Money, Knowledge, and Power: The struggle of technology in public libraries

As a publishing student, it is typical to be brought into conversations about the future of written content. When confronted with assertions that print is dead, and with untrue statements that eBook sales surpassed print sales years ago (perhaps there was a confusion between “online” and “eBook”), one is compelled to argue on the side of healthy and stable demand for print books, and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the march of progress seen in publishing houses, bookstores, and libraries. Such was the scene on hearing the news that Bexar County, Texas, has unveiled plans for a bookless library3. Debates have been raging about eBook lending practices in North America, an issue which represents the logistic difficulty of adding technological capability to an established institution. The problem is not with the march of progress but that legislation is slow to respond, leaving institutions such as public and university libraries treading in potentially dangerous waters if they want to keep up with the latest ways of disseminating content. Libraries can hardly wait for the legal side to catch up, and certainly their need to modernize reflects the need of the people, but to do away with print titles completely begs the question: How far is too far when it comes to library technology? As Robert Darnton points out in his 2009 article “Google & the Future of Books,” the legal problems surrounding freedom of knowledge are nothing new1. Books cost money, which ideally goes to the writer, being the copyright holder. Distribution of digitized content solves this problem when assembling a collection, but illegal distribution has huge financial repercussions, and while legal subscriptions to digitized content makes financial sense now, the potential for a monopoly on this service looms. But currently, this potential is coupled with another possibility: true freedom of information, the dream of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the libraries are right not to wait and see which it is.

Funding for libraries in Canada is not falling as quickly as it is in the United states, where according to the the Library Journal, state funding for libraries in California has been dropped to essentially zero, state funding for libraries in Texas has been slashed by 88% 4, and federal funding was reduced by 9% in 2011 5. While Bexar County spokesperson and County Judge Nelson Wolff makes condemnably blanket statements like “paper books have lost their allure, and future generations may have little use for them”3, the truth behind the decision of a library without books is much more practical. Bexar County is not doing away with anything; the county lacks a library of its own, and has been paying $3.7 million per year for access to the San Antonio City library collection, a price Wolff says will go up to $6.7 million this year 3. There is a literacy problem in parts of Bexar County, and no physical branches where readers can access content. And due to funding limitations, the county can’t afford start-up print collections in these areas. With federal and state funding for libraries decreasing across the United States, building a library without the required capital of building a print collection makes sense. What’s more, Wolff’s statements about what the community wants are not without observation. Before Newport Beach proposed a similar model for new branches of their library, they did extensive analyses on how their current libraries were being used, noting that “most visit the branches to study, to plug their laptops into work spaces or to use computers with Internet connections… few, however, actually pulled books from the shelves” 5. The Newport Beach library branches, however, already had extensive print collections, and were convinced to keep them due to public outcry. Wolff says the Bexar County library is a prototype location, and that while more branches are possible, they will have to study the community’s response2. Nevertheless, while community members may insist on print books, the proposed location will give them access to a wealth of information at a lower cost for the county, as well as the possibility of reference librarians, workspace, and access to technology they may not otherwise have.

The Bexar County bookless library is just one example of how the concept of the library is being reconsidered. While a few university libraries have already gone bookless and some public libraries, such as the afore-mentioned Newport Beach branch, have considered doing away with their print collections, there are also libraries which are themselves completely digital. Take for example the Digital Public Library of America, the result of “efforts led by a range of organizations, including the Library of Congress, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive… [to] provide books, images, historical records, and audiovisual materials to anyone with Internet access”6. Despite the good intentions which, according to the DPLA have been a vision since the 1990s, the digitization of library collections has run up against a series of issues, including “disparate technical standards, disorganized and incomplete metadata, and a host of legal issues”6. Legal issues, of course, arise in the conflict between the dissemination of information in the interest of public good, and the dissemination of information in the interest of capitalist venture.

