The Information Universe Turned Upside Down

In some of my posts, I have mentioned how I think the traditional information universe is being turned upside down. I thought it might be helpful to provide some examples.

Formerly, publishers and libraries believed they were “on the same side”. Yes, there was some anger from libraries because books would go out of print too soon or were too expensive, or the publishers might complain that libraries were not buying enough of the books they published, but all in all, libraries and publishers considered one another as friends and allies. The issue of interlibrary loan was always strained however. What librarians saw as sharing, a publisher saw quite differently. As a publisher once told me, “Interlibrary loan? We call that interlibrary theft!” But for a long time, this sore point could be more or less ignored.

So far as I know, this sore point first came to a boil with restrictions on interlibrary loans of electronic journal articles, which, to the publishers, turned out to be completely different from making a photocopy of a printed issue and mailing it to another library. Librarians considered that sending a file by email instead of sending a photocopy through the regular mail was the same thing and it just saved them time and money. When libraries shared using digital files, that is when publishers got very angry. The Subito experience that seriously limited document delivery is an important case. (I have found this to be terribly complex and won’t attempt to summarize it. Here are a couple of documents for those who are interested:,

Related problems with ebooks has only made the situation worse. Many of the most popular publishers do not allow libraries to purchase ebooks at all (which seems to me to be a kind of discrimination against libraries), they add heavy regulations (limit of 26 loans with Harper-Collins) or they charge such high rates that clearly show they are not interested in selling ebooks to libraries in the slightest (Random House raising prices by 300% to libraries)

Here is a great page from Library Journal that sums up policies:

Even with physical books, things are changing with the ruling that books printed outside the U.S. are not subject to the “first sale doctrine” and therefore cannot be lent through interlibrary loan!

Another example is seen with apps being made for mobile computing. With an app and a cellphone or tablet, people can be anywhere and use an Amazon app to do an instant price compare. “Anywhere” includes inside a bookstore, or a music and video store, where someone can do a instant price compare for an item the are looking at on the shelf. It should come as no real surprise that stores do not like the Amazon app.

But libraries can make apps too, so people can do exactly the same thing to discover whether a specific book or video or music is available for free from the library and even place a hold on it. Here is a video describing one It looks like a very nice app, but I can certainly understand that the owner of a bookstore or video store would not like that app any bit better than the Amazon app.

The “problem” in the eyes of publishers of bookstores is, of course, not so much with the library app, but with the library itself where people can get the same books, music, videos, and so on, for free. As long as people in the bookstore did not know they could have a copy for free, it was one thing, but now people have more information at their fingertips and to publishers and retailers, it means lost revenue. I completely understand that but of course, a library has always meant lost revenue to a publisher or retailer. It is just that technology has made the issue more vital today.

Therefore in many ways, for publishers and retailers, the library is turning from a friendly consumer into a competitor. And, a competitor that publishers believe is using unfair methods in many ways.

That doesn’t end the matter though: the publishers and distributors have relations with the creators, and these relations are changing in fundamental ways as well. The open access movement among the scholarly community is now well known and researchers are starting to realize that publishers are not necessarily their friends, that is: what is good for the publisher may not be good for the creators. University presses are having a very difficult time of it and are no longer seen as the only option, or even the most effective option, for scholars to communicate with their colleagues.;view=fulltext

In fact, the creators are beginning to rebel against the traditional methods. The example of the Elsevier boycott is very telling, but the publishers have their own agendas as well, as shown from this bit of news: Apple apparently refused to publish this person’s book in digital form because it had links to be able to buy books at, a competitor of Apple.

Finally, new writers now have other outlets that several prefer to the traditional routes of publishers

The response of publishers has so far been to try to retain the control they have always had, but everything is changing no matter how much they try to stop it. Since creating a copy of something is so incredibly easy–once it is electronic–plus the fact that the way the Internet works is based on creating exact copies of files, it has turned out that the value of the copy itself has decreased to where it is practically worthless. Nevertheless, publishers continue to try to maintain control over the copy (copyright). It seems to me that the only solution for some publishers would be to shut down the Internet! That is not going to happen (at least I hope not!) so if publishers are to survive, they must find other ways, but they insist on trying to maintain their traditional control over copies. This serves neither the customers nor the creators. I won’t try to predict the future, but I don’t think this situation can go on forever.

There is one more development I would like to point out: more people seem to be aware of the consequences of online tracking which is the very basis of most search engines and information companies. The concept that everyone is beginning to live within what is called a “filter bubble” is becoming generally known, especially after Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble” and his excellent TED talk Now there is even a new web search tool with the unfortunate name “DuckDuckGo” (I find it embarrassing to even type it) but it claims to return results based on no tracking. Google responded to all of this after DuckDuckGo came online. It makes for a very interesting discussion.

If librarians are to remain relevant to their communities, they must rediscover what it is they really do. The information universe is in a state of intensive change in the areas of search and information creation, and libraries cannot be serious players in those realms. They can only sit back and watch. I think publishers must also rediscover what it is that they really do.

For libraries, part of this rediscovery will be to learn who our friends and allies really are today. As we see from the examples above, the public seems to be exploring several questions: whether publishers are really and truly on their side, whether what Google and the search engines provide is good or bad for them.

Librarians have a lot to say about precisely these matters. They provide help the members of their communities in many ways and are still a trusted voice. There seems to be a huge opportunity to demonstrate the value of library values today. And it may even be appreciated!