small-scale and experimental, because libraries are reluctant to reallocate funding away from traditionally published resources - and from their not-so-traditional offspring.

“Traditional” publishers are not so traditional as they control increasing amounts of content through licenses rather than sale, a practice that alters the relationship between content owner and its end audience. It also strips from the library some of its key functions: you can’t preserve material you don’t own, you can’t loan it to others if the license forbids it, and you can’t protect it from censorship. The economics of big media ensures that digitization includes built-in limits, because the freedom it could enable threatens traditional revenue streams. Not that it actually works. The news business finds its mission hobbled by a structure that demands profits that aren't there anymore.

Madrigal believes there are two reasons the library is succeeding in the digital shift in ways big media is not. First, staff at NYPL are behind it, and they are getting the institutional backing they need. (I’m not sure that’s exactly the story we’d get from NYPL employees, but let’s run with it for now.) Second, they are inviting the public to collaborate through crowdsourcing and online involvement. This use of social media to engage the audience has not been a huge success for traditional media. Those who comment on stories at news sites are not engaged in making news, they’re mostly announcing their thoughts about something that they cannot edit or change, which makes them peevish. Sometimes editors take note; there’s even an example in the Atlantic story, when a misspelling was corrected in response to a comment, but on the whole there’s a power differential between those who write and edit news and those who read and comment on it, which creates a kind of adversarial relationship with the text. That adversarial stance often spills over into the discussion, and because it’s often bristling with hostility, many readers find it the opposite of engaging. It’s as if the library encouraged its patrons to write in the books, which for most readers is vandalism. You can't engage publicly with a text by writing on it because it doesn't have any effect on the text - and the text can't talk back. Comments on a news story become a public debate next to the text, but with much less status than the text and generally without encouraging any real sense of community.

Libraries are different. They belong to their users more than media belongs to its audience. Librarians facilitate the selection and arrangement of material and do their best to serve as many needs as possible while being good stewards of limited resources, but it's done with community input. We're local in ways that (at least according to one recent study) news organizations no longer are - a development that threatens the public's right to know and the general health of communities. Users have a great deal to say about what the library acquires and have more opportunities to participate in library matters because we are local – but we're up against some challenges that big media are just beginning to experience.

In the State of the News Media report for 2011, revenue losses were less severe than in the previous two years (though the losses are pretty staggering; newspapers have lost 30% of their newsroom staff since 2000 - ouch!) But its authors point out that “a more fundamental challenge to journalism became clearer in the last year. The biggest issue ahead may not be lack of audience or even lack of new revenue experiments. It may be that in the digital realm the news industry is no longer in control of its own future.”

Tell me about it. Libraries pretty nearly lost control of their future a decade or so ago when licenses began to chew up more and more of our budgets. But frugality has forced us to become more critical of how we spend our dollars and more interested in helping our users (who are, after all, paid by our institutions to create content) find better ways to share it. Not only are we making interesting things happen, we are beginning to push back. The state of Kansas just told a major e-book vendor that they actually own the books they spent over a half million dollars on and they intend to move them to another platform. In an era of information rental, that's gutsy.

Our ace in the hole is that we are engaged with our users, and since we are beholden to them, not to stock holders or to publishers who have to preserve revenue streams, we have the option of acting on principle. Is sharing important? Let's make it non-negotiable. What about preservation and ensuring our collections are censorship proof? Let's insist on it. Because if we've learned one thing, big media isn't going to do it for us.


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