This is not to say the writers and other providers of this information (the copyright holders) should not have power over the distribution of their product. But libraries were created to provide free and open access to knowledge. Digital-only may not be the future of all book production, but with little funding and start-up capital for badly needed library branches, it makes sense for these institutions to save money by subscribing to digital repositories such as the DPLA or even Google Books, so they can provide the other side of their service: a venue for education and intellectual betterment. But like the DPLA mentions, it is extremely difficult — and expensive — to acquire a digital collection legally. It is simply the massive extent of the publications being digitized that make navigating complicated legal channels difficult. And again, the proper legal channels require significant capital, which the libraries simply do not have. According to Michael Elcock, “The Association of BC Book Publishers (ABPBC) has been trying to help its members to digitize and sell their backlists to BC’s libraries through the Best of BC Books Online project” for $2 million per publisher 7. While the ABPBC approached the BC government to extend this service to library collections, no funding has been agreed upon. The libraries themselves cannot afford the service provided, but also cannot afford to fall behind in satisfying demand for electronic copies. And so, Canadian libraries are driven to seek electronic copies from digitization services in the United States, a practice that is legally dubious at best. Perhaps the company that is most notorious for digitizing library backlists is Google, who since falling under several legal suits, has settled and is now able to provide content to universities under a shared access agreement and, according to Darnton, a “‘public access license’ will make this material available to public libraries, where Google will provide free viewing of the digitized books on one computer terminal” 1. But while Google has the ability to settle, many smaller companies looking to digitize content do not, which means that open access to content still relies heavily on an already existing monopoly.

The problem, according to Robert Dalton, dates back to before the Enlightenment when, in the society then dubbed the Republic of Letters “most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made” 1. In other words, a society historically built on the freedom of information was driven wholly by the wealthy. Copyright laws were built to protect creators and for “the encouragement of learning”1, but in the twentieth century, large creative companies like Disney have used their clout and capital to monopolize the availability of creative content by extending copyright laws as long as they see necessary. While authors may have a bone to pick with Google for digitizing content, it is the legal action of these larger companies that have opened up the possibility for a single company to hold a monopoly in both wealth and knowledge. Before the advent of digitization, new academic and intellectual pursuits were compiled in journals and distributed to university libraries. Some publishers realized the opportunity, and now charge high subscription fees to the universities. The demand for the journals remains, as students and professors access the content free of charge, and so the universities are forced to continue paying exorbitant amounts. For example, the Journal of Comparative Neurology has a yearly subscription fee of $25,910 1. And for abuse or infraction of the copyright of such publications, consequences are dire. Aaron Swartz (who, notably, was offered employment at Google but refused) faced 35 years in prison and a fine of over $1 million for downloading digitized versions of scholarly publications off of JSTOR, to which he had free access due to his affiliation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)8. Charges were dropped after Swartz’s suicide, just days before the writing of this paper.

Google, of course, claims no ulterior motives in providing access to digitized publications, and hope only to promote open access to knowledge. But Darnton argues that as a business, Google sees “potential assets or what they call ‘content,’ ready to be mined”1. While the arrangements between Google and the libraries is mutually beneficial, it may not always be so. The copyright settlements show the power that Google has; they can afford to settle. Other companies or individuals wanting to provide access to information cannot do so. Thus, Google holds an implicit monopoly of information, and the freedom to limit access as they see fit. Essentially, the doors of the library are open, but Darnton has noticed a key around Google’s neck.

For the present, however, Google has provided an affordable way for libraries in the United States to access otherwise unavailable information. Any lawsuits that may arise due to copyright infringement will be shielded by the wealthy company, and the underfunded institutions can keep up with progress despite the cost of legally digitizing their own collections. People living in Bexar County who don’t have a computer or a bookstore will have a place to go to study, learn, read, and access publications held in reference libraries across the country. While public libraries relying on Google for content may be making themselves vulnerable to a repeat of the scholarly journals subscription issue, their choices are minimal. Those with print collections cannot afford to digitize their own content and aren’t prepared for the potential lawsuits of doing so. And yet, with drastic reductions in funding, bookless libraries are indeed emerging as a solution for areas that currently don’t have access either to nearby library branches, or technology in the home. In essence, the choices are few, and adaptation of new technology in libraries is, for now, a good thing.


1. Darnton, Robert. “Google & the Future of Books.” New York Review of Books, 12 Feb 2009. Web. 10 Jan, 2013.

2. Elcock, Michael. “Stealing Atwood: Ebooks in Public Libraries.” BC Bookworld, 2009. Web. 9 Jan, 2013.

3. Gonzalez, John W.“Bexar set to turn the page on idea of books in libraries.” My San Antonio, 11 Jan, 2013. Web. 12 Jan, 2013.

