Sharing, E-books and Cooperative Collection Development
Libraries are in the business of sharing: We share with our patrons, we provide a nexus for researchers to share information and develop new ideas in tandem, and we share with other libraries’ patrons.
For as long as there have been libraries, the value of libraries has been a product of their collections and access to those collections. Preserving and organizing information for people to use efficiently and effectively is the hallmark of the library profession. Organized around our collections, libraries maintain space for research expertise, serendipity and collaboration.
When libraries loan books and journals, their ability to do so is governed in large part by copyright law. Copyright law, as its name suggests, defines under what condition a work can be reproduced and by whom. It may be all right to give someone my softcover copy of Infinite Jest, the 10th anniversary edition published and disseminated by Back Bay Books, but it is illegal for me to copy Infinite Jest. I own the book, but I do not own the content, says the law.
Formal e-publishing has incorporated digital rights management (DRM) and injected contract law—in the form of license agreements—into information dissemination. In the example of e-books, DRM means that, in order to read the book, a person must somehow authenticate, or prove via some combination of digital codes, that he is allowed to view the information. A license agreement stipulates exactly what someone who or an institution that buys an e-book can do with it. This combination governs library purchases of e-content and roughly replicates the control publishers have in a print world. Very few publishers so far are willing to facilitate sharing among libraries. Emerging models of “short term lending" ensure that, when sharing among libraries take place, it is managed through a publisher’s or vendor’s interface and it allows the third party, the content provider, to get a cut of the action.
Barbara Fister mused last week, "Sharing of any kind just doesn't seem to fit the way our economy works today, unless that sharing carries with it monetizable data dumps of personal information." While this is a broad, sweeping generalization, the notion that “sharing" represents a threat to publishers’ profits is a truism and is amplified in the digital realm. And sharing is what libraries exist to do. But when we look at publisher profits, it seems libraries have not advocated well enough for their role in disseminating information.
According to The Association of American Publishers, recent publisher profits are on the rise, though the United States is in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. In the academic market, "Higher Education posted a significant 23.1% increase in net sales revenue for publishers over the three years, with steady annual growth of 15.5% and 6.6% respectively. Net revenue for the category in 2010 is $4.55 Billion." Scholarly publishing is also increasingly profitable, though the number of titles sold has decreased.
When we look at publishing formats, e-book sales have increased by 1,274.1% over the last three years. All told, this paints a picture where libraries are increasingly spending their declining funding in areas of publishing that are anathema to sharing. We risk abdicating our noble responsibility, based in our expertise and our patrons’ interests, to profiteers and their shareholders’ interests. In Fister’s aforementioned post, she concludes, "We need to figure out how we're going to fulfill the mission of academic libraries-in which sharing is pretty much a key feature-without the help of profit-driven corporations and highly profitable non-profits."
In my library, we have recently reaffirmed the importance of sharing information resources as a bedrock of collaborative collection development with our many partners. We acknowledge our patrons’ need for digital resources and are seeking to reconcile these two competing realities. We negotiate skillfully and diligently in our own—and our patrons’—interest in the licensing process with content providers. We encourage content providers to adopt business practices instead of licensing, like SERU, and strive to earn their trust by holding up our end of the bargain.
On Monday and Tuesday The Triangle Research Libraries Network, of which my institution is a member, is hosting Beyond Print, a summit of library consortia and e-resource publishers, "to develop new business models and licensing terms for the cooperative acquisition of e-books." This summit has the potential to be a watershed event in libraries’ provision of e-content on the cusp of a radical transformation in research resources.