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Why Is Sharing So Much Harder Than Selling?
January 3, 2012 - 8:31pm

Joshua Kim raised an interesting question on Tuesday. In just an hour, he was able to get a whole bunch of books and chose among formats for preference and price. The fact that Amazon makes it insanely easy to buy books – but makes it difficult or impossible to share them (thanks in large part to publishers) leads him wonder about the dominance of Amazon and the impact on libraries. If Amazon is able to instantly satisfy those who can afford to buy all of their books, will those happy shoppers opt out of supporting libraries? Are libraries, crippled by publisher restrictions, becoming unattractive options by design?

Good questions. I read his post while coming at these issues from a very different direction. I have been collecting some resources on how we teach inquiry and writing from sources to undergraduates. It’s terrific to sit at home on my couch cruising through research using nifty tools like Comppile, Google Scholar, and various library databases. But it strikes me that, while it has gotten incredibly easy to purchase instant access to scholarly resources, getting my hands on them through library channels seems extraordinarily difficult in comparison. In reality, it’s far easier today than searching indexes and catalogs and placing interlibrary loan requests used to be, but in the old days shopping for academic books was much, much harder than using academic libraries was and buying articles one at a time wasn’t even an option.

Why was it so frustrating to me, that I had to go through so many more steps and put up with delays, just because I now have the choice to purchase books and articles instantly? Though “choice” seems like the wrong word. I would have had to spent a lot more than Joshua did; single articles cost four or five times what he spent on each book because the economics of scholarly publishing are so borked. Besides, what I really want to do is share these things, not buy them just for myself. If I buy them, I can't share them.

This bugs me for two reasons. One is that librarians didn’t invent Amazon before Amazon did. Jeff Bezos realized that books were a great product to sell online because they come with consistent inventory numbers – ISBNs. He realized that people were thirsty for information about books, including the paratext of cover art and reviews (which library catalogs didn’t bother with until Amazon did). He realized that letting people socialize around books would make Amazon’s sales catalog much richer and more enticing. Yes, the reviews are often bogus or trivial and are more consumer feedback than actual reviews of the books – but Amazon was the first to realize how much people want to talk to each other about the books they’re reading. Libraries could have done this. We had already developed Worldcat over many years, but it only became free and friendly and social long after Amazon, and it has never caught up in terms of traffic. We never thought of coaxing journals publishers to share their metadata to aid discovery. Google did.

The other reason it frustrates me is that these texts were mostly written to be shared, not sold. They have little commercial value, but command a crazy-expensive price. The way we read these texts is not like the way we read most commercial books and magazines. We consult, compare, take apart, and remix scholarly texts. We interact with them and make things out of them. We skim through lots of them before we decide which ones are relevant to whatever we’re working on. Those that are relevant – we scribble all over them and pull them out again and again for reference. They become woven into our intellectual lives, part of how we think and what we believe. They are not just bits of intellectual property, they are part of an ongoing conversation. But the new consumer regime refuses to acknowledge any of this. If you spend $35 for an article, chances are you are agreeing to pay that fee just to have 24-hour access. (Seriously. Read the fine print.) If you decided one of these articles was so insightful, so valuable that you wanted it to become part of your teaching, you might have to spend $3,000 for the right to share it with students. That’s just the right: actual articles sold separately.

Does this make sense to anyone?

There are some bright spots. Institutional repositories hold some of the things I am trying to share, and some authors have self-archived their work. The WAC Clearinghouse is a fabulous example of open access scholarship, and the National Writing Project has some valuable reports online, as does Project Information Literacy.

But a lot of our scholarship is only available through individual libraries (which may or may not have what you're looking for) or by purchase. Apart from being able to link to library holdings for books using Worldcat, it’s difficult to share links to materials that are in academic libraries across institutional boundaries; the links are local, by design. By contrast, it’s dead easy to point everyone to places to buy them.

I’m frustrated that libraries and the scholars they serve haven’t figured out a more effective and efficient way to share our research that actually fits what we do when we do research. I’m dismayed that, thanks to inattention, we have let the fruits of our research be treated like rare and overpriced consumer goods. Surely we can do better.


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