March 23, 2018

The Library as the People’s API | Peer to Peer Review

I’ve been mulling over an article in Searcher magazine by Steve Coffman titled “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire.” I have no idea if he chose that title, or if an editor came up with it. Whoever is responsible, the idea that libraries ever had imperial goals started me off on the wrong foot. What empire? Libraries are incredibly local – which, as Coffman points out, puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for market share with big businesses. Good thing that’s not what libraries try to do.

Coffman published a memorable American Libraries article in 1998 in which he advised libraries to imitate Barnes & Noble, focusing on customer satisfaction by streamlining operations and saving money by dropping unnecessary frills like reference. After all, B&N staff could recommend books without a master’s degree, and hardly anybody went to a library for information. He now works for LSSI, a for-profit library management corporation. “For profit library management” is as discordant a phrase to me as “imperial library,” so I admit to starting the Searcher article in a skeptical frame of mind.

He has a point, but . . . 

It turned out that I agreed with much that Coffman says in the article, including that local library catalogs can’t achieve the massive popularity of  the interactive features offered by Amazon or Goodreads – though we could have if we had the imagination to realize how popular books are and had made access to free sooner. LibraryThing for Libraries, at least, has responded by letting subscribing libraries import vetted reviews and tags from hundreds of thousands of crowd-sourced enhancements of catalog records as one way around the limits of a local web presence. I also agree that in the face of vendor and publisher-imposed friction, libraries are unlikely to ever be able to make ebooks downloads as convenient as Amazon does. However, I think his belief that ubiquitous cell phone ownership will make library-provided Internet access obsolete is wishful thinking, that Amazon’s generosity in providing free ebooks is no substitute for public (yet private) sharing, and that not nearly enough databases are free that we can stop wasting money on them, as he suggests we do.

In fact, we part company at a more basic level. Coffman and many other library pundits find libraries wanting when compared to efficient and innovative businesses. If libraries fail to be responsive  to their communities’ needs or lack imaginative about the possibilities, that’s a problem, and it’s fixable. But as fervent the faith in supply-side economics has been since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, mutually exploitative commercial relationships are not the only model to draw on.

In his conclusion, Coffman writes “our dream of an electronic library has been built, but others own and manage it. We are left with the tangible property we began with, our physical books, the thousands of buildings that house them, and the millions of people still coming through our doors to use them . . . Figuring out how to exploit those assets in this new environment will not be easy.”

The first part of that statement I can agree with. We failed to build our own, and (in the case of scholarly publishing) failed to help scholars build their own. Instead we used our money to buy access, with all kinds of entangling strings attached. The second part of that argument is where I disagree vehemently. As a community member who uses libraries, I am not too comfortable being thought of as an exploitable asset. My discomfort isn’t just semantics. Libraries, like other public goods, are fundamentally different than businesses and the last thing we want to do is treat our community as customers.

It’s all about the software

This is why I was fascinated by Hugh Rundle’s post, “Libraries as Software – Dematerializing, Platform, and Returning to First Principles” at his blog, It’s Not About the Books.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I’m a fierce defender of library patrons for whom it is all about the books. No matter how much we sigh and insist that libraries are not warehouses, that we have so much more to offer than a bunch of old books, for many library supporters, it’s the books that matter, and they are understandably disaffected when librarians make it sound as if books are outdated and bourgeois and that book lovers are ignorant fetishists.

With that out of the way, Rundle’s idea is intriguing. He borrowed the metaphor from Australian urban activist, Marcus Westbury, who referred to cities as software, meaning they are not just physical structures and systems, they are structures inhabited by people who can transform the physical spaces by rewriting social rules – hacking the system and, in the process, revitalizing the physical shell they inhabit.

Rundle argues that the hardware of the library – the books, the buildings, the computers, even the rules we have developed to regulate libraries – are not what matters to the public.  “It has never been the hardware,” he writes.

“Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings.  They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused.  They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature.  They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.”

I would add that the software they come from is not proprietary. The library is not the Apple Store, or Amazon. At its best it’s open source software, an adaptable API for knowledge and culture, letting communities engage with ideas through rewriting, forking, and reinvention. In the People’s Library, the people are not customers or assets. They are the library, and the library is theirs.

