The Access-Ownership Line

“Where is the line drawn between information content that libraries want to own versus content that libraries are willing to just lease or license?”

That is a question that came to me late last night as I struggled with another blog post that has been frustrating me for over a week. As I closed down the laptop and crawled into bed, it was a question that stayed with me. Why do we demand to own certain materials and are satisfied to merely license or lease others?

In pursuing ownership of some materials, it makes sense in regard to the first sale doctrine. Libraries want to be able to take the steps necessary to facilitate the borrowing of materials. In retaining ownership rights, it allows the institution to be able to demand the return of items as well as sell or discard them at a later date. It’s certainly been true for every physical item that has crossed through our doorway.

As to leased content, the benefits of database access for our patron communities outweigh the needs of ownership. Given the demands on maintenance and management of such systems, it is far easier to purchase a license for access. All libraries have to do is facilitate access to patrons through the web portal. Book leasing works well for short term lending of popular titles that one doesn’t want to own fifty copies of later when the demand drops off completely. It’s perhaps the only time the library fudges the ownership desire in light of a economic advantage.

While those represent traditional lines of ownership and leasing, I’m wondering if they still make sense as the library moves forward. Why not look towards more leasing models for print materials? Can libraries look to assert ownership rights when it comes to databases? (Specifically, why not become shareholders of database content?) I will confess that some of these questions are just me wondering aloud; I really don’t have good answers for them. But as people’s interface with information content continues to evolve, I think they are good questions to examine for the future.

Two tangent thoughts that relate to the questions posed:

(1) The big ownership/lease item that gets the attention of libraryland are ebooks. As for ebooks, I can see two different kinds of models that would work well, both of which originate from the music industry. One would be like iTunes where the user purchases books through an interface with the capability of moving it from device to device. It’s an ownership based system in which the user would be granted rights over the material. The other would be more like Rhapsody in which the user pays a subscription for access to hundreds of thousands of titles that they can download at their choosing. A person can download as many titles as they wish so long as they are a subscriber to the service. If information access is our goal, how big an issue is ownership in the long run?

(2) I think libraries have their own paradox when it comes to access. We’ll proclaim that we are in favor of unfettered information access yet specifically prohibit people on the basis of the accumulation of late fees. Not lost materials, not wanton acts of disregard for public safety, but because they have returned materials late. For a dollar amount equivalent to a Starbucks coffee or an average movie ticket, we will restrict someone’s information access without much thought. While some may argue that it is a necessary component to ensure the timely return of materials, I find it remarkably draconian in light of our information access principles. I think it cheapens the institution to put such a low price and condition on borrowing rights; it would be akin to telling someone they couldn’t drive till they paid off their $25 parking ticket. To me, it’s an enormous injustice.

Where do you think the ownership/access line exists in libraryland?

6 thoughts on “The Access-Ownership Line

  1. There are some models that follow the lease plan with print materials. McNaughton has offered that for years, and it may complement your idea with ebooks. Instead of paying for the book, you lease the book until a certain time (such as when interest wanes) and then the book goes away.

    Libraries also struggled with databases before. When serials started to go digital and it became too costly to maintain both a print and digital collection, libraries went digital, but there was a great deal of fuss and discussion before getting there. Will we have that same point with ebooks?

    Fines are always a tricky sort. There are many different models from no fines, to tiered fines. I am not sure it’s a conscience decision to deny access. New librarians might say, no fines, but after getting burned a few times they change their tune. (I also find that fines can be a contentious discussion with many librarians.)

    • I’m familiar with the McNaughtons. My question is really why not have more items to lease? Perhaps at a certain point they become shelf space, less likely to get checked out, and then you are leasing a book that isn’t moving. The idea I have is to lease those less circulating books; a bit like the Netflix DVD model.

      The ‘no fines’ stance is not a new librarian thing; there are libraries out there that have converted to a ‘no fine’ policy. It presents its own issues, just like a fine policy does. My personal feelings is that there shouldn’t be a dollar amount based on late fees to block access. It is a conscious decision when you make a policy that says “If fines equal $x, a person’s privileges are suspended”; there is nothing accidental about it.

  2. Jeff, I’m curious– I wonder why McNaughten only has that sort of option available? I suspect it’s because, unlike electronic text, paper books are fragile and degrade overtime. With each use, a book becomes less valuable on the market. It sounds like it would be easier for a publishing/printing house to cut their losses and simply sell the item.

    The model could be very, very handy for bestsellers and popular titles, particularly the “Rhapsody”-like model that Andy has suggested. It could be valuable for the library as well in saving shelf space and cataloger time.

    Certainly electronic materials are begging the “ownership/access” question. I don’t think either aspect is more important than the other, but as the ebook model proliferates, access will certainly be more prominent, and libraries will find themselves having to be more prudent with what they take the time and resources to own.

    • Thanks Jennifer for your comments. I think the Rhapsody (books in a cloud) is a viable model for the future, insofar as the library being a potential access point for patrons to access this cloud. Of course, that’s another story, but I can see how communities can pool their money for services like that.

  3. Wrt fines, people can still read or access databases within the library. Restriction, yes, but not complete.
    I wouldn’t mind a spotify system for ebooks. But it certainly will not be as cost effective as books. At least, i don’t think so… Sometimes a book will circ 50-100 times in its lifetime, sometimes they fall apart after 5 circs.

  4. In Chicago we have the boot system. I think it’s three strikes (tickets) and you can’t drive your car anymore. I like the fine system in libraries because, for one reason, it motivates people to return materials that others are waiting for. I know that my borrowed items would probably disappear under the bed for months or years if I had the luxury of having no penalties.

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