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How E-Books are Changing the Digital Rights Landscape in Libraries

Part 4 – The Role of the Library in the Digital Age

Terry Plum, Assistant Dean of Technology at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, has worked in academic libraries and higher education for nearly four decades. He presents and publishes on the evaluation of electronic resources and digital libraries, and has consulted internationally in library evaluation, library science education, and information technology training, most recently in Georgia, Belarus, Liberia, and Vietnam. I spoke with him on October 23, 2012, in his office in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

In this, the final of four interview installments—preceded by fair use, licensing, and digital rights management—Plum discusses the role of the library: It’s community! Libraries have always been about more than just taking books out; that doesn’t change because of technology advances. Plum says that libraries strive to keep in mind their basic mission, while also integrating rapidly changing technology into their services. 

NS: Should the library be redefined?

TP: No, I think the library has to grab this technology and figure out how its mission of connecting people to information and defining and creating a community out of that connection—I just made a mission up for all libraries, that’s pretty arrogant—is going to play out in the digital world. And what we’re thinking about is, it’s just connecting people to information. But that’s only a piece of it. The other piece is defining the community.

So another way of looking at it is, take a 13- or 14-year-old adolescent. Why would he, for example, go to his school or his library and join a chess club, when he could get much better games on the Internet? The reason is, you want to shoot the breeze with somebody over chess. You want to trash talk, or talk about stuff. That’s a kind of community. So libraries have to figure out in the digital exchange of information how they can continue to build their communities.

NS: In addition to community and information exchange, libraries are also about learning.

TP: What’s fun about libraries is that you’re not limited to what the teacher tells you, you can learn what you want to learn. Now, you can do a lot of that on the Internet, so there’s been an overlap. At my work we have been looking at Coursera, the massively open online courses begun by Stanford. One teacher and 100,000 students, which is kind of cool. One group of people who really succeeded in that model streamed the lectures but they also set up study groups, where people could say, “What did that guy say? I don’t get that. Rewind!” They’d do peer-to-peer, and learn. That seemed to be a pretty successful model in an education framework.

If we could figure out some way of doing that in a library with digital information, around digital books, that would be a plus. The licensing works against that, because you can’t do what you want. The library can’t do what it wants with those licensed materials. So that breaks apart the community.

That’s why everybody says, why do I need the library? I have my Kindle. The answer is the library is not just about the exchange of information. And you paid for all that stuff on your Kindle, you just happen to have enough money to do that. Now, where that argument has a danger is that then the library becomes the poor folks library and the rich folks buy the stuff just for themselves. And that’s a bad thing.

NS: And why is that, exactly? 

TP: The library needs to demand a way to be able to circulate ebooks. And it’s not just about Kindles and Nooks because those devices are ephemeral. We do not want a situation where the information providers regard the library as the place for people who wouldn’t be buying ebooks anyway, so it doesn’t affect the market. Another way of saying that is, if I’m a publisher, I’ll sell my licensed ebooks to consumers, and then I’ll make some arrangements for the library, because the library is filled with patrons who are not going to buy my book, the book that I made. The analog to that would be, the library is filled with blind people, they’re not in the market, they’re not going to buy my book! Or, the library is filled with people who can’t hear, they’re not going to buy my audio-book.

Then what happens is you have the ins and the outs. You create two classes. Then there’s no incentive for the publisher make the ebook available to everybody.


NS: What about the role of libraries in terms of ereaders and other devices?

TP: In the context of first sale, what is the library? The library is a shared commons around information. The Kindle is not shared. So you lose the shared commons. You also lose the gift exchange of the material. You’re not able to give the material to somebody else. You can’t sell the book, or give the book to the library. You can’t buy books from the library and re-circulate them. All of which made you feel good, but it also tied you to the communities. Library book sales in small towns are big events. Everybody gives their books and buys other people’s books and you have this whole exchange going on. But in the digital world, the user is isolated because of the licensing. You don’t have that exchange any more. You could look at the library as a community defined by the exchange of books, but it’s more. It is a community defined by the exchange of information to create knowledge. There has to be an exchange. It’s not necessarily library to patron. It can take lots of different paths.

The graphic resolution on devices is another piece. A laptop’s resolution is kind of crummy. So being able to read a book on a high-resolution device is value-added. The digital rights management that comes with that is the price you pay.

How do you view the role of the Library in the Digital Age?  And how can we best connect people to information in a way that fosters our communities? We invite our readers’ opinions; please add your insight to our conversation in the comments below.

Sasha Nyary with David Marlin represent MetaComet Systems, a leading provider of custom royalty software and management systems.


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