2 March 2021
Sustaining libraries in a digital world: Interview with Jennie Rose Halperin, Library Futures
Library Futures is a new organisation in the United States focused on the questions facing libraries and their ability to fulfil their missions into the future. We interviewed Library Futures' Executive Director, Jennie Rose Halperin, to find out more.
When the pandemic pushed most libraries remote, it became clear both that digital resources would be inextricably transformed and that the fault lines of access would continue to rupture.
Digital access, particularly in the public sector (libraries, schools, universities, hospitals and other publicly funded institutions), has been unsustainable for years. But the pandemic made it clear just how much libraries in particular are struggling to meet the needs of their patrons in an increasingly unequal information landscape.
Significant collections legally purchased or acquired by libraries are now inaccessible, unaffordable, or subject to unscrupulous licensing terms that make it impossible for libraries to purchase materials to lend and preserve.
Market dominance by a small band of publishers and distributors have led to outrageously high costs for digital resources, which libraries are forced to license rather than own like they would print resources.
Access to information is being withheld from people around the world in favor of private control of public resources.
The pandemic forced the issue, and libraries are now seriously under threat: In the United States, a few powerful corporations are suing a library and attempting to end the right to lend; in Canada, librarians have mounted a campaign demanding better econtent for libraries; in the UK, the #ebooksos campaign prompted an open letter with over 3500 signatures.
Despite the abundance that digital content should provide, scarcity continues to reign supreme. It was in the face of this crisis that Library Futures was formed. Together, we are working with libraries to empower, not challenge, the library's right to promote access to knowledge.
Can you briefly describe the principles you have set out?
The six principles of Library Futures are meant to be the lodestar for our work – they are built around library values including the right to lend, content ownership over licensing, and the sanctity of patron privacy.
In recognizing and supporting the promise of digital libraries, we believe that these principles can provide the moral imperative for a different path forward: one that is more open, more equitable, and more empowering for libraries, educators, and the public.
Equitable access is the future, and we can only envision that future with our community.
What are the merits of a joined-up approach?
To be a bit clichéd, there is power in numbers! This is a fight for the very survival of libraries and we can't do it alone. For too long, this issue has flown under the radar, and a community and coalition approach will help educate both the general public and our own institutions and organizations in order to create the change that is needed at this time.
In the launch message, you talk about the importance of a technology-positive approach. What marks this out from other approaches to libraries and digital tools?
Great question! We are focused on the issues of digital ownership and equitable access, promoting a research and programmatic agenda that strengthens the rights of libraries to lend, preserve, and purchase while respecting copyright.
As a part of the open knowledge community, we work with other organizations in the space and adopt tools and technologies that facilitate this access, but our research and advocacy agenda is fully committed to empowering libraries to assert their right to lend. If you are interested in learning more about our coalition, please get in touch.
What do you see as being the consequences of inaction?
Not to be too dramatic, but if we don't act, libraries could cease to exist. Amazon already controls up to 90% of all ebook sales in the United States and the five publishers that control 85% of the market are pursuing a merger that puts more than half of all US book markets in the hands of one company.
As Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz write in the End of Ownership, one of the consequences of licensing rather than ownership is that it places power in the hands of very few and allows private actors to control how we interact with information instead of our own collective self-governance. Libraries currently account for between 20-30% of publishing revenues – how long until big publishers decide they don't want to sell to us at all?
As the world shifts toward digital delivery, continued changes in the legal and social perception of ownership continues to move in the direction of capital. Publishers make decisions based on profit and marketability rather than the needs of communities.
Meanwhile, libraries and educational institutions must provide a democratic balance. Yet if we don't act, at some point government, school, and university budgets are not going to be able to handle the costs of providing resources to the public, patrons will lose their privacy, and libraries will cease to have relevance because all quality content will come at a price that disproportionately favors the wealthy.
As a Swedish library campaign puts it, "Your new librarian likes money more than books and owns a large publishing company. Is this how we want it to be?"
What gaps do you see currently in our understanding of the situation facing libraries and other actors in the information space? How can these be filled?
