Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Death of Content?

Aaron Schmidt has posted "libraries might not provide content in the future & it’s okay on Walking Paper. It's a provocative piece occasioned by some recent technology developments including:

  • iPhone's Kindle ap, allowing any iPhone owner the ability to buy Kindle content (the same content Amazon will not license for library circulation, no matter how many Kindles we buy)
  • Netflix offering streaming-only subscription plans, and new collaborations with the New York Times and Rotten Tomatoes, hastening the demise of the DVD as a physical artifact the same way that
  • iTunes has become the world's biggest record store -- which is probably why Amazon is emailing me MP3 sales promos
  • the demise of many newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the brink
  • more online content subject to restrictive DRM that will tend to squeeze out libraries

I agree that this is a serious concern, but disagree with where Aaron Schmidt seems to take it:

It really doesn’t matter if we stop providing content in the same way. It might be the best thing to happen to public libraries. Yes, there will be some access equality issues that need sorting, but if we don’t have to concern ourselves with making sure people have access to content we’ll have more time to create excellent programs and experiences based around content and conversation.

In response, I wrote:

Yes, we are increasingly a community center. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s access to materials and the Internet that are bringing people to our doors. Kathleen de la Pena McCook has famously noted that information equity is the core value of our profession. It may be that in our provision of popular media we have veered too far toward Charlie Robinson’s “give ‘em what they want” and that the loss of ability to provide content will create more opportunities to “give ‘em what they need.”

But we should not let the baby slide out with the bathwater. I agree with Jonathon Rochkind’s comment above:

“we also ought not to sanguinely accept publisher’s attempts to illegalize libraries traditional content provision business in the “1s and 0s” market, like they would have liked to even in the print market. We should fight it with tooth and nail.”

In the interest of preserving equity of access to information, we need to utilize — and seek to improve agreements with — online content providers that see potential in our markets.

You note that “the real emphasis has been on providing shared experiences by gathering people together at hosted events. Connecting people in this way has more of a positive impact than sinmply sending someone home with a disc”. True as far as it goes, but the “shared experience” part of our service is still only a small fraction of the “circulating materials” part of our service. We need to intentionally prepare for changes, but I’m not ready to shrug off materials provision in the future just yet.

I think we need to be serious about content provision in new ways. It doesn't bother me that users will get new content in new ways -- I enjoy streaming Netflix too -- but we have an interest in assuring that diverse content is broadly accessible. Although equity of access and quality shared experiences are both critical for public library, the importance of access will continue to be primary for the foreseeable future. I suggest we need to do several things:
  • continue collective action on DRM legislative issues. ALA has terrific resources on this, and we may currently have a more receptive audience in Washington than we've seen for awhile;
  • our market muscle may not be huge, but it exists: we can encourage vendors to broaden offerings and make them easier to use and license, e.g. Overdrive's adoption of MP3;
  • continue to develop other digital resources via
    • digital and digitized collections
    • robust vital websites
    • chat reference
    • mobile web
  • continue to help our patrons know that however content and information channels change, however the digital divide evolves, librarians have a commitment to helping them get access to the resources they need;
  • continue to do our best to work with currently available media -- seems like a no-brainer, but people are borrowing more books than ever.
Libraries' role as content providers cannot be a warehouse function only, but needs to look forward as well as backward. Libraries' role as an agency of transformation needs both sacred communal space and connection to unlimited possibilities. Digital excitements notwithstanding, the novel and the picture book seem stronger than ever and not likely to go away soon. I'm glad teens can play Guitar Hero here, but that doesn't supplant the importance of a parent with a toddler in their lap reading Goodnight Moon. Some parts of libraries' transformative power are more intimate than they are collective.

But as caleb notes in a thoughtful response on Bibliographic Wilderness: "we are going to work harder than ever". That much we all seem to agree on.


Pete said...

Did you see Jamie LaRue's recent column, "Get your news ... from the library"?

Terry Dawson said...

Interesting! Jamie suggests new opportunities for mining the intersections of community development and content development.

Miss Kathleen said...

Talking about the death of content reminded me of a talk by lexicographer Erin McKean, who hopes that computers will continue to transform dictionaries and allow for more vital, inclusive use of language. Here's a link

waltc said...

Ah, Terry, it does an old man's heart good to see "Walt is right on" once in a while. Thanks. (With ref. to your comment on the walking paper post...)