Are Library Vendors a Necessary Evil?

This post was originally published on this site

Summary: While not necessarily the root of all evil, the goals of for-profit companies acting in their own self-interest do not necessarily align with the purpose of libraries, and in some cases, even disrupt the ability for libraries to fulfill their mission. A broader use of available technology as more of a delivery aid than a tool for restricting use, coupled with the potential for increased collaboration amongst librarians, could effectively render the need to pay other organizations to do work for us as largely unnecessary.

“You can’t live with them … pass the beer nuts.”
—Norm Peterson (Cheers)

Planned obsolescence keeps certain companies in business. This is nothing new. In the 1920s, a cartel of light bulb manufacturers famously reduced competition by essentially stopping the development and sales of longer-lasting bulbs. Products are still designed with a deliberately finite life span in order to maximize revenue from replacement purchases.

Thanks to the Internet of Things, technological obsolescence is now quite easy to enforce. Last year, for example, Google pushed out a software patch to a product of a former competitor which they had bought out. When those functioning devices received the update, it intentionally rendered them permanently inoperative. That’s obviously one way to generate new customer demand.

Companies also employ many psychological tricks to convince consumers they need the latest and greatest features and fashion. One notable marketing device is the concept of contrived scarcity. The diamond industry is perhaps the best case of how people have been persuaded to spend significant sums of money on, in this situation, rocks which are neither rare nor precious.

Should we pay money for desired goods and services if their provider’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic? Let’s face it: the reason your credit card rate is 34.99% isn’t because the bank thinks that 35% would be too much. Even in fields supposed to be contributing to the public good, it’s clear that companies don’t always have the welfare of the consumer as their top priority.

Competition and greed in the marketplace can produce stark inequities, but they also help drive innovation, lower costs, and class mobility. Many firms likewise do good work providing a social safety net. Yet corporate philanthropy can have its roots in strategic self-interest. In 1999, Philip Morris gave $60 million to charities, and spent $100 million on an advertising campaign touting those donations.

The raison d’être of a business is to maximize earnings and shareholder value. When Facebook made a censored version of itself for China, or retailers became champions of gay rights, or circuses and aquariums started phasing out the use of captive animals, or when Simon & Schuster finally made the call not to publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, those decisions were all primarily driven by the impact on the bottom line. While I don’t work for free either, there are professional standards about the freedom to read, intellectual freedom, and patron privacy which I don’t need to sacrifice because they might interfere with our profit model.

We should never be more focused on preserving our own job security than achieving the benefits of embracing progress, even if it would render our current role obsolete. Many industries, on the other hand, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, to the point of attacking useful discoveries and innovations that potentially undermine their revenue stream. It’s important to remember those capitalistic concepts when navigating the library information and product marketplace.

My first job as a librarian was at a chemistry library. We subscribed to an online version of Chemical Abstracts, yet the client was unavailable during business hours. As an academic customer, we didn’t pay for access at times of peak demand. SciFinder also only allowed for a maximum number of simultaneous users.

Some databases still do this, most notably electronic book packages, where if one library patron is viewing a title, all others are locked out. Library audiobooks contain similar controls, and publishers have employed DIVX-style restrictions to limit the number of times an e-book can be “circulated” before access is removed. This is another way to artificially inflate demand, since there’s no good reason for electronic manifestations of information to share the same constraints on distribution as their physical counterparts, aside from their creators’ desire to monetize usage.

These sorts of artifices should rub us the wrong way. I’m old enough that when I became a librarian, the biggest impediment to sharing information was technological limitations. We didn’t have the means or the labor or the bandwidth to create a free and digital library. As Google Books and more importantly Sci-Hub have aptly albeit partially demonstrated, that is no longer the case.

The main barriers libraries currently face when it comes to spreading knowledge are the digital restrictions and safeguards in place, created by publishers, which by design suppress the ability to disseminate works more readily and are therefore antithetical to our mission. I don’t say this as a letter of hate to those content “owners,” but as a member of a profession that would not and could not exist if copyright was an absolute.

