Library Journal staffer and publishing gurus aid the cause of two well-stocked national digital library systems—whether or not that’s their intent

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imageLibrary Journal’s Heather McCormack and book industry guru Brian O’Leary may or may not want two well-stocked national digital library systems for the U.S. I don’t know.

A second publishing maven, Mike Shatzkin, has been skeptical about the basic national digital library idea.

But accidentally or not, all three have recently buttressed the case, especially if we create separate public and academic systems. Perhaps someday a smart guy like Mike can push the national digital library concept for real; imagine the billions in extra revenue this could mean for publishers. The publishing industry already is a ward of D.C. politicians in a sense, given the business’s heavy reliance on widely hated copyright laws that erode civil liberties and weaken America’s libraries and the Net; and Washington may actually make the laws more offensive.

Now, from my own national digital library perspective, not necessarily those of the authors of the three earlier commentaries, here is some analysis of the trio’s separate writings.

–At LJ, Book Review Editor Heather McCormack warns that taxpayers won’t support the national digital library system that the Digital Public Library of America wants—if the library doesn’t offer popular copyrighted content.

So many academics hate the genre fiction beloved to millions of library patrons. And I wonder if the DPLA or successor, run by an intimidatingly renowned academic, would sufficiently appreciate the role of such works in promoting literacy. A junky SF novel can lead to a passion for Jules Verne’s writings, then other classics.

In McCormack’s own words about the role of genre fiction and the like, the DPLA’s “dreams would re-create in the cloud the ‘evocativeness and warmth’ of a physical library so future generations can achieve the highest quality of life possible. As much as I want that to happen, like many public librarians I spoke with off the record, I don’t understand how to achieve it without the books that rank as the most popular in terms of circulation. I am referring, of course, to genre fiction, the stuff that hard-core RA and taxpayer support are made of.” “RA” means reader advisors or their advisory services.

Complicating matters, the biggest publishers either won’t sell to libraries, overcharge, or insist on lending limits that many librarians abhor. In other words, libraries will need to set bargaining and content priorities, and I question whether one national system can do the job.

Better to let publics and academics share infrastructure and lots and lots of unencumbered digital items while focusing on the content needs of their generally different users. Close cooperation? Absolutely, perhaps with the aid of the same organization that would address infrastructure and other technical matters. But please don’t herd public and academic libraries into “one big tent.” Dozens of issues arise beyond the kinds and quality of content that the two different kinds of libraries offer. What’s best among options? The inclusion of as many books as possible, however arcane? Or licensing terms fair to both publishers and patrons/taxpayers? When all’s said and done, academic and public librarians may sharply disagree.

imageHeather, your analysis covered much more territory, and this is my own interpretation of some of the facts you laid out. But I’d hope you would agree with an essay that I myself wrote for the online version of Library Journal on the need for separate national digital library systems for public and academic libraries. The DPLA isn’t absolutely locked into the one-system idea. But that’s the one most talked about, and perhaps John Palfrey, the initiative’s leader, will at least take your further suggestions in the same classy way he did your write-up of a panel at the PLA gathering in Philadelphia.

–Brian O’Leary wants publishers to be more flexible about the use of their content and think more about “context”—a “must,” as I see it, if those two well-stocked national digital systems are to become a reality. Context matters endlessly in the library world. It’s even the essence of the Five Laws of Library Science. A second commentary from Brian bears the fitting title of Opportunity in Abundance. Brian has served on a local school board and believes publishers could reconcile social needs and their own.

Ideally publishers will give Brian’s writings and a related podcast (David Wilk’s interview with him) lots of attention. In my opinion, libraries and publishers should spend less time on the copyright wars and more time lobbying for higher library appropriations at all levels of government (and ideally even a mega-billion national library endowment). Brian, in a different context, mentions a $40 billion book business in the States. Why, that’s less than the combined costs of two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The government must not take over the entire book business and pay out all $40 billion a year, but in a $15-trillion economy, Americans should actually be spending much more on e-content. Revenue could come from different sources, including perhaps a small tax on goods or services associated with telecommunications, which dwarfs book publishers.

Granted, Americans hate taxes, but they love freebies. With big content providers using their considerable clout in D.C. and with librarians and ALA and a number of grassroots groups like Library Renewal aligned with them on the appropriations questions, a tax to help finance e-books and other carefully curated library content online might actually stand a chance. Librarians are old hands at pushing library referendums. Now they need to think bigger.

–Mike Shatzkin—yes, the very same fellow who wondered if libraries would be around in a few decades—has written an open-minded commentary on ways his publishing clients and libraries could co-exist. I see this reasonableness as helpful toward consideration of a national digital library system, or two.

I agree with Mike and the book industry that libraries need same “friction,” some inducement for library-goers to buy books, not just borrow them. I can envision a whole range of friction-creators (that’s friction, not fiction) ranging from shorter-duration loans on the most popular books to limits on the number of copies available. But the more tax money goes to libraries, the less “friction” will be needed—hence, my continued pleas for the establishment of a Library-Content Providers Complex that would lobby as smoothly as the Military-Industrial Complex does.

For this to happen, it will help for librarians and publishers to work harder on patching up their differences. Everything should be on the bargaining table, from libraries’ use of the doctrine of sales to publishers’ insistence on grotesquely extended copyright terms from Congress, with compromises from both sides. Although a big library booster, I worry that the doctrine of first sale, when applied to digital library books, might reduce market efficiencies that could benefit both sides. If anything the doctrine discriminates against the authors of literary works for which the demand may be slow but steady. Here’s to balance and logic (both suffering from the effects of Bono, too).

Meanwhile, just to be clear, I believe that libraries should be absolutely firm on use of the doctrine of the right of first sale unless publishers give up something in return. And considering the inherent friction with paper books—one borrower a time, the need to go to a library, and so on—it might well be wise for the law expressly to strengthen the doctrine for paper books. I am speaking here not as a lawyer, which I’m not, but rather as a reader and writer.

Erratum: In the Baltimore Sun piece I referred to a “high employment rate” in Rockford, Illinois. I of course meant “a high unemployment rate.”

(LJ and O’Leary writings spotted via Peter Brantley’s mailing list.)

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