Libraries: No Future Or Leading The Future?

Twenty years ago at the 1995 General Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), Chris Batt of the Croydon Libraries in the UK gave a talk on the library of the future.  This was his prophetic conclusion:

“What are the implications of all for this [the Internet] for the future of public libraries? … The answer is that while we cannot be certain about the future for our services, we can and should be developing a vision which encompasses and enriches the potential of the Internet. If we do not do that then others will; and they will do it less well.”

So from the relatively early days of the Internet – three years before Google was even founded – libraries have been warned about the challenge to their future.

Although many librarians have been innovative in various ways since then, it is fair to say that during those twenty years many players have been offering services that were once the exclusive function of libraries.

As a headline a month ago in the Washington Post put it: “When Google Is Your Librarian And Starbucks Your WiFi, Do We Still Need Public Libraries?”  (The answer was yes, but clearly enough people think otherwise that the editors thought the question was worth asking.)

Libraries have been challenged even as a source of collected books, with the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service and similar services from Oyster and Scribd over the last year.  [Skip past the pictures to continue reading.]

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For roughly $120 per year, a person could have access to a very large collection of books.  It would be interesting to see what libraries could do if they had a similar amount of money to work with.  But they don’t.

The most recent year in which national statistics were collected about public libraries is 2012.  Earlier this year (2015), the US Government’s Institute of Museums and Library Services issued its final analysis of that data.  IMLS noted that public library operating expenditures were $35.47 per person – and, of course, that’s for more than just offering e-books.

Of course, libraries are not alone in facing change.   All of us do.

In addition to the Internet revolution we already deal with, there are several technology trends whose impact is only beginning — machine intelligence and analytics, a ubiquitous interface to the Internet and high-quality visual conversations that will finally enable the virtual world to replicate the trust, the serendipity and the nature of normal face-to-face human communications.

These technology trends intertwine with and reinforce trends in the economy and society – the transition in employment to a post-industrial, digital economy where many people will earn their living providing knowledge-based services and intangible products; innovation as the competitive edge in the knowledge economy; the increase in the number of people who are both producers and consumers of content; the resulting requirement for cost-effective lifelong learning for adults.

As with all change, while one part of your world is nibbled away, other opportunities open up.  So it is with libraries.

This is the background, the context, for the Aspen Institute’s creation of a working group on libraries (of which I’m a member) and its report “Rising To The Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries.”   I’ve written about the report itself before[Skip past the pictures to continue reading.]

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As part of the effort to disseminate the ideas in the report, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the New Hampshire Library Trustees Association last week.  I then joined with Maureen Sullivan, former President of the American Library Association and long-time consultant in the field, to run two workshops for the trustees.

The gist of my talk was straightforward.  Libraries do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world.  They need to be embedded in their communities, which means that they need to understand and respond to how their patrons’ lives are changing.  Library leaders need to understand how each trend will have an impact on libraries.

Libraries need to lay the foundation for where they need to be in the future.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but continuing just doing a good job with things as they are now is insufficient and unsustainable.

While the Aspen report notes the continuing importance of the library building, it is more for a future role than merely the warehousing of books.  Moreover, successful libraries services can no longer be constrained by the walls of the library building.  Every space in the community should be considered to be virtually part of the library.  The library should be everywhere – physically and virtually.

Librarians need to provide access and intelligent guidance not just to their local collection, but to a national, eventually international, and fluid combination of materials.  Indeed, the global digital network makes possible an emerging model of networked libraries that promotes economies of scale and broadens each library’s reach.

As Maureen Sullivan has stated:

“With a nationally networked platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to think about the work they can do at the national level that so many libraries have been so effective at doing at the state and local levels.” 

Libraries can be the central institution of the knowledge/innovation economy, but to do so they must take the lead in helping their communities deal with the future so that both the libraries and their communities flourish.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

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“You Belong Here” Says It All

Some of us live in places that are lucky enough to have some highly unusual feature that stands out – whether it’s the mountains in Colorado towns or the surf of Key West, Florida or even the sheer scale of New York City.  But unlike those examples, there are many fine places to live which have a high quality of life, but don’t otherwise have an obvious promotable distinction.  

The big question for these places is how to maintain and build on that quality of life in a century that raises new challenges to every place, as more people are able to earn a living no matter where they are – if there’s high-speed Internet connectivity available.

