A kind reader sent me this amusing article: The User-Driven Purchase Give Away Library: A Thought Experiment. It describes a glorious future, only ten years hence, in which libraries collect no physical books, and if library patrons want a book the library either gives them a digital copy for free or prints one on demand for a modest fee. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Let’s take a look at some of the assumptions. My favorite might be that, “it is easy to imagine a world where all of recorded knowledge is stored and available in a digital form.” I guess it’s pretty easy to imagine that world. I close my eyes, and poof, all recorded knowledge is in digital form!
What I can’t imagine is how all that recorded knowledge is going to be digitized. Most of the time the author is talking strictly about books, but all recorded knowledge is bigger than books and journals. What about archives? What about material in foreign countries? Let’s just ignore that.
You can read the details of how libraries are going to acquire individual licenses and how every document in the world will somehow be digitized and available for use. I’ll skip to the conclusion. In ten years this model will seem “downright sensible.” Why?
Basically, the assumption is that in ten years, every book will be digitized, permanently preserved and easily available to every library in perpetuity, and that book publishers will have site licenses that allow libraries to purchase and “give away” digital copies of books to library patrons more cheaply than they could purchase and store printed books.
Does that really seem likely?
It all sounds very pretty, and it certainly shows some imagination on the part of the author. I suspect that in the technical details, he’s correct in his predictions. I believe most books that would be wanted by American libraries will be digitized in a decade, give or take a few years, and thus theoretically available. But I predict a more dystopian future, based on what’s happened with journals over the past decade or so and what’s currently happening with ebooks.
In ten years, virtually all desired books will be in digitized form. The digital content in the public domain will be readily available through Google, with backups should Google ever collapse. That’ll be lovely for the 10% of library patrons who want to read 85+ year old books.
Books still under copyright (i.e. the vast majority of what people actually want to read), will be available digitally. The publisher-preferred model will be much like today. Individuals can pay to license access to digital files, but not own them. They will not be able to give or trade them.
As ebooks become the norm, book publishers will finally wise up and realize that far from hurting their sales, libraries are a captive market, so they create site licenses for libraries. They certainly won’t allow libraries to purchase giveaway digital licenses on the cheap. Instead, they’ll control their books through rationing, like NetLibrary or Ebrary are forced to do today. They would never make it so that it would be cheaper for people to go to libraries to get books for permanent, individual use.
Ebooks will be expensive, just like they are now. Has anyone priced a scholarly book for the Kindle? Forget that $9.99 stuff. $70 is more like it, because scholarly books are priced for libraries, not individuals.
And prices will go up instead of down, especially for the handful of major publishing houses. Once all books are available in only one format and can no longer be owned, but only licensed, book publishers will discover the joys of monopoly, just like journal publishers have! They’ll have site licenses for libraries, all right, and those licenses will be expensive.
We’ll have a situation where libraries are useful only as cash cows for publishers, and content is controlled, organized, and made available only as the publishers wish. Forget about selection, because it won’t be possible anymore. Libraries will take the packages of books on offer, or they won’t. Publishers will realize that there’s no point in pretending to sell individual books since they’re just licensing content now. They’ll be doing the selection for libraries, take it or leave it.
There will be ebook packages based on obscure categories whose main purpose is to make money. There will be “academic” and “public” packages, but with enough missing from each that libraries will have to buy both to have even remotely comprehensive collections. There will also be current files and back files and every other possible way of dividing up the available books to make the most money from them. No matter what libraries try to do, they’ll end up paying for a lot of junk they don’t want so they can get the bit they do want.
Oh, and interlibrary loan? You can forget about that. Just as you can’t ILL ebooks now, you won’t be able to legally do so in the future. Once everything is available only in digital content and by license only, why would publishers allow ILL? If a library patron wants a book, the library can purchase the book, or rather, the library can subscribe to the package that will allow the patron to temporarily view the book. Maybe they’ll be able to “rent” temporary access instead of “purchase” “permanent” access. I can just imagine the publishers chuckling over an arrangement like that.
Oh, sure, there’ll be digitized copies for preservation purposes, but no one will be able to get to them as long as the publishers still exist and are still offering copies for sale.
In this information dystopia, every book under copyright will be controlled completely and exclusively by publishers, and the traditional role librarians have played in making information more available to researchers will be eliminated. Bigger libraries will have most available books. Smaller libraries can have small packages the publishers decide would be good for their clientele.
Librarians live in a la la land where if information is digitized it thus becomes more available to people. Theoretically, that’s true. Once digitized, everyone in the world could theoretically read the same book at the same time for practically nothing.
It turns out that libraries don’t control that digitized information, though, and the more digital information there is the more it will be controlled and restrained by publishers and copyright laws and digital rights. Libraries will just be there to pay exorbitant costs for books that individuals can’t afford, the same as they now do for journals.
Librarians want to make information free. Publishers want to make information pay. Which group do you think will win?