The Public Versus Publishers: How Scholars and Activists are Occupying the Library
In 2011, American libraries fought for the right to do what they had done in the past: share books and information. Over the past ten years, scholarship has been massively privatized; library access to journals is now almost largely outsourced to corporations, and soon scholarly books will be licensed the same way, in digital bundles. Public libraries, coming to the digital fray late, are battling commercial book publishers who, one by one, are refusing to allow libraries to loan books published in digital form. Already endangered by cuts in public funding, public libraries are now being told by publishers that sharing in any form is a threat to their business model and will no longer be tolerated. Here is some background on how we got into this situation – and how we might get out of it.
In 1996, physicist and philosopher John Ziman asked in the pages of Nature whether science was losing its objectivity. His concern was that science was being transformed into “post-academic science,” and the pursuit of knowledge, once driven by disciplined curiosity, was being reorganized so that accountability and the efficient meeting of performance goals would take precedence over a less controlled, messier way of figuring things out.
“The virtue of academic science,” Ziman wrote, “was that it took a strong line in support of the norm of disinterestedness, and often managed in practice almost to live up to its ideals. The transition to post-academic science is eroding the practices that underpin this norm. ‘Public knowledge’ is being transformed into ‘intellectual property’” (p. 754).
As a librarian, I found his prediction all too painfully accurate. During the 1990s, as journal costs became prohibitive, academic libraries were also undergoing a shift from building locally-owned collections to providing access to virtual collections owned and managed by someone else. The phrase “access, not ownership” was a mantra of the 90s, promising both efficiencies (fewer staff and less storage space required) and greater user satisfaction. Researchers wouldn’t have to go to the library; the library would come to them.
This enclosure of the cultural commons is happening now in public libraries, but with a difference. In the 1990s, libraries began to draw inspiration from big-box bookstore chains, which seemed to be attracting library users through cafes, comfortable furnishings, and appealing book displays. One librarian published a controversial article: “What if you Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?” advocating a more business-like approach to libraries, including centralized purchasing of popular books rather than local collection building, eliminating reference services (expensive and underused), and reduction of professional staff (Barnes and Nobles didn’t require a master’s degree of employees; why should libraries?) The author then founded a for-profit company that now contracts with local governments that want to outsource their public libraries, saving money by reducing hours and eliminating the hassle of dealing with a unionized workforce.
Now that commercial book publishers are going digital, public libraries have hit a snag. Two of the six major commercial book publishers refuse to let libraries license any of their ebooks. Two won’t license current titles, only backlist. Another requires ebooks be repurchased after they have been circulated 26 times. Only one, Random House, allows libraries to license titles from their entire ebook list – but at greatly inflated prices.
In the past, libraries could purchase books at a reasonable price on behalf of their community and, using the first sale right, could share them until they fell apart. In future libraries will at best be paying far more to license books (while also giving up the reader privacy they had always defended in the past). Major publishers believe sharing is not good for business, so they are ready to see libraries disappear.
Two recent events have dramatized the cost of privatization and offered paths of resistance. The People’s Library sprang up very quickly after protesters began to occupy Zuccotti Park. According to Mandy Henk, an academic librarian who joined the movement, the People’s Library represented “the idea of a Commons, of shared resources, of equal access—access mediated not by a market, but granted as a fundamental right that all people share by virtue of being part of the human family.” Using social media tools, the library gathered donated books, cataloged them, and scheduled cultural events. They made decisions by consensus and crafted a non-bureaucratic lending policy: “these books belong to everyone, so we trust everyone to do what they think is most effective with them. If you think you could put a book to good use long-term, by all means keep it. If you think others might benefit from it more after you’ve finished, we strongly encourage returns.”