In libraries, we place a lot of value on sharing. I think the time has come to give that value some critical attention.
In the online environment, the concept of “sharing” becomes genuinely problematic—partly because its meaning becomes unclear (let’s call this the semantic problem), and partly because it inevitably means copying (let’s call this the legal problem).
In the print environment, neither of these problems existed when it came to sharing library books. It was very clear what it meant to “share” a book or a bound journal volume—it meant that I temporarily gave up access to my copy so that someone else could have access to it. No additional copies were created by the sharing process. The legal problem was more or less straightforward as well, thanks to the First Sale Doctrine, which said that as long as I had legally procured my copy of a book, I could share (or sell, or hide, or destroy) that copy freely.
In the online environment, of course, the line that separates “sharing” from “copying” becomes fuzzy at best. Although we use the word “sharing” to describe what happens when Library A provides Library B with access to an online document that Library A owns and Library B doesn’t, what usually actually happens is that Library A creates a second copy of that document. While this is often perfectly permissible under copyright law (and while there are good reasons for publishers to allow it within reason as a matter of principle), legally speaking it’s not nearly as straightforward as traditional interlibrary loan was, and the issues around such “sharing” become difficult. And by “difficult” I mean truly difficult, with conflicting needs and genuine, reasonable concerns on both sides of the owner/user divide.
One reason that the conversation around this issue is so fraught, I think, is that we in libraries have been reluctant to acknowledge and deal with that difficulty. And I believe this is due in part to the status of “sharing” as a halo word, one that is largely designed to stop conversation rather than to make it more productive. Who can object to sharing? This was a rhetorical tactic also adopted by those who advocated the unrestricted copying and redistribution of music during the heyday of Napster in the early 2000s. Advocates of the practice called it “sharing,” the copyright holders called it “piracy,” and of course the conversation went nowhere because how can you have a reasonable conversation with someone who opposes sharing or with someone who favors piracy?
But that’s not the main reason it’s become so hard to figure out what to do about interlibrary loan in the digital age. The other one, I think, is deeper and more intractable, and it has to do with what I think of as a library-specific version of Stockholm Syndrome (the tendency of some people who have been kidnapped to eventually begin sympathizing with their captors).
There are certain practices in librarianship that have arisen not because they have anything intrinsic to recommend them, but because the print environment made them necessary. We were kidnapped by these practices, forced by the limitations of format to engage in them even though they weren’t particularly effective or practical. Over time, these practices have come to seem like fundamentally important library tasks—or, in extreme cases, even core values of librarianship.
Typically, the process takes place like this:
- A practice emerges as a stopgap measure to deal with a limitation of print formats;
- Over time, librarians become very good at this practice;
- The practice eventually becomes a subdiscipline of librarianship;
- The practice comes to be associated with a “core value” of the profession;
- The practice comes to be considered part of the essential nature of librarianship;
- In some cases, the practice will come to have “halo words” associated with it—terms that make questioning the practice seem morally suspect.
This can go on for years and years, but conflicts eventually arise when the information environment changes in such a way that the practice in question is no longer needed. Such environmental changes cause stress to librarians and staff whose careers may have centered on the practice. They then invoke “core values” in order to resist responding appropriately to the change.
Interlibrary loan is hardly the only area of librarianship experiencing this kind of pressure. To some degree, I would suggest that this dynamic has shaped the development of modern cataloging, some aspects of serials management, and even traditional collection development. But the online environment doesn’t pose the same kind of existential threat to those areas of our profession; fundamentally traditional collection development, cataloging, and serials management are still possible in this environment. For interlibrary loan, the future is much less clear; today it’s becoming increasingly possible to provide access both effectively and affordably without entering into the legally and semantically difficult realm of “sharing.” And I think we need to accept and actively acknowledge that this is a good thing—not a betrayal of our core values.