We are all programmers

Rather than buy access to stuff (that sellers make purposefully inconvenient), Rundle thinks libraries should be “a platform for enabling innovation, learning and cultural development to occur in our communities without the need for capital. Isn’t that a lot more compelling than a place for lending books to people?”

I love this vision. I also think if the people want to pool their funds and buy some books to share, I’m more than willing to honor and facilitate that desire, because literacy is an API for ideas. Where the problems arise is when all we do is pay for access while letting the seller-customer relationship replace library values. This is exactly where the friction and dysfunction of the contemporary library comes from – businesses that monetize the use of property are compelled to make sharing difficult and to inhibit reuse. The alternative business model popular today is to reverse the relationship, setting up inviting platforms that are a trap for gathering personal information. For Facebook, Goodreads, Google, and other businesses built around sharing, we are not customers, we are the product. Amazon is that modern monopoly, extremely good at combining both business models in one, so that our information is as much a product as the goods that they sell us.

The library must be an alternative to that kind of exploitation.

A Prophecy from 1984

This identity conflict is not new. Alice Wilcox, the founding director of the Minitex library consortium, died last month after a lifetime of selfless service. She had a vision for what libraries could be in a world that was socially and technologically connected, and I personally benefit from that vision every day—as does my entire community. When sharing news of her passing with us, Cecilia Boone of Minitex included a couple of prophetic paragraphs from a speech Wilcox gave about opportunities libraries lost as they embarked on automation – back in 1984!

“We lost the opportunity to maintain a healthy balance between the public and private sector.  Instead of appreciating the unique roles and contributions of each, we blurred the distinctions.  We failed to understand the difference between being business-like and being a business.  In addition to sitting on the sidelines as observers, we have often participated in the diminution of the not-for-profit sector.  Witness the member/OCLC relationship change from cooperative to vendor.  Witness the professional migration to the marketing arm of the corporation specializing in library products and services . . .”

We have gotten into the habit of turning to proprietary vendors to provide the contents, the software, and the rules for sharing, and in the process made a terrible Faustian bargain. We learned the hard way how not to do it, but it’s not too late to change. The principles of open source software and open access publishing are better aligned to library values than Amazon and Google are. There’s really no competition.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Indeed, one stark difference between the library and the bookstore is that at the library there are no customers; everyone there is an *owner*. Owners can make decisions which change the way the organization does business, and with whom it does business.

    There may not be a Library Empire, but we could think of libraries as the meeting halls of a Literacy Movement. Billions of people invest in libraries and the skills they need to receive a return on those investments. When their investment is threatened, what do you suppose the Movement might do? I think it’s big enough either to reshape the market, or to make a new market and say bye-bye to the interests vested in the old one. The vested interests have an opportunity to influence that choice, but the door is closing.

    • Barbara Fister says:

      It’s a very interesting time – and I think we’re seeing the limits of the idea of culture as a one-way flow from IP owners to consumers, but we’re also seeing the rise of companies like Amazon that appear to be freeing people to express themselves, but through a proprietary platform with monopolistic goals. The library can be an alternative to both visions of culture-as-commodity. But only if we respect what is special about the common ground libraries represent.

  2. I’m trying to untangle these very issues for a paper about public library use of social media tools! The Coffman article is a nice meaty find! I think I might have more to say than my 10 page, first semester MLIS paper will allow, but what a rich discussion and an exciting time to be in library school!

  3. Loretta Gharst says:

    “We have gotten into the habit of turning to proprietary vendors to supply the contents, the software, the rules for sharing, and in the process made a terrible Faustian bargain. We learned the hard way how not to do it, but it’s not too late to change.”
    Libraries have always used proprietary vendors to supply content (publishers/booksellers), providing access to (delayed shipments to libraries after big stores and bookstores; different binding; etc.), and the rules for sharing (copyright limitations). There have always been publishers and booksellers who have been reluctant to sell to libraries.
    Agree that it is not too late to change but I don’t think we need to give up on the idea of a library being about providing and managing access to content created by others. The change that is needed is for libraries to quit reacting to vendor imposed limitations on digital content and get proactive in negotiating better terms with proprietary vendors that reflect the needs of the library for practical, legal, guaranteed access to content.

  4. pedestrian says:

    Libraries (and the things that go on in them) are mostly paid for by taxes. Publishers and right holders and capital type business pay taxes, if they were to be replaced by a non tax paying, non “capital” system of production who is going to pay for the library ?