Honestly, most people don't even know this is an issue because it defies logic. There is no reason why digital content in libraries should not be treated like physical content, no reason why taxpayer funded research should be sold back to the public at exorbitant prices, and no reason why the most vulnerable in our society should continue to suffer because of bad policymaking around equitable access. Try explaining access to knowledge to people outside of the field and you're met mostly with incredulous looks and gasps of surprise.
A specific issue that I see as integral and widely misunderstood, though, is why digital content is important for libraries.
Digital content serves a truly diverse group of people, from rural people to the print disabled to retirees to deployed military. Strong digital libraries can help reduce the stigma of library usage for youth, particularly around late checkouts, and it can also help strengthen the case for universal broadband and building more equitable educational achievement.
It's not just about waitlists for bestsellers, but about leveling the playing field for everyone to access knowledge, no matter their background. Education and advocacy is the best way to fill these gaps immediately.
To begin, we made our popular social media graphics into posters (contact me if you want access!), and we're pursuing an agenda that will help bring these issues to the forefront locally, legislatively, and legally.
Finally, I think there is a major misunderstanding around the concept of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), which I've heard described as "pretend it's print."
The concept, which is supported and championed by our board, partners at organizations like Internet Archive and Authors Alliance, and our policy group, is widely used in many libraries around the world.
We collaborated on a Myth Busting webinar with the Internet Archive to dispel some of the most pervasive myths about the practice, and look forward to continuing to help develop understanding and usage of this important technology.
You highlight your shared mission with authors and creators. Where do you see there is ground for common cause?
Most authors want to be read, and they want to make a living from their work. For too long, publishers have pitted authors against libraries due to a misunderstanding of the many ways libraries support authors – particularly by purchasing their books!
And while I think there's a legacy of misunderstanding, I also see an enormous amount of opportunity. In a recent paper, empirical research showed that digitization increases sales of physical editions by about 34% and increased the likelihood of any sale by 92%, particularly for less popular or out of print works. In the US, the publishing industry saw their revenues increase by an astounding 8% last year even with a 30% increase in digital library lending.
I often hear libraries framing the issue as somehow "proving" their value, that they should "show publishers they're not cannibalizing business," but I think that misses the point – look at the hashtag #publishingpaidme and you'll see a discriminatory, exploitative, and predatory system. Knowledge should be created in the service of the public good in support of the people who create it, not to make a coterie of shareholders richer.
Libraries have a fundamental role to play in fixing this system, but they cannot do this within labyrinthine licensing terms, reliance on big corporate platforms, and contracts that pit authors against the libraries who buy their books and support their aims.
What about publishers – can you see a path towards a new consensus around the role of libraries in the digital age?
I hope so! I've been heartened to see that some publishers, particularly smaller publishers, are making the choice to both sell ebooks to libraries and to work with them in a reciprocal relationship to preserve and lend their materials. At the same time, many smaller publishers are working with libraries through distributors and don't necessarily have the time, energy, or legal skills to decipher increasingly confusing contracts.
We want digital materials to be equitable, discoverable, usable, and high quality, and we hope to support publishers in order to build a healthy ecosystem for writers, publishers, libraries, and learners of all types. If you're interested in our work as a publisher, please let us know! We'd love to explore how we can work together to make publishing work better for everyone.
US libraries benefit from the possibilities that fair use offers – do you think that your work can still be helpful for libraries in other countries?
The enclosure of the digital commons is a global issue, and we're seeing advocacy happening all over the world, from #ebookSOS to the international open access movement to the global OER movement.
We're working on legal and advocacy issues within the framework of the United States, but copyright is abused and digital content is enclosed and treated as a commodity rather than a right around the world. While the legal context is different in other countries, the issue is not exclusive to the United States, and solving this will take a global community coming together around shared interests.
Historically, publishers and libraries have had different but complementary goals: Libraries want to purchase books, and publishers want to sell them. Digital libraries shouldn't be used as an excuse to withhold knowledge from the people – that's a global issue that should concern everyone.
How can anyone interested follow your work?
A good place to start is to get on our mailing list and follow us on social to find out everything that's going on – we have some exciting events, blog posts, and new campaigns coming up. If you're interested in our coalition, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.