Consider the small city of Clinton, Mississippi.  It has a population of about 25,000 people and is near Jackson, the State Capitol.  Although it is a relatively old city in the state, having been created in the early 1820s, it was known as Jackson’s first suburb.   More recently, other more affluent suburbs have grown up around Jackson with high-end national stores in upscale shopping malls.  

While many small cities dream of having a Fortune 500 company, Clinton had already “done that, been there”.  WorldCom (later MCI Worldcom), for several years the second largest long-distance phone company in the US, made Clinton its headquarters location.  In the early 2000s, a major fraud and financial scandal was discovered at the company.  It went bankrupt in 2002 and after a while its nice headquarters was empty and the company’s assets were eventually acquired by a company far away, Verizon.  So Clinton was no longer a big company town.

Clinton has, however, retained much of its original small town urban charm, with a number of brick-covered streets and an urban center that’s mostly missing from other suburbs.   It has a well-developed sense of community, which is, in part, reflected in the quality of its schools that are ranked number 1 in the state.

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Nevertheless, the people of Clinton know there are challenges ahead, so they have been an early adopter of gigabit connections to the home, through a program offered by the regional telecommunications company, C-Spire.  The company announced at the end of last month that Clinton had five neighborhoods where pre-registration for the service exceeded the minimum necessary and Clinton becomes the second city in the state to become a gig-city.  

(See my earlier blog post about Quitman, MS, for a report on the first city to do this last fall.)

Thanks to the work of the Intelligent Community Institute of Mississippi State University Extension Service, there I was last week to talk to a room full of Clinton’s community leaders.  They met to envision how this gigabit network investment can be used to provide new economic opportunity for its residents and to ensure that the city can flourish in the future.

Of course, I pointed out that broadband, while necessary, isn’t sufficient.  It’s only the start in building an attractive 21st century community that will retain and, better yet, attract people to live there.

I presented a picture of where the economy and technology have come from and where they seem to be going – and what Clinton can do to get ahead of the curve.  I offered numerous examples of things that can be accomplished by a small city, pointing out that small cities can make a bigger impact this way than big cities.  After my presentation, Clinton’s community leaders worked together to identify concrete actions they would get done in the next six months.

I was struck especially by the city’s new slogan and campaign.  It was not the all-too-frequent argument that “we’re cheaper than the next city down the road and we’ll give your company big incentives to come here.”  Even before I arrived with my message that, instead, these days the key question for economic development is how you go about keeping people and attracting newcomers to your city, they had already figured it out.

I wish I had come up with their slogan, since it is spot on – “You Belong Here”.  I’ll be following up to see how Clinton goes about making good on that slogan and its promise for the future.

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

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Libraries & Open Publishing

My last post was about the fight over intellectual property.  A few weeks before that I wrote about what a book is in a digital age and suggested that librarians could become the equivalent of DJs for books.

Pulling those two themes together, this post is about what some libraries are already doing that can shift the balance in book publishing.

But, first a bit of history.  When public libraries were first established well over a hundred years ago, one of their primary responsibilities was purchase books on behalf of their community.  Then the community members could share all these books, without having to buy separate copies.

Until the mid-20th Century, this worked in favor of publishers since libraries were, in general, their most reliable market for books.  Libraries also helped build markets of readers that the publishers would sell to or that many people eventually bought the books they borrowed because they liked them so much.  The library was a kind of try-and-buy location.

As the industry grew, selling direct to an ever more educated public in the latter half of the 20th Century, many book publishers started thinking that libraries reduced their sales, rather than enhancing them.  But that was a battle the publishers had lost long ago and couldn’t do much about.  

Moreover, it is a moot point in this century when e-books have overtaking traditional print book publishing.  Even if that growth trend has slowed a bit recently, the battle between publishers and libraries has been renewed around e-books, not printed books.

The traditional publishers – the Big 5 – have taken an especially restrictive approach to e-books, perhaps in the hopes of turning away from the historical role that public libraries have played for printed books.  Until less than two years ago, some publishers even refused to sell e-books to libraries.  They still restrict the number of times an e-book could be lent or charge extraordinary prices for them.  

