Excerpts from John Palfrey, BiblioTech, 2015, Basic.
Libraries are screwed. Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex [the traditional book format]. And the codex has become outmoded. —Eli Neiburger, “A Library Journal/School Library Journal Online Summit,” September 29, 2010
People in the United States still have very positive views of libraries, but those views rest too heavily upon a sense of nostalgia. We remember libraries as they were twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, as quiet, inviting places to read and learn. There’s no question that libraries are wonderful, but nostalgia is too thin a reed for librarians to cling to in a time of such transition.
Every kind of librarian—whether in a public library, a school library, a major research university, or an archive—faces a series of problems that can’t all be solved at once using the resources they have today. This perfect storm is so terrifying because the role that many librarians have seen for themselves historically is not a great fit for the current era. In ages past, librarians saw their job as “collectors” and “keepers” of information. These tasks were easier in the past than they are today because of the relative scarcity in the past of information that was available to be collected, kept, and made accessible.1
Stephen Greenblatt’s best-selling history The Swerve tells the story of a fifteenth-century Italian scholar named Poggio Bracciolini who traveled throughout Europe seeking monasteries that might have hidden treasures that he could somehow spirit back to his native country. The essence of Poggio’s job was to collect recorded knowledge and bring those original copies to another location. The point was to make this information available to be consulted, in person, by scholars and nobles.3
By the early part of the twentieth century, the traditional notion of the library as a “treasure chest” or “jewel box” to preserve knowledge for the select few had given way to a far more democratic mission. The library became a central point in a community—whether a small town or a big city, a small college or a grand research university—where anyone could pursue knowledge and skills, with the help of trained professionals. The jewel box model was largely replaced by the lively, open, exciting institution we can visit today, one that is tied directly to the community—and in turn, to the success of the democratic system.
Libraries are in crisis not only because it is impossible to collect and catalog the vast quantities of printed and digital material that are being published every year, but also because it is prohibitively expensive even to attempt it. Libraries are expected to provide more services, across more formats, than ever before, but with fewer resources.
The primary reason for this cost increase is the multiplicity of formats: with information now available in a growing number of formats, libraries are forced to decide which formats are worth acquiring.5 Libraries also now struggle with the problem of who, exactly, should count as a publisher. Big publishing houses—Penguin Random House, say, or Perseus, the publisher of this book—are no less important than they once were as arbiters of what should be printed and read.
Libraries can’t afford to buy all the material that is formally published while also curating everything that is informally published. Whether they pick one or the other, someone is always disappointed. Librarians today are in an impossible spot.
One of the scariest propositions in a digital age is the concept of “data rot.” The Library of Congress, which holds roughly 150,000 compact discs of audio recordings, estimated that between 1 and 10 percent of the CDs already had serious data errors as of 2003. People still worry about long-term access to the US census of 1960, which was recorded on what are now obsolete computer tapes.11 Another reason why print cannot go away immediately is because it continues to play a key role in the preservation of knowledge. There is reason to fear that we will lose much of the digital information that we are creating—and perhaps exactly the material we most want to preserve—at a terrifying rate. We are much better at creating digital information than we are at storing it. Court records, for instance, are often created as digital files but then stored as physical books because librarians fear losing the digital versions more quickly than the analog.
Libraries need to take the time to ask hard questions about how their patrons are seeking knowledge and using information differently than they have in the past. Our institutions of learning—including libraries and schools, even journalism—risk falling out of step with the generation of people coming of age today.
Consider what happened to the recording industry. In 1999 a student at Northeastern University, Shawn Fanning, unleashed a disruptive force called Napster, the first major peer-to-peer-style sharing network for audio files. In a matter of months, Napster’s meteoric rise had tipped the scales against an old distribution model for recorded entertainment in favor of a new, direct, and digital model. The music industry (in)famously took years to embrace this change, initially fighting Fanning and all those who saw the world the way he did. The recording industry sued both the disrupters—which were plainly seeking to profit from illegal acts—and tens of thousands of their customers who were unlawfully uploading and downloading copyrighted songs. This set of legal battles raged for the better part of a decade, and in the end they were a colossal waste of time. The net result was a lot of money spent on lawyers and lobbyists, a lot of money being made by one computer company, Apple, and the emergence of an almost exclusively digital mode of production, distribution, and consumption of recorded music.
A clear trend in the growth of ebook circulation over a four-year period can be seen in the figures supplied by the service provider OverDrive: 4 million ebook checkouts in 2010 grew to 16 million in 2011, 54 million in 2012, and 79 million in 2013. Set in percentage terms, the numbers are even more staggering: the increase between 2010 and 2013 was 1,875%.
WHEN A CHILD first walks into a library, she is struck with a sense of wonder. If she is lucky, she finds herself in a well-lit, lovely space, surrounded by books, music, and film. She soon comes to see the world as bigger, more complex, and more intriguing than she has yet experienced. Her world expands, in real time, as she listens to someone read to her, as she learns to read herself, and as she chooses what she wants to read on her own. In the lives of many children, libraries play an essential role in the unfolding of the world around them.
Students who have good access to broadband Internet connections both at school and at home tend to have no problem completing such an assignment, whether it’s a one-off requirement for a class or the work for a full-blown online course. Students in wealthy schools and districts have little to worry about in terms of accessibility and digital literacy. But in school districts with low-income populations, especially in rural areas, digital-era assignments can turn into a nightmare for students and their parents.
The small screens and slower transmission speeds of mobile devices over cellphone networks are inadequate for doing homework. These differences in Internet access point quality greatly affect student participation in online activities.
The lower digital literacy rates found in areas with lower socioeconomic status simply compound the problem.15
Enter public libraries. Thanks to major national funding programs and advocacy by librarians, public libraries have played an essential function in meeting this need to provide children with fast Internet access outside of the school day and to improve their digital literacy. Over the past two decades, a combination of federal funding and a big push by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made fast Internet access in public libraries possible across America. Today 92 percent of the approximately 16,700 public libraries in the United States (or about 15,400 of them) offer wireless Internet access to their patrons. Every day schoolchildren across the country visit their public library, not to borrow a book or to talk to a reference librarian, but to connect to the Internet and complete their homework after school and before the library closes.
