Michael Porter on Library Renewal and eResources

Michael Porter presented a session with a nice, attention-grabbing title at ALA Annual: “You Mean Libraries Will Be Able to Deliver Content Better than iTunes and Netflix?” The session wasn’t really about how libraries will deliver content better than commercial providers; it was more like a rousing exhortation to libraries to start re-thinking how we own, deliver, preserve, and manage our materials as we move ever onward into the digital era. He has some interesting ideas, and it was a great, lively presentation, I think Michael has a gift for lighting a very needed fire under librarians’ collective butts.

Besides talking about the bigger picture of the library’s role in a digital content environment, I thought his narrative of how he got involved in ALA and started to make things happen in the areas he cares about was very inspiring. For everyone who thinks ALA is a big, unfeeling organization that cannot be moved, talk to Michael. He shows that ALA will respond if you push hard enough.

ALA formed a presidential task force, EQUACC (Equitable Access to Electronic Content), to investigate digital content and how its use is being restricted for libraries. (There’s some interesting stuff on the timing of this task force’s creation; it was underway and beginning work when the whole HarperCollins debacle happened, but hadn’t released any information. ALA’s delay in response was noted by many, and when EQUACC did release their report, it kind of looked like it was in response to the HarperCollins situation…at least from my admittedly small perspective). EQUACC delivered their report to ALA the day after this presentation (I have not read it yet). Their report details some very specific monetary requests they are making of ALA to begin work on problems around access to digital resources. They want to look at accessibility issues, conduct an environmental scan, deal with PR issues around e-content, and create a permanent place in the organization for these issues.

The EQUACC website has a forum that, at this point, is a bit sparse. Like any online community, it will only be built if people get in there and build it, and this could be a great place for this kind of conversation. Ultimately, though, I think it’s kind of dead in the water. People are already having these conversations on blogs, FriendFeed, Twitter, etc. ALA expecting people to have them all over again in a new place is kind of unrealistic, I think. Maybe better to aggregate comments and blog posts on these issues in one place?

Michael also talked about a few organizations who are starting to work in this area, including the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the Harvard/Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Digital Public Library of America project. Interestingly, he had some guarded comments about the DPLA project, including that their top-down, very monied approach doesn’t seem designed to be part of a collaborative, networked library world. One organization, COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Associations) has actually asked the Berkman Center not to use the name Digital Public Library of America because it is not, in fact, a public library. I, too, thought the DPLA project was a little strange when I first read about it. I remember thinking, “Wait, who are these people and why aren’t they working in collaboration with existing projects like Hathi?”

Here are some more general notes I have from the session; as with the rest of my ALA posts, I will be trying to pull all of this together into something coherent and meaningful in the end.

  • People will continue to access electronic content at exponentially increasing rates, and not just books and journals but music, video, games, interactive applications, and things we can’t even imagine now. Our current business models aren’t designed for this kind of content and distribution and they won’t continue to work. We need new solutions.
  • Libraries have a lot of power IF we begin to work together, and consider ourselves an aggregate organization rather than single, isolated libraries. Regional consortia have a lot more power than a bunch of libraries working alone, and it will become more and more important for us to band together in groups like this. Our best opportunities are going to come from new organizational structures like consortia, from new vendors and new partnerships.
  • Libraries need a our own distribution infrastructure like iTunes and Netflix, and it would be best if we build it ourselves.
  • We should be building archives of digital content, but we’re currently held back by restrictive copyright legislation, litigious publishers, and our own fear. If we could band together to fight restrictive copyright and litigious publishers, we’d have a better chance of winning.
  • We can’t rely on for-profit corporations to build our archives of digital content because they have no business reason to preserve after the content stops making money.
  • There are some major hurdles in the way of libraries owning, distributing, and preserving e-content, and the biggest is that the law is against us right now. The people who make the content don’t necessarily want us to have it. There was some conversation about creating new publishing models, and organizations like GlueJar and Library Renewal are doing some really interesting things in this area, but that doesn’t change the fact that the content our users want most isn’t being offered to us in ways that work for our organizations or our patrons.
  • Partnerships with publishers will be key, and we need to start thinking about how we should approach them. We have more power as a collective: if libraries as a whole, or even large library consortia, rather than individual libraries here and there, approach them, there is more incentive to listen. We need to think about what we can offer them. As it stands, they have no interest in working with us, especially large trade publishers (university presses might be more open to partnership). What can libraries give publishers in return? We need to start thinking of this so that we have something worthwhile to approach them with.
  • I think we can approach publishers either as good cops or bad cops: We can offer them something beneficial (statistics? marketing? events?) or we can threaten them with bad publicity. Or both? I’m generally not a fan of negative tactics, but in some cases you have to fight with what’s going to work.

I think there are some really interesting ways we can move forward in this area, but we have to collaborate to do it, and we have to be clear about what we need and want. Right now a lot of libraries are taking whatever they can get because they want to offer content to their patrons in the formats people want. And I completely understand that need, but I also think we might be undermining our long-term needs and goals.

There is certainly a lot to think about here, and I’m glad we have people like Michael who are passionate about these issues, who are thinking of solutions, and who are so excellent at getting other people engaged, too.

Links:
Library Renewal (the non-profit Michael and a few other folks started up to advocate for libraries’ rights in a digital age)
EQUACC (the ALA task force that was started thanks to Michael’s poking and prodding)
Libraryman (Michael’s bloggity)

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