4. Kelley, Michael.“With Mid-Year Cut, California Reduces State Funding for Libraries to Zero.” The Library Journal Archive, 14 Dec 2011. Web. 14 Jan, 2013.

5. Kelley, Michael. “Obama Proposes $20.3 Million Reduction in Library Funding.” The Library Journal Archive, 14 Feb, 2011. Web. 14 Jan, 2013.

6. Reicher, Mike. “Tomes’ time might be up at Newport Beach library.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 2011. Web. 11 Jan, 2013.

7. Zeamer, Vicky. Press: What the DPLA Can Mean for Libraries 11 Jan 2013. Web. 12 Jan, 2013

8. Aaron Swartz. Wikipedia. Web. 17 Jan, 2013.



  1. Sophie,

    Great paper!

    I completely agree, though to say that the thought of a book-less library pains me is an understatement. With the digitization of libraries being offered as an alternative, it begs the question when and/or if libraries will soon become irrelevant. As you say, currently the relationship between Google and libraries in the United States is good, and Google provides an affordable way for libraries to exist where they might otherwise have not, but what happens now that companies like Amazon are offering lending services? ( There’s a great article (I believe from our readings) that discusses the idea of library alternatives ( Perhaps the idea of paperless libraries is just the beginning, and there’s even more to come. My qualms lie in relying on technology to store past and present iterations of texts, and the politics that are inherent in the transactions between business and libraries and the copyright issues that accompany such transactions. Such is the tumultuous life of publishers!

    Again, great paper!


  2. Hi Sophie,

    This is a very interesting topic (the clash of new technology with traditional modes of communication is always fascinating to me). It’s interesting when you talk about the idea of a library as a place to plug in your computer and access the internet. It strikes me that one of the major functions of a library in the past (a repository of facts and information) really has been overtaken by the many places on the web that catalogue and display vast amounts of information. The value of the library collection is not unlike the value of a magazine in that you trust the librarian (or library board) to make decisions about what kind of content that community needs/wants access to, and the librarian fills the shelves with their best assessment of those needs and wants (and I am sure some of their own political and social agenda that creeps into any decision we make).

    I can see an argument that says that the shift of power from a single librarian to “THE INTERNET” at large represents a democratizing of the process, but at the same time, I think we might lose something in the transition. My sense is that librarians are trained to localize the content and expose readers to things that will resonate particularly with their community, and that skill is something I would be delighted to find when searching for anything on the internet. I think of experiences in my undergrad degree when I would spend an entire day looking for a particular resource, finally go see my subject librarian, and then be blown away by how she knew exactly where I needed to look to find the answer. In a world where anyone has the ability to access the information online (which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), I think there is a case to be made for having some kind of intermediary available to help point us in the right direction, and make sure that we are exposed to materials that challenge, educate, and inspire.

    Perhaps the good old library is one answer.

  3. Really well thought out paper Sophie.

    This idea of digital content lending is interesting, especially thinking about other industries like Netflix for movies or Hulu in the US for tv shows. But you’re right that the legal ramifications are high at the moment so there’s a disconnect between libraries interest in innovation and exploring ebook lending vs. their ability to do so given the current system.

    That said, the current system is so rapidly changing. Just last week Ingram announced that they are adding a new e-book lending model to their MyiLibrary® e-content platform for academic, professional and public libraries. The press release states: “MyiLibrary’s newest model, its Access Model, enables libraries to purchase a set of access credits for an e-book and lend it simultaneously to multiple patrons for a set cost, and lending period.”

    Presumably this is cheaper than the digital subscriptions you mention and removes some of the digital usage restrictions related to concurrent lending.

    Overdrive, another major player in this space, had their own announcement last week that they can now offer streaming video and audio services for libraries and schools.

    Just as Apple and Android are battling for pocket space and Amazon and Kindle are battling for our ereader dollars, we have major players (third-party players) in the library market who are battling to win those library budgets.

    So there is money in the system, perhaps not at the library level, but these multichannel digital distributors of eBooks, digital audiobooks, music and video like Ingram and Overdrive are on my radar as they seem to hold the power in the relationship between publishers/distributors and libraries.

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