Library hours of operation often overlap substantially with the school day, meaning that students who need the lifeline of free Internet access to complete their homework often have only a short window of time during which they can use the library. If they need to do research, writing, or digital production, this period can be too short for them to do a decent job of their homework. And demand frequently exceeds supply by a wide margin: earnest schoolchildren compete with job-seekers, game-players, the homeless, and all manner of other public library users for time on library terminals, a necessity in areas where most kids cannot afford their own laptop.17 The net result is that children and their parents migrate away from closed or crowded libraries to other places where they can get free Wi-Fi. For many American schoolchildren, this means a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, which have longer hours, do not require a purchase of food to use the free Wi-Fi, and are within twenty miles of the homes of the vast majority of Americans. Between them, McDonald’s and Starbucks have about 23,000 restaurants in America that offer free Wi-Fi—exceeding the total number of public libraries offering free Wi-Fi. Set aside concerns about healthy eating, growing rates of childhood obesity, and the long-term health care costs involved and focus on the problems this situation poses for learning alone. Not only are there no knowledgeable and helpful librarians at McDonald’s and Starbucks restaurants, but the smells and sounds of a fryolator or a Frappuccino blender do not contribute to the best study environment.18
The digital divide has another troubling dimension: the vast preparation gaps that separate our students. Researchers have shown what every schoolteacher knows: kids come to school with widely ranging abilities to learn the material and the skills expected of them. They have not only differences in access but differences in support structures and skills. These divides are not just about access; they go far deeper. These divides cannot be solved simply by improving the physical infrastructure. For example, in the one country in the world that can claim to have made the Internet as ubiquitous as electricity, the Netherlands, there are persistent differences in how effectively and productively youth from different socioeconomic backgrounds use the Internet. In the Netherlands, youth from lower socioeconomic groups use their access for entertainment at a greater rate than youth from higher socioeconomic groups. The opposite trend is observed for the use of access for information and scholarship.20 The problem of disparate digital expertise and practices between groups of students is not an achievement gap but a preparation gap. Rates of both achievement and preparation tend to correlate strongly to race and socioeconomic status, so much so that education levels are often used as a proxy by social scientists for wealth and status. So too for library usage: Pew’s research shows that young people from lower-income backgrounds use libraries less frequently than those from higher-income backgrounds.21
More than half of all Americans use a public library regularly. In 2013 over half (54 percent) of Americans age sixteen or older said that they had visited a library in the previous twelve months.24
In addition to attracting large numbers of users, libraries have passionate supporters. The American Library Association hosts a web community called “I Love Libraries” that provides a venue for people to describe why they’re passionate about libraries. The author Dennis Gaffney wrote: “I love libraries because they expect little but give much. They don’t come with a curriculum and textbooks, but open stacks. There are no teachers to tell us what to read, just librarians who lie low unless asked for an opinion.” Gaffney’s sentiments are echoed by many others: libraries offer a low-key, accessible, usually open learning environment for people who are too old or too busy for school. Our democracies need libraries so that citizens can remain lifelong learners, no matter what their income or their access to formal education.
Libraries remain a powerful, appealing public space in communities all around the world.26
If libraries don’t meet the information needs of communities, then others will. Others are more likely to mix a profit motive in with activities that are broadly in the public interest, whether it’s Amazon’s interest in selling books, Google’s interest in selling ads based on searches, or the interest at Starbucks and McDonald’s in selling elaborate coffees and fast food. Libraries, not companies, should play the leading role as community meeting places built around ideas and dreams.
There is no question, however, that libraries offer much more than that. Library patrons—children and adults alike—realize this when they ask for help with a school project, attend a public lecture, learn about the citizenship process, cart home a stack of books on starting a new business, or simply read the newspaper or a picture book in a cool, quiet, safe space. Librarians build relationships with their patrons that provide meaning and value. These face-to-face interactions, in public spaces in communities, provide an essential service that is still worth paying for.
These casebooks have survived the advent of the digital era for a reason: they are an effective way to convey information to students. They serve as useful canvasses on which students can work with the core material, the raw data, of legal information. But these casebooks are far from perfect. They are heavy and expensive, and they do not provide what digital formats will soon be able to offer in terms of interactivity, shared commentary, collective work spaces, and new connections between concepts.
Why is it that students want to come to the place of a library to do their homework? What will happen if and when they are no longer using these cumbersome books? Could we do better, in a digital age, in terms of the materials that they are using to study? And if we were to take the physical books out of the equation, would the students leave the beautiful library spaces we painstakingly built and maintain for them, at great expense? If we cannot come up with positive answers to these questions, we stand to lose some of the last physical, public spaces that are not devoted to commercial pursuits.
In a digital era, spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces. Some libraries have experimented with digital-free zones, spaces where Wi-Fi and Ethernet do not reach, to allow the digital-era brain to disconnect from the network and its many distractions. Others have segmented spaces within their walls for a range of activities, some of which involve making noise (collaborative work) and others of which involve silent work (with librarians occasionally shushing a noisy interloper, as in days of yore). The contemplative spaces in libraries are well worth preserving, in part because they are lovely and in part because the always-on, highly connected pace of digital-era life can be overwhelming.
A second reason students might come to a library space, even if physical books are not part of the equation, is for the support and camaraderie that other humans provide.
Libraries, too, are shifting from places where information is used to places where information is created and shared. Librarians are at the center of making this shift happen. Kari Lämsä, the chief librarian at Helsinki’s Library 10 and Meetingpoint/Urban Workshop, is one of the leading practitioners of a new kind of librarianship that takes advantage of this shift. “Libraries have always been places to use culture, use information,” he said in an interview, but now, he added, a library is “a place to create information and culture.” His patrons tell him they want to come to the library to make and record music and to learn about digital media. At Library 10, 80 percent of the events held are organized by patrons, not the staff. As chief librarian, Lämsä aspires to establish a co-working, co-creating atmosphere in which librarians and patrons frequently collaborate.
The team of librarians at Helsinki’s Library 10 are pioneering another way to envision the role of the library: as an “information gas station.” The two self-service “data pumps” come with a promise to answer any question the library’s “gas station” customer might ask, within reason. A library employee is on hand to help. People have asked for recipes for a chocolate cake, information on the flight paths of flies, and an intelligible explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The aim of the information gas station concept, merely a pilot experiment rather than a full-blown library, is to bring the world’s information networks within the reach of all citizens. The information kiosk is mobile. It can be located wherever people might be around the city, whether in post offices, aquatic centers, or trade fairs. Customers can request the information they are looking for over the Internet or by phone or text message, and questions are also answered once a week on the radio. Human beings—librarians—are still central to the equation.
The most creative libraries are pulling people who are not yet using libraries into attractive physical spaces—rather than leaving this job to commercial establishments. If these emergent forms of informal learning continue to grow in importance, there is a real opportunity for libraries to play an important role in designing common spaces for the future, either in lieu of the private companies that dominate them now or perhaps in partnership with them.
A very real challenge, however, is ensuring that people keep coming to physical libraries even when mobile access is ubiquitous. Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces. Discovery now happens wherever a library patron happens to
For all these reasons, a library should look more like a learning environment than a totally flexible, all-purpose space. The design of a library should build from this position of strength. Libraries should evoke the power of learning and inspire the production of new knowledge.12
The company’s strategy for connecting the physical and the virtual is extremely clever and, in its way, instructive. When a child opens her American Girl doll gift box, she finds inside a free pass to a companion website, called Innerstar University, or InnerstarU. The girl pesters her parents for help logging in to a virtual world where she can create an avatar, or digital character, based on the physical form of the doll she is holding in her arms. She navigates her avatar around a stylized, online college campus, answering questions to earn points. By many accounts, it’s clear that kids (and adults too) love collecting “points” in virtual environments, regardless of whether those points ever amount to much.1
This experience got me thinking. There may be a future in which the library (as well as the physical bookstore, by the way) is bypassed, more or less altogether. There are several possible futures, none of them particularly attractive for libraries, for authors and publishers, for bookstore owners, for readers, or for our democracy—for various reasons. In one version of the future, the discovery of what to read and the discussion of the material both move online, but libraries remain places of fulfillment (where you go to get the texts, at least as an option) and shared public spaces. That world is not a terrible one. Libraries could survive such a change.
In a scarier version of the future, libraries get cut out of the process altogether and are rendered obsolete. If Amazon, Apple, Google, and the American Girl company become not just the discovery mechanisms but also the primary providers of recorded entertainment—the books my daughter wants to read, the movies my son wants to watch, probably all the music they want to listen to—what place will be left for libraries?
But there must also be a public option in the digital age. Librarians help match people up with knowledge and information that are free to all, without the bias in favor of certain information that a for-profit inevitably brings to the task.
