Re-Inventing Public Libraries For The Digital Age
from the no-extra-money-required dept
It would be something of an understatement to say that the world of public libraries is undergoing rapid change at the moment. On the one hand, the rise of open access means that people are increasingly able to find information online that was formerly held in serried ranks of volumes stored on library stacks. On the other, publishers’ reluctance to allow ebooks to be lent out puts a key traditional function of libraries under threat. So what exactly should public libraries being doing in the digital age? Eric F. Van de Velde has written a a fascinating exploration of that question, along with a few suggestions.
Here’s the central problem:
The value propositions of paper-based and digital lending are fundamentally different. A paper-based library builds permanent infrastructure: collections, buildings, and catalogs are assets that continue to pay dividends far into the future. In contrast, resources spent on digital lending are pure overhead. This includes staff time spent on negotiating licenses, development and maintenance of authentication systems, OpenURL, proxy, and web servers, and the software development to give a unified interface to disparate systems of content distributors.
Libraries need a different vision for their digital future, one that focuses on building digital infrastructure. We must preserve traditional library values, not traditional library institutions, processes, and services.
So how might that work in practice?
By gradually converting acquisition budgets into grant budgets, libraries could become open-access patrons. They could organize grant competitions for the production of open-access works. By sponsoring works and creators that further the goals of its community, each library contributes to a permanent open-access digital library for everyone. Publishers would have a role in the development of grant proposals that cover all stages of the production and marketing of the work. In addition to producing the open-access works, publishers could develop commercial added-value services. Finally, innovative markets like the one developed by Gluejar allow libraries (and others) to acquire the digital rights of commercial works and set them free.
That’s an exciting vision, because it turns libraries into active participants in the creation and propagation of knowledge that is universally available through open access, instead of simply lending out the productions of others, without any real ability to apply the huge store of knowledge librarians have acquired about what their users want. It’s particularly encouraging that this is not just a plea for more funds — unlikely to be heeded in the current economic climate — but a simple if revolutionary call for a better use of those that are already available.