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The Underpinnings of What Libraries Acquire

I’ve been noodling recently on some of our vendor business practices and their impact on libraries and users. As a librarian for over 30 years and having worked in libraries, software publishing and publishing rights management, I think that I have a little perspective on the situation. Lord knows if I am right but I am willing to share and take the flack. I’ve done that before. I know that in my early career, personally, I had very little understanding of the underpinnings of the rights infrastructure and payments that allowed for the creation of the neat electronic products and services that have developed over the past few decades. It was a real whack on the side of the head for me when I relaized the many levels of rights ownership in even the simplest products, let alone big aggregations. (I recall one early video that was 3 minutes long and involved over 300 agreements!)

This came to the front for my consciousness in the 90s when I was involved in the Tasini situation and that lawsuit launched by the NWU on behalf of freelance writers that sought 300 million dollars in damages for the use of their intellectual effort. This lawsuit is still with us but it has moved into a much smaller consequence. Imagine if the costs of a $300 million fine had to be passed back to consumers and libraries or caused the precipitous demise of major content providers! Indeed, we’re seeing a similar impact now with the meltdown in advertising in some publishing sectors and their efforts to find new revenue sources in new electronic products. As librarians we know that ads support most of the print, web and content providers that we acquire. Without ads, we risk losing some news weeklies, websites, and newspapers. Indeed, we have already lost voices in the publishing world and this diminution of voice and perspective in the marketplace of news, editorial content and ideas is a very sad consequence of our current economic times and market/technological evolution. It’s also sad for users who need to hear alternative perspectives and information. Yes, Google is ad-supported but its results depend on folks writing things and providing access. No content, no access, no ads, no knowledge. That’s bad.

Recently we have been seeing one of the major aggregators in the library sphere agressively pursuing locking up rights in exclusive contracts. I will come out as both a professional librarian and as a professional librarian on vendor executive teams, that I believe that this is very wrong for libraries and I have believed it is bad for libraries in many vendor environments. It is so wrong on so many levels. Here are a few points that I’d be willing to discuss with anyone:

1. Do we want to support the introduction of restrictive practices in the world of knowledge, communities and learning? Do we want to support these sorts of restraints on people in their lives? Should vendors and content owners engage in practices that cause excessive limitations in the world of information content? Are you ready to have to purchase more due to a competitive situation that reduces the content in every vendor? Are your budgets ready for this and is this the right time for this situation? Shouldn’t we compete on interface and usability?

2. Do we, as librarians, sit idly by and allow significant resources to be lost for access by every user in our community or institutional users just to satisfy the goals of one vendor’s market share and revenue model? Most library sector vendors are equal players in the library sector and support the culture and value systems of our clients.

3. If content becomes the exclusive of one vendor, do we now have to invest time and effort in a new thorough review of our electronic resources? Are we back to the serials rationalization efforts of the 90s only now dealing with e-copies? Is this the time to add additional efforts to our already stressed or downsized staff? How will these additional costs be passed on and are your budgets ready for a price increase? Is this the economy where one vendor shold be able to introduce these costs into?

4. What other impacts will there be on our staff that are already overstressed by the increases in usage, additional work, and change? Do we want to have to review every purchasing decision again or incur the hidden costs of changing suppliers and updating training sessions? Do we want to learn everything all over again? Are your staffing and financial models ready to add this additional stress?

5. In purchasing resources, are we returning to a point where we need to add additional evaluation time and complexity to our purchase and renewal decisions?

6. And when a particular vendor spends (maybe overspends two or three times more than the past) to acquire an exclusive on some content, how will they recover their additional costs? Who will they pass these on to? Will they assert that they can absorb these costs, and would you believe them?

7. We are also challenged with adapting to many of the great technological changes that allow us to create new transformational experiences for our users – citizens, librarians, students, researchers, learners, hobbyists and more. Isn’t this one of the places where you’d prefer to invest time, money and resources?

8. Is this the time to engage in a business practice of gaining exclusive control of certain electronic information content? Can you pay more? Can you add additional time commitments to your staff to adapt? Will you reward this behaviour with your business? Open competition that delivers the best products and features to libraries requires open markets and a level playing field.

As for the publishers who own underlying rights who cynically fear free libraries and attempt to extract more money from libraries, will we reward them?

I am all in favour of open competition and an open market. This results in better products for everyone I care about – librarians and our users. I think all vendors who license content should be transparent in their business philosophies and librarians should evaluate whether they support certain behaviours that may or may not tend toward market restricting behaviour. I like our library culture and regret seeing the introduction of these kinds of practices.

I have similar concerns about the AAP proposed agreement with Google, before the US courts now, about the Google digitized books. Does this agreement create an untenable de facto exclusive? I’m not sure but I do know that one free PC access point (with no printing rights) seems like a good way to create long lines in most of your insititutions.

As the majority of content, current and historical, goes electronic, do the rights of readers, learners, communities and researchers change?

Either way, this is an issue that is worthy of real debate. It truly affects everyone in our sector: libraries, librarians, our institutions, our users, our communities, and more. Predatory business practices serve no one but the predator. Is that the way we want library culture to evolve?


Posted on: January 20, 2010, 6:06 pm Category: Uncategorized

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