The most successful online “learning” environment in which my daughter has found herself was created by a doll company, not by a public library. There is no public library that I (or my daughter, for that matter) have encountered that has been as effective at merging the physical and the digital as the American Girl company. Likewise, many adults remark on the importance of Google’s search function or Amazon’s recommended book service, in contrast to what they encounter at their local library.2
The great beauty of the rich, diverse library system that has developed over the past century and a half has been the role of librarians in selecting and making available a range of materials for people to consult and enjoy. No one pressing an ideology can co-opt this system; no single commercial entity can do an end run around the library system in the interest of profit. Scholars can rely on major research libraries to collect broadly and evenly across disciplines. Towns, cities, and states can rely on historical societies and archives to maintain records of the past. And every community can rely on its public library to offer a culturally relevant, broad-based collection of materials that can be consulted for free. Both those in the public sector and those in the private sector need to double down on our investment in the library system to make it competitive with the well-funded, innovative technology companies that increasingly dominate the information landscape.
“Cooperation is an unnatural act” for libraries and librarians, says David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States. Cooperation, despite its difficulty, is essential to the future of libraries. Mr. Ferriero is an expert practitioner of this unnatural act. As a library director in universities and in the public library world, he figured out ways to partner with other libraries in the service of his immediate patrons and the field at large.
Libraries do not have a choice but to work together to build a common, digital infrastructure. Collaboration sounds obvious, and it may seem easy enough, but it requires a major shift in the way libraries understand their roles. For centuries, libraries have remained essentially separate, even competing with one another to establish and maintain the greatest collection. There have been tentative efforts at cooperation in the form of collecting agreements and library consortia, but now a new level of cooperation is essential if libraries are to remain places of fulfillment and crucial public spaces.
Libraries need to recast themselves as platforms rather than as storehouses. By “platform” I am referring to the easy, effective access to information and knowledge that libraries provide. A platform can certainly be a place—say, Ferriero’s National Archives and all the presidential libraries he supports, as well as the “information gas stations” cropping up in Europe—and it can also be a service. The key is to establish a series of nodes in a larger network, staffed by thoughtful people who can help their patrons make the most of what is connected to that network. The crucial elements of the library as platform are the access to information that libraries offer, the expert advice in navigating through the information environment, and the connections to larger networks.
As a platform, a library brings people together with powerful ideas, whether in physical or virtual form, whether recorded or live. The people who work at the library see themselves as managing and supporting this platform. They do so not on their own as a free-standing institution, but embedded in the large and growing network of libraries also functioning as platforms. Many libraries are successfully making the switch to functioning as a platform—as a hybrid that exists at once in both physical and virtual environments.5
there was instead a motley assortment of brilliant, imaginative people working more or less in loose coordination with one another toward a common goal. A few individuals played outsized roles, to be sure. Often bearded white guys in sandals, they are brilliant scientists and the pioneers of the digital era: Vint Cerf and his colleagues early on; Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, who invented the web, and his peers at MIT; Jon Postel and his friends, who dreamed up and managed important naming conventions; and so forth. But the institutions that managed the development of key aspects of the digital revolution were lightly coordinated, largely informal bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Since then, the open-source and open-access worlds have shown what similar organizations—such as the Free Software Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation—can build on these open protocols and systems.
Librarians have teamed up with Wikipedians to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles and associated metadata. Giants of the open-source and open-access worlds, like Brewster Kahle, have built large-scale digital library systems, such as the Internet Archive.
One of the most extensive coordinated efforts to recast libraries as platforms, the initiative to build the Digital Public Library of America, is well under way. Its goal is to establish a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects for the whole world—in the digital age. The building of a digital public library began with agreement on a broad vision. In October 2010, about forty leaders from libraries, foundations, academia, and technology agreed to work together to create “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” I was among those who agreed to work toward this common goal.
The first iteration of the DPLA is very simple. It is grounded in the fundamental library principle of “free to all,” only designed as a digital platform rather than as a bricks-and-mortar library. It combines a group of rich, interesting digital collections from state and regional digital archives with the special collections of major university libraries and federal collections. The DPLA is growing, at Internet scale and speed, to include collections from every corner of the nation. It is built to demonstrate how powerful and exciting it can be to bring together America’s digitized materials, metadata (including catalog records, for instance), code, and tools into an open, shared resource.
The DPLA is a platform for libraries. Much like the Internet itself, it operates on the network model. The DPLA is the central nexus for a growing series of “hubs”: organizations throughout the country that provide digital material for the public and services to other libraries and are seeking to digitize their holdings and make them broadly available. The DPLA’s first fifteen hubs span the United States, providing a geographically and historically diverse look at our nation’s archives.
If the library-as-platform approach works, the DPLA will not serve as a destination site itself—not primarily anyway. Yes, anyone today can go directly to http://dp.la on their mobile device or computer and look something up, as they might in Google or Bing. But most people, most of the time, will access DPLA-related materials through their local cultural heritage institution—a local public library, for instance, or a historical society, archive, museum, or college library. The idea is to allow universal access to materials in the DPLA to the greatest extent possible. The DPLA makes its code and services available for free, on an open-source basis. This openness means that anyone—whether a nonprofit or a for-profit, an individual or a big library—can build innovative new applications on this new platform. Through its network of service hubs, the DPLA also supports the digitization of records, the creation of metadata, and the long-term preservation of our cultural record.
Here is the key point about the DPLA: the DPLA will be what we, the people, decide to make it, as a shared, public-spirited resource, not what a for-profit firm thinks the future of libraries should look like. Already, the DPLA is a place for people to go to find useful and fascinating digital materials online and a radically open platform that makes a lot of exciting material available more broadly. It also provides a lot of code and services that technologists can do interesting things with. An example is the integration of the DPLA into the Wikipedia platform, which has combined a large open digital library with the largest encyclopedia in the world. Over time, the DPLA will grow into a platform that serves libraries, archives, and museums and all those who rely on them.
A successful DPLA offers so much information that the need for a local librarian as curator and guide, far from disappearing, will in fact grow. The larger point that this counterargument may overlook is that libraries need to develop a shared, common, and public infrastructure for the future of libraries—or someone else will, most likely driven by the profit motive.
The largest network of national digital libraries, Europeana, brings together cultural objects in digital format from many of the countries in Europe. Instead of building a single global digital library, these national initiatives can be linked together in a way that helps people find information across geographic boundaries. Europeana provides anyone with access to over 23 million digitized cultural objects in Europe, including books, manuscripts, maps, paintings, films, museum objects, archival records, and other digitized materials. Thanks to funding from the European Commission, Europeana draws its content from a network of more than 1,500 cultural heritage institutions that provide metadata either directly or via aggregators in order to facilitate access to locally stored objects. Europeana’s mission is to enable “people to explore the digital resources of Europe’s museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections . . . [and to] promote discovery and networking opportunities in a multilingual space where users can engage, share in and be inspired by the rich diversity of Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage.”11 Europeana also addresses some of the key obstacles facing the digital heritage industry, including the legal issues that arise about what constitutes the public domain when user engagement meets linked open
LIBRARIES HAVE SERVED as iconic institutions in societies for thousands of years. In their modern public form, they fill an essential role in democratic systems: to inform, engage, and delight people in communities by making knowledge freely accessible. In their modern academic form, they serve as laboratories for scholarship, learning, and co-creation at all levels of schooling and research. As archives and special collections, they serve as the repositories of knowledge for our societies as well as essential means to access the histories they contain. These jobs are crucial to the proper functioning of any open society. In the digital world, libraries ought to continue to serve these essential functions, just as they have in the analog past. Libraries should never stop providing access to information and knowledge, embracing and making possible the best new scholarship, and preserving our stories and our research findings for posterity.