This pattern continues despite some good arguments that publishers could benefit from a more supportive relationship with libraries, as laid out by the marketing expert, David Vinjamuri.  

But any significant change, like e-books, can be a two-edged sword.  They may be an opportunity for big publishers to change the rules.  But they are also an opportunity for libraries.  

Unlike printed books, there is effectively no limitation on how many e-books a library can store.  And librarians have noticed that many of their patrons are writing e-books.  Much of the spectacular growth in e-books has been among self-published authors.  (Amazon even makes this easy with its Createspace service.)

With this background, there has developed a movement among libraries to become the publishing platform for authors or to, at least, partner with self-publishing services.

Although he lost by a little, one of the candidates in the election a few days ago for president of the American Library Association was Jamie LaRue, who has built his reputation in large part as a leader of the library publishing movement.  

There are already several interesting examples across the country.  The Los Gatos Public Library has joined with the Smashwords self-publishing company.  The Provincetown, Massachusetts library – proudly “Ranked #1 in the US by Library Journal” – has created its own self-publishing agency, Provincetown Press.

The much larger Los Angeles Public Library is using the Self-e platform from Library Journal and BiblioBoard.  The February 2015 issue of Library Journal quotes John Szabo, LAPL’s director and one of the most innovative national library leaders:

“We are and will continue to be a place for content creation… It’s a huge role for libraries. … I want to see our authors not just all over California but circulating from Pascagoula, MS, to Keokuk, IA.”

Too often, news of new library services does not get widely publicized and is only seen by those already patronizing libraries.  So it was helpful that LAPL’s platform for local authors was reported a couple of weeks ago in a publication they might well read – LA Weekly.  

With the Internet enabling easier collaboration and co-creation than ever before, as I’ve noted in this blog, we are also seeing examples of self-publishing that go beyond an individual author.  

Topeka Community Novel Project describes its ideal: “A community novel is one that is collaboratively conceptualized, written, illustrated, narrated, edited and published by members of your community.”

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Publishing by academic libraries and other non-traditional publishers is an increasing factor in research, as well.  While it publishes papers that are peer-reviewed as in traditional journals, PLOS (Public Library of Science) is perhaps the best known adherent of “open access” publishing.  Open Access means that there are no restrictions on the use of the articles, available online, free to read.  

Academic journals and books have been very expensive and not all of that cost can be eliminated by this new approach.  For example, the peer review process still has to be managed.  However, the cost is much lower.   PLOS charges authors a relatively minimal fee.

Rebecca Kennison of Columbia University Libraries and Lisa Norberg of the Barnard College Library have plans to extend the PLOS model, with a more cooperative funding arrangement, to “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences”.

Overall, all of the initiatives that I’ve highlighted here are a part of a digital age trend in which we’ll see more librarians going beyond being mere collectors of big publishing companies’ books to being curators and creators of content. 

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

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The Internet & The Battle Over Innovation

The public policy battle that defined the 19th century pitted labor against capital.  While that battle has not completely ended, the battle that may define this century is about “intellectual property” – who owns it, what others can do with it, and indeed whether ideas and innovations can or should be treated as property in the same way that land or a car is property.

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To go back to original principles, copyrights (and patents) were made part of the US Constitution to primarily encourage innovation by granting monopoly control over an idea for a limited time.  It wasn’t there primarily to protect the value of that monopoly.  That was just the tool the authors of the Constitution used to provide incentives for innovation by any inventive genius then living in the hinterlands.

Of course, a lot has changed since then.  We realize much better now that it is rare for a lone genius to come up with an idea or even a creative work, without having been influenced, perhaps even collaborating in a way, with many others.  So the importance of that monopoly incentive for all the people who play a role in creating something new is not as clear today.  Nor are the current owners of copyrights and patents necessarily the original creators.

The battle was started more than ten years ago by the development of the Internet.  Then, in 2004, the famed intellectual property law professor, Lawrence Lessig, wrote “Free Culture”.  He explained: “Free Cultures are cultures that leave a great deal open for others to build upon. Ours was a free culture. It is becoming less so.”

He argued that ever since the Constitution set out a limited term for copyrights, Congress has continually extended that term and added other limitations on the use of copyrighted material until now that there is almost no public domain left.  His concern is that few works remain – and no new ones added – that are free to be used and help contribute to our common knowledge without restrictions.  