The problem, at least for those hoping to preserve the traditional publishing economy, is that if the right of first sale applied to electronic formats, a single library could purchase a title and then instantly lend it online to not only every one of their members, but also, through an interlibrary loan network, virtually every other Internet user in the world. Although most electronic licenses prevent this sort of thing from happening, those kind of thought experiments illustrate how we’re not taking full advantage of the Web’s potential capabilities. Imagine also if a multitude of online libraries displayed the type of “fair use snippets” that Google Books shows, or if thousands of people could each upload a ten-second clip of a feature film on YouTube. It would then become a trivial matter to compile and view everything for free.

Would this put people out of business? When livelihoods are threatened, you start hearing shortsighted and hollow claims such as, “but we can’t possibly offer unlimited online library access and still operate,” or “but if we let our songs be played over the free radio we can’t sell records,” or “but we’re unable to offer cheap pharmaceuticals in developing nations because we can’t afford it,” or even “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Evidence on the correlation between piracy (much less public access) and sales is at best flimsy, while some claims are patently untrue. It could very well be the case that free digital libraries would exist alongside and in fact promote the retail side of our information trade.

Instead, we face rising costs. Predatory pricing is the expected consequence of library collection managers agreeing to pay more than what a publication is worth (or rather, what it should cost, since I would argue free information is the most prized commodity of all). Many scholarly authors have also demonstrated their vanity, and a tendency for acting as if more interested in prestige than exposure, by being unwilling to support open access models. Until we stand our ground against an increasingly and maybe now inherently corrupt system, the crisis will continue.

“Free” here is admittedly a misnomer. Ultimately, web servers cost money to operate. Nonetheless, consider how editorial boards can today function without those profiteering and rent-seeking middlemen. For almost twenty years now, we’ve known that, “it is technologically possible and economically feasible to build a system of dissemination for academic resources that is completely administrated by the scholarly world without the intervention of economic interests.” Sadly, the idea behind the value added by publishers in the days of typesetting to provide accessible scholarship has tremendous momentum.

Lest you think I’m being hypocritical about asking others to practically work for free, or otherwise agree or even aim to put themselves out of a job, the comparable argument that “we don’t need libraries anymore now that everything’s online” is something which I can only hope someday becomes true as well. I would love to live in a world where libraries are no longer needed for providing unmediated access to information. If fulfilled, the promise of open access would render the library as a source of information that we’ve purchased for our constituents as no longer necessary. It’s dangerous to start falling for the alluring yet fallacious reasoning behind such claims as “we’ll always need libraries.”

Much of what libraries used to do is already provided by commercial interests. Search engines are a path to resource discovery, readers’ advisory is offered through any number of recommendation agents, and a wealth of content is now readily available outside the library as well. Oddly enough, this renders our role of educator and equalizer all the more crucial. Given the current political climate and continued rise of filter bubbles, there’s definitely still a need for librarians to teach responsible content creation, as well as how to excavate quality sources, constantly and critically evaluate an array of publications, combat biases, and promote a scientific view of the world.

With the proliferation of democratized knowledge formats comes the side effect of information and misinformation overload. This is analogous to the tragic fact that more people now suffer from obesity than hunger. In both cases, everyone needs to be a little more mindful of their intake, and taught the benefits of seeking and consuming quality materials. I’m not sure why we continue to be surprised and appalled at students’ unwillingness to retrieve a print item from the stacks, let alone wait for an interlibrary loan, rather than moving on to the next full-text result, which may not even come from a library. Like it or not, freemium-type information providers offer a convenience which has proven more appealing than tried and true research methods.

Aside from content publishers, there are other library service providers and similar organizations we outsource our work to. In many circumstances, just as we don’t run our own electrical generators or build our own furniture, this is a cost-saving move. Consumerism has its place, although I’m uncertain it can ever truly be a win-win situation when there’s a corporation taking a cut of the profits. Moreover, many vendors receiving our money seem to be exploiting the precedent and mindset that we can’t just do it ourselves.

