I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write up a polished piece on ebooks and my growing reservations, but I wanted to get a few thoughts out of my head in the midst of the madness that is my life these days. My growing reservations are really around one of the most important, but least known or understood, aspects of librarianship: preservation.
When I say least known or understood, I don’t mean among librarians. I mean among the general population, although considering how little I’ve seen this issue raised in discussions of ebooks, I’m starting to wonder if librarians have forgotten about this crucial part of our mission as well. Preserving the cultural record has been part of the purpose of libraries since libraries began. I think it’s important that this preservation occurs in a non-corporate, non-profit-oriented environment. I think it’s desperately important that we have institutions charged with keeping copies, even when they are deemed insignificant or unprofitable. Preserving is equally important, to my mind, as providing access.
When we first started providing e-journals, it became standard practice to license content from commercial providers. That was ok, because we were often still receiving the print, and we had our print back issues. We were still able to preserve, while we provided better and easier access to our patrons. But what happens when journals stop appearing in a print format? What happens when we decline to receive those print copies? All we are left with is the electronic copy, the copy we do not own. We are now relying on a commercial provider to preserve those journals, and to continue to provide access. The work of preservation has been taken out of our hands, and all we are left with is the role of providing access.
I’d like to see something different happen with ebooks, and I’m not entirely sure I will. When I got my Kindle for Christmas I was so excited, and I love to read on it. I love to buy books for it; the instantaneous nature of it is just awesome. But there is a little voice in the back of my mind, that keeps getting louder everyday, that says, “You don’t own that book. You just paid to use it for awhile.” As an unrepentant book hoarder, this bothers me. I don’t want it to be this way, but I’m afraid I have no choice. The voices of individual consumers, of libraries, of those who believe in free access, our voices are teeny tiny in the halls of lawmakers compared to the booming voices of corporate bodies who want to find more and more ways to make money.
If libraries band together, we might have a voice big enough to be heard. We could, if we work together, be a real counterweight to commercial providers and licensors. And we have to, because it is part of our mission to preserve the cultural record. We won’t be able to fulfill that mission if all we are doing is licensing content from corporations. I think we have a real legal force in arguing the preservation aspect of our work, and to find ways through restrictive copyright laws that will allow us to preserve digital copies of works, but we aren’t going to solve this issue until we advocate for ourselves. We have to do that collectively. And we have to do that now. ALA needs to pick up the ball on this one, and this election season is the perfect time to let those people running know that we expect this of them.
We can’t just be talking about number of check outs or whether we can circulate Netflix DVDs and Kindles. We need to be talking about our ability to preserve resources that we are only borrowing.