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?

A Mighty Wind

This is an amazing interview clip. Take the eight minutes to watch it. My comments on it are afterward (and might make more sense after viewing the clip than without).

more about “ AMighty Wind“, posted with vodpod

It’s a great story about a young man who found something at the library that set off a chain of events that changed his village. It’s also a great story for librarians as an example of the importance of information access. Without access, our collections mean virtually little or nothing. Even with William’s limited access to library materials, he was able to find a piece of information that was of interest to him.

But, let’s be realistic about this: access to library materials in the United States is not a big issue. I concede there are some communities (both regional and demographic) that are underserved in this country; I concede that there are people who wish to remove materials from the library (as written about in a previous post); and I will concede that there are (especially this year) many libraries that suffer from funding gaps. But this doesn’t hold a candle to some of the information access obstacles that people face around the world (with an emphasis on developing nations and those with oppressive regimes). While we are quibbling here about what books can be read and how much funding equates to how many hours of operation, there are people out there who simply go without basic library-type services.

While it is not an equivalent evil of the denial of water or nourishment, it is a consumption tragedy of a different sort: food for thought. Yes, you can live without the library, but we cannot truly advance as a planetary population under unequal information footing. Library access falls under the much broader umbrella of world-wide education, a proven tonic for the ailments of poverty, intolerance, and oppression. And, more importantly, I believe it is something that within our collective grasp with the funding and the desire to work for it.

And that, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub; I haven’t a clue as to where the former aspect would come from nor the level of work that the latter would include. I’ve written this entry without much due diligence of checking to see if there are organizations or NGOs that work towards this issue. However, I do have a direction and that’s a start. I will try not to think about it the next time a customer argues about a $2 fine on an overdue book, resisting the urge to tell them that they are lucky to have this sort of access to materials in the first place (I never liked it when my parents told me to finish my plate because there are people starving in the world), but it will remind me to keep working towards it. And with movement in the right direction, hopefully, comes motion towards greater change.

Edit: William’s TedTalk. Pretty awesome as well.