Any fitness regimen should exist within the outer bounds of whatever activities cause atrophy and overtraining. Similarly, expenditures should be made if and only if whatever’s being paid for cannot be accomplished for less money by taking the time and commitment to do the job in-house or with colleagues. Examples of this range from a state looking to cover employees’ health benefits instead of subsidizing a for-profit health insurance company, to Amazon reducing expenses by delivering their own packages, to someone saving a few bucks by not paying an auto shop for thirty seconds of labor by learning how to install wiper blades themselves.

Take Springshare, for example. I don’t mean to pick on them, since LibGuides is actually one of the better products out there, in terms of cost and features and support. Amongst academic libraries, their client base is downright ubiquitous. But why are so many libraries paying for this service when SubjectsPlus is free?

A lack of local infrastructure or expertise could be one reason. However, that’s easily remedied by libraries pooling their interests to work more together on shared systems, rather than succumbing to “not invented here” syndrome and each going off to independently program homegrown solutions. Why don’t we collaborate more? This profession created WorldCat, after all. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when we can instead build upon the existing work of our peers. Imagine if a fraction of the money every library spent on RefWorks subscriptions was instead used to ensure Zotero was a better product in every regard.

There’s a charming proverb about how new ideas go through three stages of existence: first they are denied and ridiculed; then they’re violently opposed; and lastly, they become accepted as trivial truths. The slow acceptance of Wikipedia is my favorite example of this phenomenon. In this and many other cases, ignoring popular trends caused us to miss the boat on opportunities to provide value.

Innovation from corporate interests is rewarded by receiving revenue and market share from change-averse libraries too afraid to take risks. The success of Google is largely due, in addition to the pioneering work of Eugene Garfield and his colleagues, to the fact that librarians were off cataloging websites rather than building a search engine. While we were ensuring all patron records were purged, likewise, LibraryThing was born. And it continues to take in money from people willing to populate a commercial database with their reading habits and book ownership. Companies thrive in the library marketplace by preying on our complacency and intransigence.

Some vendors even receive free labor from us. In my experience with library management systems, a good deal of the development work I see being done is completed by librarian customers who are in theory paying for products which should afford optimal functionality by default. Nevertheless, we happily code bug fixes, design feature enhancements, and implement numerous other usability improvements. We also submit a steady stream of reported coverage errors regarding our subscriptions, and the workload for this process feels on par with what it was when we maintained our own database of availability ourselves.

The development roadmap and timeline for our library service platform has been at times uneven and lately downright nonsensical. An interface update is now over a year behind schedule. Over a half-dozen new features that I was excited about, supposedly based on rigorous product testing, have been clumsily reverted back to match legacy systems. This was presumably done because some customers complained about the changes, although that’s mainly conjecture, since it’s not a transparent process. Unfortunately, this is a limitation of closed source which comes from dealing with corporations that can be prone to mergers, bankruptcies, and disputes with competitors.

When a public institution outsources the production and provision of goods or services to an external enterprise — whether it be the federal government buying missiles from a commercial defense contractor or a library paying for online access from scholarly societies and software licenses from for-profit vendors — it’s easy to end up with prices marked up like in a hotel mini-bar, as evidenced by a $435 hammer or a $507,000 subscription to a few dozen chemistry journals. We can move in a better direction, through policy and practice, with advocacy and support for open access publications, open textbooks, open education resources, institutional repositories, and free or open source software.

In just a few short years, our profession has gone from the conceit of believing commercial competitors were unworthy of acknowledgement to a fatalism that we must purchase exorbitantly-priced products because that’s the way the system works. This is not the business we’ve chosen. In an era of increased privatization, if we’re to maintain any sort of relevance in the future, our over-reliance on organizations structured to make money needs to change. In the words of Ursula Le Guin, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.

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