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.
The road to privatization
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.
Academic libraries as showrooms and purchasing agents
But giving up ownership has had its downsides. Publishers can offer libraries large collections of journals as bundles – seemingly a good thing – but can also raise subscription rates and change the contents of the bundle at will. Libraries are often prohibited from providing one another articles through interlibrary loan; in some cases, interlibrary loan is allowed, but only if libraries print out and rescan digital content, guaranteeing copies so degraded in quality that it makes the library itself seem inefficient. The public cost of these bundles is shrouded in secrecy thanks to non-disclosure agreements. Finally, as libraries migrated to outsourcing ownership and management of its collections, smaller non-profit publishers were put at a disadvantage; many societies found it expedient to outsource their publishing operations, too.
Though commonly called a “serials crisis,” this situation has had an effect on disciplines that are more dependent on books than journals. It is much easier for a library to not to buy a book than it is to negotiate canceling a journal. Besides, articles seem timely and pressing, books slower and less urgent – and, unlike issues of journals, libraries lend one another books without incurring copyright fees. As journal prices went up, the numbers of books purchased by libraries went down, with libraries relying on interlibrary sharing to make up for the loss. University presses that once sold 3,000 copies of a book are now making print runs of 300, with a minority of those copies going on library shelves.
To make up for losses, publishers of academic books are now entering the bundling business, with various models being proposed for digital access. A popular move is “patron-driven acquisitions,” in which the library users large catalogs of digital books, paying a fee for only those that get “read” (or clicked on). After multiple clicks the library can “purchase” the digital book for a price comparable to an academic hardcover (between $50 and $100). Since a lot of library books are never used, this seems like a far more efficient use of funds, and libraries can save even more on staff (no need to select books anymore) and space (no more stacks). It seems like empowerment for users as academic libraries erase the barriers between a vast range of products and the individual user, but in fact academic libraries are about to complete their transformation into being showrooms for publishers, becoming merely purchasing agents that handle the pay-per-view bills. Public funding for what was once a public resource now goes to temporary individual access to proprietary resources. The research record remains the property of corporations.
What happens when public libraries are run like businesses?
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.
Occupy the library
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.”
Early on November 15th, the library was seized by police and city workers and most of the books were destroyed. Librarians of the People’s Library continue to meet and publish news of Occupy libraries online. Currently, they are sending to Tucson donated copies of books about Mexican-American history and culture banned by the school district there. Occupiers are also publishing their own texts – just as some public libraries are responding to the commodification of culture by opening “maker” spaces for their community to publish their own books.
Meanwhile, a thoughtful post by Field medalist Timothy Gowers about why he is boycotting Elsevier seemed to strike a nerve among scholars who were worried about pending legislation designed to strengthen the hold commercial interests have on science and culture. As I write this, over 7,000 scholars have publicly stated they will not submit articles, review, or do editorial work for any of the over 2,500 journals published by the publishing giant. The Economist has called the Elsevier boycott “the Academic spring.”
Libraries are a recognition that scholarship and culture are more than the business of creating and consuming. They are a human conversation, and libraries provide common ground where that conversation can take place and be remembered. By taking aim at the right for the public to maintain this conversation and its memory, publishers have shown us what we have to lose. It’s time we resisted the outsourcing of our common heritage by occupying the library.
Gustavus Adolphus College
Ziman, John. 1996. Is science losing its objectivity? Nature, 382(6594), 751–754. doi:10.1038/382751a0
Coffman, Steve. 1998. What if you ran your library like a bookstore? American Libraries, 29(3), 40.