Skip to content

Information Wants to be Free – Bullcookies

Warning: Long Post:
I want to capture this piece from 2004 that I thought I had lost. Enjoy it (again) if you like.
Our work and value have been attacked on many levels, but nothing has been more damaging than the misquote of Stewart Brand that “Information wants to be free!” This phrase has served as a clarion call to devalue information, information work, and librarianship which are anything but free.
Here’s the real quote: At the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984, Brand put his finger on a central paradox about digital information that is causing us so much trouble today. “On the one hand,” Brand said, “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
Aha!!! I said to myself as I read this in David Bollier’s book (not free) on a plane (not free) on my way to a conference (not free). There it is. It’s just like that old misquote: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” What Santayana actually wrote in Reason in Common Sense was, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. As Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” Why is this quote so compelling – even as a misquote – and why did it get such currency in the modern age? Remember that a hacker’s conference in 1984 was pretty much on-the-edge.
Free means many things. It is especially vital to the practice of librarianship. This quote is lifted from page 120 of David Bollier’s must-read book, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth (Routledge 2003). Bollier lifted it from the Whole Earth Review May 1985, p. 49. You can also see a history of this quote’s attribution at “Information Wants To Be Free” at
“Free” in its narrowest meaning can mean “without cost.” And often from the user’s perspective, library services are without cost. More important, it means freedom to think, freedom to research, freedom to write, freedom of expression those values central to our professional beliefs. “Free” also can mean a kind of shorthand for democracy and democratic principles. The democratization of information has been a movement since at least the invention of the printing press and publishing. “Free” can be used in the context of free time freedom from obligation, duties, and responsibilities. Libraries’ recreational collections certainly fall into this “free” space. Finally, “free” can mean unconstrained running free, thinking free, having the free rights of citizenship. Making information free is very powerful because of all those other meanings. If there’s anyone who knows that information wants to be expensive, it has to be librarians. We manage this to ensure cost-effectiveness.
My opinion is that the best meaning of “free” is “unfettered.” There are many ways to unfetter information and even more ways to fetter it. Cost is only one of the ways in which we can deal with the fettering of information. By buying information at the enterprise level in our organizations we unfetter it and make it free, de facto, to the end user. It isn’t free of cost by any means, but it will appear free to the user. Therefore, the user does not need to leap the hurdle that is the “buy” decision to use critical information that can underpin his or her work.
We can also fetter information by making it costly or adding hurdles of payments to obtain the information transaction we want. Sometimes fettering information with a cost improves the end-user experience free movies can be overcrowded, free information can be rough and poorly edited, free can cause quality lapses because you get what you pay for. Therefore, some users prefer to pay to get the assurance of a better information experience and to remove the risk of additional processing fetters.
So, in what other ways is information unfettered?
Libraries unfetter information -make it flow freely by:
Good information design
Increasing simplicity and assuring use of good interface principles makes the acquisition of information more satisfying. If we don’t simplify it, it can be pretty rough. We can all name information systems that were abusive – some of the first generation Boolean online systems were far too complex to teach to typical end-users.
Making it easier to find
Users hate to search like us; they just want to find. By using simple tools like federated search and adopting appropriate standards like Z39.50 and SRW we make life for users much easier. Federated search removes the barrier to not knowing where to search in the first place. And, especially by adopting tools like link resolvers that employ the OpenURL standard, we make exploring the information ocean seamless when content is identified and full text links become simple and seamless.
Pruning information
Our collection development and content identification skills are non-pareil. Our adherence to selecting high-quality information to meet our users’ real needs and to avoid duplication, false paths, and false drops generates real value. Just searching the groups of content that match the domain I am searching is very powerful.
Aligning information with user profiles
Again, through great selection we ensure that the information is appropriate for our users -we don’t provide jargon-laden information to kids and neophytes when plain language is needed. We design our Web sites, portals, and learning objects to align with our users’ literacy, subject, and learning needs and styles.
Targeting information to specific user communities
We can push information. We know (mostly) how not to drown our folks. We have a fine editor’s and selector’s eye. We push information intelligently and can use the latest styles of alerts, RSS, and blogs -and still write a powerful paper note or e-mail to alert our users to special items.
Customizing information to individual needs and projects
Our best feature is that we can improve the quality of a question before we seek an answer. This is the personal research touch that is based in deep knowledge of the reference interview. Search engines seek answers in haste. As the saying goes, haste makes waste and it is, by definition, shallow. How shallow can it be to decide quality by just popularity? How high school! What an opportunity for virtual reference services!
Removing barriers to information
We know that increasing required actions between the user and content reduces satisfaction and productivity. Therefore, we have become experts in reducing non-value-added barriers. We know that IP authentication can make a seamless experience to paid content. We know that we can remove barriers by avoiding digital rights management or copyright fees. We can assure legal access through invisible patron-level authentication systems, too.
Many of us are challenged by management, users, and researchers who love the Google™ experience. Google has unfettered access for them on many levels. It’s free NOT. Advertisers pay it for and the advertisers are Google’s primary clients not the searcher. A good searcher experience that delivers high numbers of visits and searches -of the right type -generates more ads and therefore more Google revenue.
We likely do need to give unto Google what is Google’s. Google gives an amazingly good experience in four of the five “W” questions: who, what, where and when. We know this as well as end-users. What libraries and librarians do better is with questions that start with why and the how. When our collections and skills revolve around a central theme, industry, topic, or exploration, we excel at answering and building users’ and learners’ knowledge in the why and the how. That’s why we find libraries represented so strongly in sectors where innovation and creativity are central to success – R& D, universities, advertising, consulting, auditing, for example.
Libraries and librarians unfetter information in many ways. By doing so we improve the user experience, improve learning, improve knowledge acquisition, and inform decision-making. We need to stop worrying about Google competition since it doesn’t even begin to compete with us on a core level. We must start differentiating library services from weak experiences like Google.
In the wisdom that is an e-mail signature, I once read (and can’t find the first author) this quote:
“Those who know how will always be employed. They will be working for those who know why.”
p.s. I got the opportunity to have David Bollier keynote the Canadian Library Association Conference this past June. If you ever get the chance to see him speak – go. His wirtings are wonderful too. Check them out here and here and here and here.

Posted on: August 31, 2005, 5:40 pm Category: Uncategorized