As he wrote: “At the start of this book, I distinguished between commercial and noncommercial culture. In the course of this chapter, I have distinguished between copying a work and transforming it. We can now combine these two distinctions and draw a clear map of the changes that copyright law has undergone.” 

He then proceeded to show that in 1790 only works that were published commercially were covered by copyrights.  In this century “the law now regulates the full range of creativity — commercial or not, transformative or not—with the same rules designed to regulate commercial publishers.”  Moreover, these copyrights extend for a much longer period of time.

Lessig worries that this imbalance and overuse of copyrights is diminishing the vibrancy of our culture and ultimately reducing innovation.

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By the way, I opened this post with a reference to how your car is considered to be a very traditional kind of property.  But nothing really escapes the digital age, so it’s fascinating to see the lawyers for John Deere and General Motors recently claiming that you don’t really own their vehicles completely.  Yes, you own the mechanical parts, but they claim they retain ownership of the software that is now a critical component of those vehicles – so, no, you don’t really own that car after all.  Yet another example of the extremism that Lessig criticizes.

This past year, the science-fiction author and activist, Cory Doctorow, wrote his update to the debate in “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age”.  

But bringing some wisdom and historical perspective to the debate at hand, he adds a delightful chapter about the principle he calls “Every Pirate Wants to Be an Admiral”

It’s not as though this is the first time we’ve had to rethink what copyright is, what it should do, and whom it should serve…

When piano rolls were invented, the composers, whose income came from sheet music, were aghast. They couldn’t believe that player-piano companies had the audacity to record and sell performances of their work. They tried—unsuccessfully—to have such recordings classified as copyright violations.

Then (thanks in part to the institution of a compulsory license) the piano-roll pirates and their compatriots in the wax-cylinder business got legit, and became the record industry.

Then the radio came along, and broadcasters had the audacity to argue that they should be able to play records over the air. The record industry was furious, and tried (unsuccessfully) to block radio broadcasts without explicit permission from recording artists. Their argument was “When we used technology to appropriate and further commercialize the works of composers, that was progress. When these upstart broadcasters do it to our records, that’s piracy.”

A few decades later, with the dust settled around radio transmission, along came cable TV, which appropriated broadcasts sent over the air and retransmitted them over cables. The broadcasters argued (unsuccessfully) that this was a form of piracy, and that the law should put an immediate halt to it. Their argument? The familiar one: “When we did it, it was progress. When they do it to us, that’s piracy.”

Then came the VCR, which instigated a landmark lawsuit by the cable operators and the studios, a legal battle that was waged for eight years, finishing up in the 1984 Supreme Court “Betamax” ruling. You can look up the briefs if you’d like, but fundamentally, they went like this: “When we took the broadcasts without permission, that was progress.  Now that someone’s recording our cable signals without permission, that’s piracy.”

Sony won, and fifteen years later it was one of the first companies to get in line to sue Internet companies that were making it easier to copy music and videos online…

The purpose of copyright shouldn’t be to ensure that whoever got lucky with last year’s business model gets to stay on top forever. Live music is great, but what a rotten thing it would have been if the winners of the live-music lottery in 1908 had been allowed to strangle recorded music to protect their turf.”

Doctorow noted that the public has found ways around the ever increasing copyright restrictions, albeit with questionable legality.  At its conclusion, the book is intended to help the creative artists and innovators of our day – if not the corporate owners of intellectual property – understand how they might still make a living.  

Chris Anderson also offered ideas along these lines in his 2009 book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”, but more in response to the fact that the cost of products, including creative products, has gone down dramatically.  But that is also a factor in the intellectual property debate.  

A couple of years ago, I participated in the annual innovation summit that the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania runs.  I remember a generational divide in the room among the people who made a living in biotech and pharmaceuticals.  The younger executives told the older ones that they could no longer expect the kind of monopoly returns on their patented drugs that they use to have because new ideas and inventions were so much easier to generate now.  

And, getting back to basics, wasn’t the original point to encourage innovation?
As befitting a battle of the century, there’s lots more to say about this controversy, but I’ll say that later.  This post is long enough for an opening round.

And, without irony ;-), while on Tumblr, take note © 2015 Norman Jacknis

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