These dual functions, access and preservation, have long been well served by libraries. In a digital world, we have mobile devices, personal computers, and powerful search engines as means to access information from anywhere, at any time, at low cost.
The second paradox, and the subtler of the two, is that while information is ubiquitous in wealthy societies, it is often too hard to find, to make sense of, and to use. What’s worse, digital information is not democratically distributed. It may look ubiquitous, as though anyone can access it, anytime, for free, but digital information remains far from evenly distributed. We still face a slew of digital divides, in that some people simply have better access to good computing equipment, fast network access, and digital literacy skills than others. These divides commonly fall along socioeconomic lines: those who are wealthier and better educated are more likely to enjoy the benefits of the digital era, and those who are less well off are more likely to be on the other side of the digital divides. Libraries are perfectly positioned to bridge these divides, both today and in an increasingly digital future.1
THE SPIRIT OF hacking has much to offer librarians seeking to usher in a brilliant new era for libraries. “Hacking” has come to mean something in the public discourse that is remote from its origins. People commonly think of hacking as a destructive act and believe that hackers are either pimply teenagers in their pajamas writing computer programs to mess up other people’s systems or Russian spies out to steal their identity. Hackers are commonly viewed as people who have no regard for intellectual property and believe that information is meant to be free, without any kind of restriction. It is not these destructive hackers that we should turn to for inspiration, but the hackers in the classic sense—those who brought us the open and configurable computers, networks, and programs that we rely upon today.
This approach is grounded in a belief in the power of open and freely configurable systems and information. Today’s library students get the premise, if their blogging is to be believed; those interested in paying attention as the story unfolds can follow the student blog Hack Library School.3 Hacking libraries is a mode of operation, not a specific task. The process of remaking libraries needs to be, first off, conceptual: we need a frame of reference for the reinvention of institutions that a broad community of theorists, practitioners, and funders can support. The idea of hacking libraries begins with engaging a large number of people from a diverse array of communities, joined by a common cause: to remake libraries as institutions and to train or retrain librarians to thrive in the years to come. Hacking libraries, in other words, will serve the public interest.4
The benefits of making materials available online may seem obvious, but it could not be more revolutionary for libraries and archives. There was once a view that libraries should keep the most valuable materials under lock and key, away from those who had not been blessed with the privilege to access them.
This “future business model” objection to digitization and the sharing of materials from our cultural heritage institutions misses the mark in several ways. First, very few institutions have materials that could ever be exploited in this fashion. The most famous of paintings, books, sound recordings, and moving images might be used to generate revenues for the Louvre or the most exclusive of special collections libraries. But most materials are not likely ever to rise to a level of value that would make them worth exploiting in this manner. Very often, this “business model” objection is raised by tiny institutions that have wonderful materials but no possible market for exploiting their value in any serious economic sense. Second, it is unclear that making a digital copy accessible, set in context for those who wish to learn from it, would preclude any specific future use, including the monetization of the original. The fact that a painting from, say, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is digitized and online does not prevent the museum from charging a licensing fee for someone to make use of that image on a book cover. Most important, cultural heritage institutions exist in the first place for the purpose of making these kinds of works available, not to make them scarce. The mission of these institutions should be to take advantage of what the digital era can make possible, not to hesitate in the interest of preserving a conceivable future way to make money.
Once a bus station, the Waiting Room is now a creative space for Naylor’s community—a colorful, attractive space with high ceilings and a flexible arrangement. Naylor calls it a “hack/maker/library space.” People in the community are urged to propose events and activities centered on ideas, skills development, and creative enterprise. The space hosts workshops alongside the Micro Social History Museum, where local residents can share and preserve their photographs, memories, and stories of life in St. Botolph’s. The space also functions as a café, bar, and event venue.
For Naylor and her collaborators, libraries are the answer to poverty, unemployment, and boredom. As a platform for the exchange of knowledge and information, Naylor’s version of a library is deeply aligned with the specific needs and interests of her community, not based on a single view of what a library should be as a site for collections or as a public space. In some communities, the goal of the community library is to help teach skills to the unemployed and bring the uninitiated into the world of technology. In others, the focus falls on supporting entrepreneurship or aspects of the creative arts sector. There is no one-size-fits-all model for the community library.
More than forty years ago, a group of major libraries in Ohio recognized the importance of shared computing resources and established a partnership called the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which is now referred to primarily by its acronym. OCLC calls itself “the world’s largest library collaborative.” The library data and services provided by OCLC to 70,000 libraries around the world enables libraries to avoid a great deal of redundant work.9 The OCLC partnership has reduced the need for every library to create its own catalog record for every book or item it collects, creating enormous efficiencies. OCLC’s WorldCat system, for instance, allows anyone with web access to search across the catalogs of a large number of libraries to locate books wherever they are in the country. WorldCat is simple, but it has proved that implementing even the simplest of systems can be remarkably useful to library patrons.10
Deep collaboration among libraries is on the rise, but it is still not the norm. Too few librarians and library schools participate in the kind of collaboration that will fundamentally reshape libraries for the digital era. The collaborations that can make a huge difference include the creation of shared open-source platforms, shared professional development opportunities, shared collection development, and coordinated mass digitization. We need radical collaboration in libraries, far beyond what happens today—not collaboration at the margins or collaboration as afterthought. Librarians need to measure their success not as individual institutions, or people, but rather as collaborators working together to build a new ecosystem of information and meeting the needs of a rapidly changing group of users. This series of conceptual shifts will not come easily, nor will it be uncontroversial.11
The next phase of collaboration among libraries may prove to be harder. The development of digital libraries should be grounded in open platforms, with open APIs (application programming interfaces), open data, and open code at all levels. No one library will own the code, the platform, or the data that can be downloaded, “free to all.” The spirit that is needed is the hacker spirit embodied by Code4Lib, a group of volunteers associated with libraries, archives, and museums who have dedicated themselves to sharing approaches, techniques, and code related to the remaking of libraries for the digital era.12 At an international level, the community that comes together in conferences as part of the NEXT Library is up to the same task of hacking libraries through large-scale collaboration.13
Librarians need to set out to help people make meaning out of the massive amounts of data that we produce.
Most of the innovation in how we create and use knowledge is occurring in the private, for-profit sector. Funded by ambitious venture capitalists and pursued relentlessly by entrepreneurial CEOs and their programming teams, the start-up scene has been cranking out successful new information-related projects for decades. Consider Google’s search service, Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s apps platform, and Facebook and Twitter as five possible entrants in the contest for most important information innovation of the past decade. Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Khan Academy might be contenders from the nonprofit side of the ledger. What is the biggest innovation to emerge from libraries in the digital age? That’s very hard to answer, but in this time of change it’s clear that the next big innovation in knowledge management should come out of the world of libraries. Libraries can offer important alternatives to the services provided by the corporate sector, which will always have incentives to offer biased, limited, and costly access to knowledge.
A hearty, innovative band of librarians is staring down these problems and starting to address them. Consider Jessamyn West, a librarian in rural Vermont. If each small-town library in Vermont sees itself as disconnected from the others, the likelihood that they will each continue to garner community support is very low, and West is determined to head off that outcome.
