Each year the copyright community celebrates January 1 as “Public Domain Day.” That is because a convenient fiction included in most nations’ copyright laws says that if a work’s term of protection expired during the previous year, it officially enters the public domain on the following January 1st. Instead of having to figure out the exact day of an author’s death, and having different works enter the public domain each day, we just save them all up, so that all the works whose term expired in 2014 (i.e., all works whose authors died 70 years earlier, in 1944) entered the public domain on New Year’s Day 2015. At least, they did in most other countries, but not in the U.S.
After three columns in a row about the ebook situation for libraries, I thought I was finished with the discussion, but then I got an email from an ebook vendor. He pointed out that his ebook publishing platform did all the things I had said I wanted from library ebooks, and asked, very politely, why, then, hadn’t my library bought any of them? Here is my answer. It probably doesn’t apply to every library, but it applies to some of them, especially some of the larger ones.
For the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the answer to this question is yes: libraries have a central mission to change the world—to make it a better, more intelligent, more tolerant, more open-minded place, one that is (thanks in part to our professional efforts) increasingly filled with well-informed critical thinkers who will, themselves, take the tools and skills with which the library has provided them and go on to make the world even better. This is what the library exists to do.
It’s been a rough year for the planet. It’s been a rough year for the country. It’s been a rough year for libraries. We face a lot of problems that are complex and scary and it’s easier to name them than to figure out what to do next. But when I look back on 2014 I see some amazing people doing the things that we librarians profess as our core values. Since there’s something about years coming to an end that leads to lists and resolutions, I thought I’d look back and give a shout out to a few of the librarians who have taken difficult situations and made courageous, difficult, affirming choices. These are just some of the many librarians who make me proud to be in this profession.
I don’t call myself a futurist, though I do find enjoyment and sometimes enlightenment in watching what’s going on in the world and trying to extrapolate toward what academic libraries might want to do about it. I also harbor a strong love for examples of novel services and fresh ideas about longstanding services, though I’m old and scarred enough not to take them quite at face value—there’s almost always struggle and conflict behind the scenes that does not get aired in order to keep the peace among librarian colleagues.
In my last two columns I explored what I called the “mess of ebooks” and explained what I want from library ebooks. In this column I want to discuss a possible future that could be good for libraries and for publishers. Right now everything is in flux. Publishers are understandably wary of selling Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free ebooks to libraries, and the patron driven acquisition (PDA) model some libraries want might not be sustainable for publishers. Libraries are struggling to buy books at all. The library ebook market is in a state of flux. There’s opportunity in chaos, though, and the opportunity here is to create a future that’s good for everyone, from publishers to library users.
The president surprised many people when he added his comments to the 4 million submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about whether and how the government should set rules that will shape the future of the Internet. What was surprising was that Obama came out with a short but quite pointed outline of what many of us feel would be exactly the right moves to take. Citizens of all political persuasions have strong feeling about the value of keeping the Internet open. How exactly to do that is what’s tricky. Because simplistic metaphors, such as asking whether Internet access is more like cable TV or like electricity, as a recent New York Times article put it, don’t really work, I thought I’d try and untangle what exactly is under debate.