The library world has been slightly aflutter the last week or two over Gale’s "open letter" to librarians criticizing Ebsco for bidding higher than Gale for distribution rights to Time publications. Wait. No. That’s not quite it. Gale criticized Ebsco for seeking exclusive distribution rights in the first place, while Gale supposedly does not seek such rights to keep publications more affordable for libraries and more available to the public.
According to the second link in this LJ wrap up, Ebsco denies the charge and claims that Time sought the exclusive contract. Even if that’s true, Ebsco could have turned it down and demanded the same non-exclusive rights that Gale claims it sought. It hardly changes the fact that Ebsco likes exclusive rights that monopolize content, thus driving up prices and increasing their profits at the expense of libraries and the public. That’s what corporations do, of course, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
As befitting a publisher and vendor that has long worked cooperatively with libraries, it’s no surprise that Gale knows just where to prod librarians to get a response.
"We believe the practice of restricting access to information is in direct opposition to the core values of libraries. And given the current, unprecedented pressure on library budgets, we believe these actions are particularly ill-timed."
Hey, we believe that, too! That could have come straight out of the mouth of a librarian. Actually, I think it comes straight out of the ALA Code of Ethics or something like that.
If we were hostile to Gale’s motives, we might suggest that of course they’d say something like that. They lost a bid to distribute Time publications to Ebsco, so they cry foul, and claim that they share more values with libraries (increasing access to information) than they do with Ebsco (making money). That’s what we’d say if we were cynical, which fortunately I’m not.
So let’s give Gale the benefit of the doubt on this. After all, they do have a history both of working with libraries to increase access to information and still making a profit. Despite the fact that I’m a librarian and thus obviously have no idea how to make money, I don’t despise the profit motive, and don’t think it can’t be reconciled with other values. I’m not saying private vices make public virtues, only that they can be consistent with each other.
Even if librarians don’t believe Gale, they most likely agree with the content of the open letter. The question is, what can libraries really do about it? Here’s what Gale wants:
"1. Raise your voice. Join the Facebook group…. Tweet. E-mail us….. Call publishers and information providers and share your library’s mission; tell them why these licensing practices are bad for libraries.
2. Pass this message along to other librarians and those who make decisions regarding your funding levels. Get others involved. There’s strength in numbers.
3. Don’t reward the behavior. Work with information providers who support your mission and understand your needs."
The first one doesn’t sound that productive. Ooooh, a Facebook group! Ooooh, librarians tweeting! Ooooh, emailing and showing emotional support! Nothing’s more frightening to a profitable corporation than a bunch of librarians on Facebook! And let’s be honest. Publishers don’t care about your library’s mission. #1 is just hot air, and we’ve got enough of that in librarianship.
The second one is slightly better. Librarians can tweet and Facebook up a storm in their little teapot, but something tells me most of them don’t control the purse strings in their libraries. Unfortunately, that assumes these librarians who controls funds are strong enough to make the very difficult decisions that Gale wishes.
Which brings us to number three. "Don’t reward the behavior." This can really mean only one thing. Boycott Ebsco somehow, perhaps by refusing to purchase the Time content.
This wouldn’t really be that traumatic. Have any of you read Time Magazine lately? Except for the foreign affairs reporting, it’s generally pretty bad. And they publish People Magazine as well. It’s a serious question whether libraries should waste the public’s money on such vulgar trash in the first place.
But that wouldn’t work. I know Ebsco. They’ll have those publications tied up in some sort of package, so that if a library doesn’t want to bother with Time, they’ll also not get a few dozen other key publications.
So if libraries really were to punish the behavior (or "not reward" it by paying for Time), they would pretty much have to abandon all Ebsco products. Is this likely? Ebsco has already won a lot of the Ebsco/ ProQuest/ Wilson battles, so librarians have already chosen their products over competitors because for whatever reason they perceived a better value. What are the chances librarians will choose to abandon a vendor they obviously like? It seems not much.
And yet, that’s the implication of Gale’s open letter. It might be better for Gale. It might be better for libraries. It might be better for the public. But there’s no way it’s going to happen. Librarians are too disorganized, too dispersed, and too willing to tolerate monopolies from vendors. As some librarians say, that’s just the way we’ve always done things.