The type of librarians who are thriving most consistently in the digital era are those who have found a way to operate as a node in a network of libraries and librarians. They are agents of change, actively creating the future instead of constantly reacting to it—or worse, resisting it. Jessamyn West, the librarian in rural Vermont, is one such creative, networked librarian. West is connected to her peers both in libraries and in other information-related environments, including the world of technology. She is partway through a project to visit all 183 public libraries in Vermont, which she is also mapping online using a service called BatchGeo. By meeting with librarians and library users across Vermont, West is learning firsthand about the needs of her colleagues and their patrons. West also sees beyond the immediate context in which she is operating: she seeks to operate at scale and to bring the best ideas in the library world to her patrons and her many readers on social media.1
Both the British Library and the Royal Library of Denmark now have “Wikipedians-in-Residence,” people who have become adept at contributing code and text to what has developed into the largest online encyclopedia. They understand how networks work online, how people find information, and how new knowledge is created in online communities. Library staffs themselves must develop these kinds of skills in order to meet the needs of current library customers. Networked, collaborative library work makes the most of the great public information systems that are under development today, but these systems will not be much use if we do not have skilled people who know how to make them work for particular audiences.
Highly networked librarians are those who have developed new skills and who remain open to new ideas, but these skills and openness have not been consistently taught or encouraged in the library world.
Most libraries, whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world, have few, if any, staff members who are up to speed on the most current technologies. And too few libraries have committed to helping to build the open, networked library platforms of the future. There are vibrant, growing communities of librarians doing so, especially as part of the open-source development and open-content worlds, but the total number of participants in these edge communities of librarians, compared to the total number of people working in libraries, is disproportionately tiny. That’s where the problem lies. Many of the skills and experiences that have served librarians well for the past century are still relevant—they’re just not the only relevant skills.
The good part of this story of rapid change is that librarians can take advantage of exciting new possibilities for serving patrons. The new skills that will prove most important for librarians have to do with designing, creating, and reusing new technologies, sorting credible from less credible information in a complex online environment, and partnering with people from all walks of life to co-produce information and new knowledge in digital forms.
The essential job requirement is changing from an ability to manage physical materials—still required, but to a lesser degree than in the past—to a high degree of facility with digital networks. The job of the cataloger, for instance, becomes much more about finding ways to harness the extraordinary force of linked data in open systems and even crowdsourcing among knowledgeable persons than about determining subject headings in a cloister. Libraries also need to develop more skills within their network in related fields like community organizing, event planning, and business development. A focus on scale will enable librarians to fulfill their most important task: finding ways to solve major problems that we face as a society. The essential point here is about alignment: libraries need to align their work with the needs of their communities.
The gnarly and growing problem of how to preserve digital information in a complex, networked environment—where every book might be a “living book,” subject to change at any time—is an obvious area for continuous development within libraries. These investments are happening in small pockets of the library world, but not in an especially coordinated way. It is time for more libraries and librarians around the country and around the world to collaborate on a strategy to address these issues.
Creating these newly curated sites involves simple forms of computer programming, such as scripting. It calls for a design sensibility, both in approaching a known problem and in presenting information in a compelling way. New forms of metadata—data about the data—must be developed to help people find the most relevant information; librarians are awfully good at this already, but often don’t practice this skill on the open web. What libraries risk in failing to adapt the skills of librarians is obsolescence. Co-producing curated materials and metadata serves more than simply professional development purposes. One of the essential functions of presenting information at scale over the network is creating enough data about the materials to enable search algorithms to guide users to the most relevant materials.
While some high-value materials ought to be handled by professional librarians, the vast majority of materials in a national or international database might be managed by less well trained people. These volunteers might include a part-time worker at a small-town historical society or a resident of the relevant town. By coordinating a process that would allow interested individuals to help with metadata creation and updating, rather than doing all the work themselves, professional librarians could add vastly more to the digital commons. This crowdsourced model could be improved by developing systems to search for related metadata, which librarians and their volunteer colleagues could then simply edit rather than create from scratch. Quantum leaps, both for librarianship as a profession and in the amount of materials made available to the public, could be made by figuring out how to scale activities rather than doing everything by hand. Taking a page from the Wikipedia model, people could be convened periodically to work together on metadata creation and improvement, much as Wikimania each year brings citizen editors together to improve online encyclopedia entries.
Any discussion of crowdsourcing inevitably leads to a discussion about quality. Assessment of the quality of work is an essential part of any training or retraining of librarians. Teachers in every kind of education setting need to be much better at determining whether the learning process is working. No matter what the circumstances, teaching and learning processes can be improved over time. A feedback loop needs to be a part of the plan to retrain the library profession for the future, with assessment geared toward evaluating the fitness of the curricular materials, the effectiveness of the network model to deploy the trainings, and the value of the materials created by the trainers and the trainees as part of the curriculum.
For instance, if the metadata co-creation process isn’t improving the quality of the search results, then the training and development process needs to be rewritten. Web-oriented companies are excellent at putting such feedback loops to productive use in ways that the library profession can emulate.
Moreover, early adopters of digital librarianship will need to stop doing for a bit and start teaching, applying a “train the trainers” model. The difficulty of getting training and retraining processes going in libraries should not keep us from at least starting somewhere. The benefits for the future of the profession are far greater than the costs. There is no question that faster development of coding and digital curation skills will be helpful to many individual librarians throughout their careers, as well as to the profession at large.
The future of libraries matters for many reasons, but their role in keeping the culture’s knowledge safe over the long term is surely near the top of the list. Libraries are uniquely situated to ensure access to the knowledge that the public needs in order to be informed and engaged in life in a democracy. But an equally important job for libraries is ensuring that we preserve our cultural and scientific heritage in recorded form over time. Their ability to fulfill that long-term function is in jeopardy today for a number of reasons, including the fact that libraries are sometimes leasing access to materials, not buying them, and the preservation challenges presented by changing digital file formats.
When a great scientist at a medical school retired a century ago, an archivist from his university most likely would have knocked on his door and asked him to donate his papers. Ordinarily the scientist, flattered to have been asked, would have readily agreed. He would have spent a few months during his last year in his lab or office pulling his files together into a set of boxes that eventually would be picked up by the archivist and brought back to the library to be sorted, cataloged, and stored for the long run. These papers would have included his correspondence with other scientists around the world, notes from experiments, drafts of important papers, and perhaps working documents he had shared with medical school colleagues. As a result of this orderly process, his papers could be easily accessed today—probably out of newer boxes—from the university’s archives and pored over by those who care about the history of science. Consider the parallel case today. A medical school professor set to retire in 2015 has just been approached to turn over her papers to the same university archive. The friendly archivists ask for the same types of materials—correspondence, lab notes, and the like—but today’s scientist has a much harder task. How much of her email correspondence has she kept? What kind of correspondence does she have with fellow scientists anyway? After all, when she seeks the latest scientific results, she doesn’t ask anyone to send her their findings—she knows where to find them on an open-access web portal and just downloads them directly to her laptop. For some time now she has been scrawling her lab notes into a tablet PC. Her draft papers have never been printed out. Did she back them up before the papers were published? She can’t remember. She hadn’t been thinking about long-term preservation as she hustled for grants, sweated through peer reviews, hopped on planes to present her findings at yet another conference. She remembers that she has a whole lot of PowerPoints—perhaps those would be of interest? But then again, many of them have links to papers and images that would probably be broken at this point. And what if she decides just to turn over a few of her computers to the library and call it a day? What will the friendly librarian do with them?
Most libraries today have given up on the idea that any one institution can hold a “complete” record. Whether this was ever the case, it surely is not the case today. Although redundancy of records is helpful, it is not essential to have as many libraries collecting the same things as their peers in physical format and paying to store these materials over time. The vast majority of physical holdings at libraries are rarely, if ever, consulted. This is why it is so important to develop a network of libraries and archives, rather than continue to rely on a set of stand-alone institutions. One benefit of a network is that libraries can share the workload; another is that they can learn more from the experiences of others. Fundamentally, this type of collaboration will ensure that materials do not fall through the cracks as the volume of information and the diversity of formats grow with time.
Publishers, too, have a role to play in the preservation of the record, but they cannot serve as the archive of last resort for the works they publish. As a new library director, I was fascinated when a publishing representative came to visit me to ask for access to materials that his company had once published. The publishing house needed access to copies of books that it had published long in the past. It turns out that as many of the great publishing houses of the past have been bought by conglomerates and made into more efficient firms, some of them have not kept copies of all of the books they published.
Along the same lines, when Google wanted to amass a digital library of books, it didn’t go to the publishers. Google approached several of the big universities in the United States and Europe to digitize their collections, which, taken together, approached completeness of record. Although publishers can certainly be counted on to have copies of materials their firm produces for some period of years, societies need a backstop in the form of libraries and archives.
Harvard and MIT, for instance, neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are collaborating extensively with one another, both in terms of libraries and in online teaching and learning activities. Instead of competing, library systems should put a priority on establishing the most effective partnerships they can.
One requirement of long-term preservation is certain: libraries and archives will need to collaborate with one another, at great scale, in order to get the job done over time. It is senseless for any single library to perceive itself as “competing” with peers on the sheer size of its collection. That viewpoint is a mistake. There can be no such competitive advantage in the long run, especially with the move to cloud storage and access for most materials; there is only the cost and distraction of housing physical materials that will never be consulted and are available in other formats at other libraries. Libraries need to collaborate so that they can free up other resources to meet the direct needs of patrons. Libraries can and should compete, in a friendly way, on the quality of the services they provide to their community members as they collaborate on the long-term job of preservation. To put things in perspective, recall that all the great libraries of antiquity—including the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum—have disappeared completely. However, the world did not lose the knowledge they contained when they disappeared. Some of what was held in those libraries had been moved to other locations, either to be copied or because it was stolen. Even the fate of the libraries of antiquity shows us that preservation relies not on the persistence of specific institutions, but on the proper functioning of a system that includes redundancy and the sharing of knowledge across institutions. There is a great deal more progress to be made in this respect during this transition to the digital age, but the importance of doing so is unmistakable.
School libraries are the most common type of library in the United States.1 The future should be bright for each of these types of libraries. Each serves a distinct and valuable function for the benefit of society, and each is worthy of support as it evolves. The school library, for instance, serves an essential function in supporting the work of public and independent school teachers as they prepare our kids for advanced study in college and for the workforce. Libraries of all kinds serve as partners to teachers, but there is a special and enduring role for school libraries and librarians. School libraries support all children as they learn to make sense of today’s new information landscape, not just those who can afford to download any book they like onto their Amazon Kindle.
Data suggest a direct correlation between schools with strong libraries and academic performance. Studies show that students in programs with more school librarians and extended library hours score higher on English tests and higher on reading tests compared to students in schools where libraries have fewer resources.3
Librarians are naturals when it comes to teaching young people to understand information quality. Many schoolteachers who were trained in an earlier era struggle themselves with navigating the digital world of information and may not know how to teach kids well. This task of determining information quality is core to the library profession, and has been for decades, if not centuries. Though a struggle for many teachers, this educational challenge is one that school librarians are exceptionally well prepared to meet. It is the wrong moment to be cutting school librarians out of schools.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson in 1813, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature.”10
A collaborative approach to building digital collections could serve students and faculty in community colleges especially well. A common technology infrastructure and shared materials, at either the international or national level, would enable community colleges to focus their limited library funds on hiring skilled librarians and providing them with ongoing professional development. Community college librarians would function much like the guides in other school libraries—helping students take advantage of the shared resources of the great libraries of the world rather than just the limited, local resources of the underfunded community college library.
Technology has made it possible to improve the quality of teaching and learning in both traditional and nontraditional ways. The most important recent innovation is Sal Khan’s Khan Academy, a nonprofit that produces extremely popular, short videos and exercises that enable students to learn topics free, online, and at their own pace.
The biggest disruption yet may come from a combination of for-profit publishing initiatives and computing. Consider the Amplify tablet, rolled out by the start-up education division of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp in the spring of 2013. The former chancellor of the New York City schools, Joel Klein, led a multi-year development effort to create a tablet for schools to teach the materials required by the Common Core standards. This tablet is beautiful, capable of incorporating open-source materials found elsewhere, and designed by teachers to teach skills and materials in a way that may prove highly compelling to students.
In a digital age, lending materials is much more complicated for libraries than it was in the analog era. The law of copyright is often blamed for this complication, but technological lockdown is part of the problem as well. Well-placed concerns about reader privacy also have the potential to slow down the transition to digital lending.
The law of copyright, which dates back to the founding of the United States (and beyond, to the Statute of Anne in early-eighteenth-century England), has become just such a hindrance when it comes to building strong libraries in a digital era. Librarians have been at the forefront of efforts to update the law to support their good works into the future. Sensible copyright and privacy reforms are essential building blocks for libraries as they make the transition from the analog to the digital. Without changes to current law and policy, librarians will have a terribly hard time accomplishing their public-spirited mission in support of people living in a democracy. In fact, by standing in the way of librarians trying to take advantage of the ability to share knowledge more broadly, the law may lead instead to a backtracking from where we are today.
Before e-readers and ebooks began their recent rise to popularity, libraries could acquire, lend, and preserve most copyrighted printed materials with relative ease. The only constraints were the size of their budgets, the space in their stacks, their time, and perhaps the interests of their patrons. For instance, libraries could easily add print materials to their collections that came in as donations (though, as any acquisitions librarian knows, donations are most often a mixed bag). Libraries could also make a limited number of digital copies of printed texts for the purposes of noncommercial lending and archiving, which helped to ensure that books that were badly damaged or no longer sold commercially were not lost to the public.
The first sale doctrine states that the owner of a copy of a copyrighted work “is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy.” In plain English: copyright law only affords to the creator control of the first sale or distribution of a material copy of a work. Once a copy has been sold, the copyright owner can no longer stop that copy from being resold, lent, rented, or otherwise transferred to others. (Other rights still attach. For instance, the new owner of the book does not have the right to make a movie based on the book, which would violate another of the exclusive rights still held by the copyright holder.) The first sale doctrine is the cornerstone that made possible secondary markets for copyrighted materials at video rental stores, used book and music stores, and libraries. In conjunction with other limitations in the Copyright Act, including “fair use” and other library-specific exceptions, the first sale doctrine enables libraries to build collections through donations, lend works to patrons, participate in interlibrary loan arrangements, and archive and preserve works for the benefit of future generations—all at minimal cost and without prior authorization from copyright owners. As the American Library Association puts it, “Quite simply, first sale is what allows libraries to do what we do—lend books and materials to our patrons, the public.”3
The shift has highlighted the limitations of the US Copyright Act, which was designed to be applied in a world in which knowledge was recorded and then “fixed” (a key term in the copyright statute) in tangible, physical media. Much to the consternation of libraries and those they serve, these changes have caused publishers to rethink the business and legal structures that govern how they make works available—if at all—for library lending.
Digital works, in contrast, are typically licensed, not sold, to libraries and consumers. Licenses are enforceable contracts that grant permission to do or use something that otherwise would be the exclusive right of a property owner. The licenses offered by publishers to readers (or libraries) often contain additional terms and conditions that govern the scope and nature of the permission being granted. In the context of libraries, these terms and conditions (known as the “private law”) might restrict, for instance, the ways in which libraries make works accessible to their patrons even if the background rules (known as the “public law”) would allow it.
Put in more formal legal terms, there has been no transposition of the first sale doctrine into the digital sphere. As a result, the first sale doctrine probably does not apply to licensed copies. By definition, a digital book, sound recording, or image is not owned by the licensee. Libraries do not own their copies of ebooks, at least not in the same sense that they own their copies of printed books. The ability of libraries to provide their patrons with access to an ebook is conditional on their ability to adhere to the license terms.
The net effect is that a license allows for substantial control, particularly in cases where the licensee has little or no negotiating power. These problems might be the temporary by-product of market growing pains, but many uncertainties remain for the growing volume of born-digital materials. Some libraries, especially children’s and school libraries, rely heavily on book donations, which are made possible by the first sale doctrine. However, a licensed ebook is unlikely to be shareable with another library for lending purposes under current license terms. How will these libraries grow their digital collections? Even works in the public domain—works whose copyright terms have expired or to which no copyright was attached in the first place—may end up being produced as ebooks under onerous licenses or technical protection measures.
A start-up company called ReDigi has created a business model through which people can resell the digital music they have bought. Capitol Records sued ReDigi under the copyright statute, claiming that ReDigi’s business model results in infringement of the copyrights that Capitol holds to sound recordings. A federal judge, Richard J. Sullivan, held in favor of Capitol Records on March 30, 2013, noting that “the Court cannot of its own accord condone the wholesale application of the first sale defense to the digital sphere, particularly when Congress itself has declined to take that step.” ReDigi said it planned to appeal. The start-up has also announced its plans to move into the ebook space, which may soon provoke a showdown between it and book publishers analogous to its fight with Capitol Records.5
Libraries, publishers, authors, and their agents should make common cause in conducting a series of experiments in ebook lending that could lead to a market-oriented solution. Creative ideas such as the “Buy-to-Unglue” project might play a role. In this crowdfunding model, every ebook purchase is counted toward a tally of sales. Once an ebook reaches a certain number of sold downloads, it becomes free to download for all subsequent readers, regardless of where they access the ebook. Such an approach could enable authors and publishers to establish a sales mechanism to reach a certain level of profitability before books become available for unlimited downloads through libraries, with print copies continuing to be sold.
National digital library initiatives might be another means to address the problem of copyright and ebook lending. The community that created the Digital Public Library of America could become an important force in collectively advocating on behalf of libraries and their readers.
The DPLA community is building a platform that will allow for experimentation. Alternative lending models might include lending digitized print books under copyright on a model championed by Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive. Kahle argues forcefully that we need nothing more than the existing library rights in the Copyright Act to do much of what we need to do for readers. Open Library, a group of 150 participating libraries led by Kahle’s Internet Archive, has set out to prove it through an initiative to partner with state libraries and others to digitize in-copyright words and lend them out one at a time.8 By working together on a public option, libraries can establish a public beachhead in the digital space dominated today by for-profits, including Amazon, Google, OverDrive, and commercial publishers. Those of us who care about libraries need to link arms in order to push back on law and technology trends that establish new restrictions on access rather than enabling increased access for a digital age. Otherwise, the digital age could perversely become an era with less accessibility, not more, than the analog age. Libraries should become more actively engaged in building the digital commons—through open-source code, open-access approaches to publishing, and innovative means of making copyrighted digital material available to readers.
Among the countries that are furthest ahead in providing a national infrastructure for ebook lending is Singapore. Over 3 million ebooks are on offer there, and readers can borrow as many as eight digital titles from the national library system at once. Readership has been soaring: the number of ebook downloads rose from 3.9 million in the fiscal year ending in 2011 to 4.9 million the following year. Publishers and the library system have worked out a means to support at least some of the public demand for digital, in-copyright works at a national scale. Doing so in countries the size of the United States and in regions such as Europe is plainly more complicated, but the task is not impossible.12
A SECOND LEGAL CONUNDRUM, the orphan works problem, stands between libraries and a bright future in the digital-plus era. US copyright law has a strange provision that seems to benefit no one, and yet it persists. This part of the law speaks to whether it is lawful to share material whose copyright holder is unknown. This notion of “orphan works” might seem to be a small, esoteric matter. After all, don’t most authors of books know that they hold the copyright? As it turns out, there are millions of books and other materials from the twentieth century whose copyright holder is unknown.
No one benefits from the current law—most especially students. The orphan works problem would not be so important to resolve if the number of works involved were smaller, but in fact the number of such works is vast. Estimates place it in the millions in the United States alone, and millions more across the world. John Wilkin, director of the HathiTrust project, estimates that as many as half of the works in the HathiTrust corpus are orphans, amounting to 2.5 million as of 2011. Another report “conservatively” estimates that the combined research institutions of the United Kingdom hold more than 50 million orphan works.13 The current legal status of orphan works serves no one.
LIBRARIANS LOVE TO quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “The right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”14 Privacy is a simpler topic than copyright when it comes to ebooks and lending, though no less important.
Whereas librarians were once in control of information related to their patrons’ reading patterns, today they are being cut out of that central role. In the digital world, libraries are being “disintermediated” at various crucial turns, which is to say that they are no longer the essential intermediary between people and information. The key intermediaries in the e-lending environment are increasingly for-profit firms, which may do the right thing, but may also be swayed by interests other than long-standing library values, such as reader privacy, as their services evolve over time.
Librarians worry, with some reason, about what protections readers will have when the police come calling for information about the books they have checked out. Librarians have long fought encroachments on civil liberties of this sort. The debate over the USA Patriot Act was a major cause célèbre for librarians, for instance. The notion that a reader’s interest in a book about Islam might tip an investigation toward a particular suspect sent chills down the collective spines of librarians. Their fear is justified: for-profit firms may not stand as firm as libraries would in the face of state pressure.
The library browsing experience is strongly associated with the concept of serendipity. There is something powerful about the idea that patrons will find on the shelves books that they didn’t expect to find. To date, this experience has come about thanks to the physical proximity of other books to the book they are initially seeking. For some people, it is impossible to come out of the stacks without armfuls of books, even if they went into the stacks seeking just one. This serendipity has broader social implications too. New ideas and new connections between fields can be created as a result of these unexpected findings. This serendipity, this sense of discovery, relies on a long and complex chain of activities, many of them carried out by librarians.
We should fear the impact on our education system of closing library branches and shortening hours at those that remain open. There is good reason to worry that the ability of a community’s young people to learn, to search for and discover information, and to sort credible information from less credible information will be diminished if the community’s library services are reduced. Students are using Google in particular, as well as other web-based services, but without a great deal of sophistication. The library’s role in the learning process is being displaced by commercial outfits (think of Amazon and its recommendations) and highly distributed nonprofits (think of Wikipedia).
Some librarians and archivists are sorting out the future for us. Some librarians are market leaders and trend-setters. They are certainly pointing the way, much as library leaders in great city libraries like Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are doing, and librarians in many small-town libraries as well. They are the wonderful people I’ve written about in this book, including Annemarie Naylor in Colchester, England; Melissa Techman in Albemarle County, Virginia; Nate Hill in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Kari Lämsä in Helsinki, Finland; Matthew Winner in Ellicott City, Maryland; Luis Herrera in San Francisco; and many other leaders. But these positive assessments are not universally true, nor do they tell the entire story. There are too many librarians and archivists who are wringing their hands rather than putting those hands to work and collaborating to build a positive version of the digital future.
More important, many other people are working hard—frankly, often harder and more productively than the library community—on related problems. Technologists, publishers, authors, agents, business strategists—all are working on the same set of problems, from different angles. There’s a great deal of innovation going on around the world outside of the United States library scene, and we need to incorporate it into the operations of our libraries and archives. My primary fear about the future of libraries—and this is where I part company with Johnson—is that those in the for-profit sector are working much more quickly and effectively to address many of these same problems, only with a profit motive rather than the public interest as their driver. And they have much more capital and talent devoted to the task.
Although there have been, and are, inspiring pioneers in the nonprofit space—Brewster Kahle of Internet Archive, Carl Malamud at public.resource.org, Sue Gardner and Jimmy Wales at the Wikimedia Foundation, Mitchell Baker and her crew at Mozilla, and the late Aaron Swartz all jump to mind—they are often not seen, much less welcomed, as part of the library movement or profession. There are fabulous theorists and doers dreaming up the future of the library world. Dan Cohen, Robert Berring, Robert Darnton, Lorcan Dempsey, Peter Morville, Jenny Levine, Peter Suber, David Weinberger, Jessamyn West, and too many others to list here have written influential work about libraries, their futures, and how to innovate our way there. As forceful as the ideas of these leaders are, the for-profit sector has far more resources backing their ideas for innovation than the library sector. There is a massive research-and-development gap between libraries and others who are seeking to solve similar problems.
Libraries could use a twenty-first-century Andrew Carnegie to invest in the digital equivalent of the Carnegie libraries of the analog era.4
The temptation to rely on nostalgia is understandable. Survey after survey, anecdotal encounter after anecdotal encounter, shows us that people “love libraries.” Just as we all love a memory of a childhood experience, we love the idea of libraries in general. Often, it feels like a patronizing sort of love. An approach that relies too heavily on nostalgia to pull libraries as institutions through this period of transformational change is a dangerous one. It could work, but it is too risky. It is ultimately a losing strategy. Libraries have underinvested in R&D during a period when the field of information has undergone radical change. Library funds for technology have gone primarily to pay vendors, usually for-profits, for new products that have automated library services.
It is no surprise that students are turning less and less frequently to librarians for support. A concerted push toward innovation, fueled by librarians themselves, in partnership with those who specialize in information technologies, could pay enormous benefits. This R&D should promote new methods of both access and long-term preservation.
Called StackView, it is free and open—much like the great public libraries.5
The other necessary area of increased investment is in the training and retraining of librarians and library students. Especially during this time of transition, libraries have spent far too little on professional development. Librarians have much to teach one another; in fact, the most digitally savvy librarians are some of the most digitally savvy professionals anywhere. The great desire of librarians to learn and to hone their craft, recognizing full well that the expectations of those they serve are changing, should be met by library leaders’ equally strong commitment to pay consistently for more training.
As the science fiction writer William Gibson put it, “The future is here—it’s just not very evenly distributed yet.” The need for collective action, both to define and to build an enhanced system of libraries for the digital age, is great.6 Through a grand bargain, we can—and must—set libraries on a sustainable path for the future.
The important core activities of libraries, however, will persist: providing continuous access to, and context for, the knowledge that people need in order to thrive in a democracy, now and over the long term.
The moment is right for a new investment of this same type and scale. The libraries that were built a hundred years ago were designed for a different information world. Libraries today need a capital infusion to support innovation, development of a common digital platform, training and retraining of library staff, and creation of systems of digital distribution that will work well for society at large. If we fail to make this capital investment in public-spirited libraries in the near term in support of a dramatic transition, our democracies will suffer. As Walter Cronkite said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”8
Those familiar with Internet-speak will immediately recognize the acronym OBE. It means “overtaken by events.” In ordinary usage, it indicates that a delayed email reply is no longer needed or relevant (“Thanks, but that’s OBE”). My fear is that libraries will be perceived, wrongly, as OBE if we don’t act together to help with the transition to the digital-plus era. If my fear is misplaced, that would be terrific. But it would be much smarter for libraries, and those who love them, to participate in the process of redefining libraries.
HERE IS A specific path forward, in ten steps, for all of us who care about libraries, now and into the future: 1. We must redefine libraries for a digital-plus era and recast them as platforms. By “digital-plus” I mean that materials are born digital and then rendered in a variety of formats, some print (traditional books and hard copies of images) and some digital (ebooks, interactive games, image files, audio and visual works in digital format). By “platforms” I mean that libraries should function as nodes in a highly networked digital world rather than as discrete and sometimes even competitive entities. 2. Libraries must act as ambitiously networked institutions. They need to be able to operate at scale and to put scale to good use for patrons. Libraries must connect their network effectively with partner institutions: archives, historical societies, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations. 3. The basis of this redefinition must be demand-driven, firmly grounded in what people and communities need from libraries today and in the future, not in nostalgia for how things may or may not have really been in the past. Aligning with community needs will help ease libraries’ money problems, insofar as they will be better able to make the case that they are helping to solve their community’s problems—witness how successfully Brian Bannon and his team made this case in Chicago, garnering Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s enthusiastic support. 4. In the process of redefining libraries, we must account for both the physical and the analog. There is a place for both in the library of the future, whether in formats for materials, spaces, or experiences for patrons. 5. Librarians should only seek to do those things that need doing and take advantage of areas in which libraries have comparative advantage in serving the public interest. 6. Librarians should seek common cause with authors, agents, editors, and publishers. Libraries exist as part of an ecosystem of knowledge creators. The roles of some of these players may change, but their functions remain valuable. 7. Certain library spaces should function more like labs, or “co-production facilities,” where people interact with information and make new knowledge. Instead of remaining what was known as “laboratories for books” at the end of the nineteenth century, when books served as the raw materials for scholarly inquiry, libraries should be laboratories for a digital-plus era in which co-production is the norm. 8. Librarians should work together, in common cause with technologists, to create a shared, open digital infrastructure, at scale, and then build from there. They should draw upon hacker culture and the lessons of the creation of the Internet in creating this digital infrastructure, in which we need to invest vastly more capital and time than we do today. 9. Preservation of knowledge needs to become far more of a collaborative task than it is today. Libraries should maintain physical spaces, but use them for lots of purposes other than the storage of physical materials. We are radically underinvesting in the task of long-term digital preservation. 10. We need to be willing to pay for the transition of libraries into this new era, much as philanthropists, communities, and universities stepped up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These capital costs, plowed into library R&D geared toward both access and preservation, will pay great dividends in the form of democratic returns.
Why must these services be provided by public institutions and not the private sector? The notion of a true “public option” is central to my argument—just as it was in Boston and elsewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century. When it comes to the knowledge and information on which our system of democracy depends, we should not rely on the market exclusively to meet the needs of our communities. The private sector has been wildly successful in digital innovation, and in some areas, such as the supply of corporate email systems, it has been just fine for the private sector to lead. When it comes to the cultural, historical, political, and scientific record of a society, however, the public sector needs to play a leading role. In the near term, that role involves providing unbiased, even-handed, universal access to the knowledge needed to be a good citizen and to thrive in an increasingly information-based economy.