Rent or Own?Posted: April 12, 2011 | Author: Steven Harris | Filed under: Collection Philosophy, Online collections | 5 Comments »
I have a running debate in my brain: rent or own? Libraries have been in the ownership business for a long time. You might say we are almost obsessed with containers. In the past, information was only available in containers: a particular copy of a book, a print subscription to a journal. Those physical items sat on our library shelves. In fact, their very physicalness gave libraries a lot of rights that made library collections possible and practical (see the right of first sale doctrine). As we move into an electronic environment, a whole new set of principles and laws apply. I don’t think libraries and publishers have quite worked out their relationship in a totally digital world. It is a time of chaos. Libraries would still like to hold some of those rights that inhere in physical objects. Publishers, however, think different terms should apply. Mostly, publishers have had their way. Digital library collections are largely driven by license agreements that dictate different terms than the ownership model, or the level of ownership is limited or restricted (try interlibrary loaning an item from your digital collections).
But the radical thought I’m having is whether we should give up the notion of ownership altogether. What if libraries and collections staff focused their energies on use? What if our entire raison d’etre was simply to media and enable use? Give up the entire ownership model? This seems especially relevant in a digital library collection. Does it really matter if we own something that isn’t really “anywhere” anyway? This might make some of the recent ebook debates seem irrelevant. No HarperCollins limit on the number of uses your ebook can have before you have to buy it again. You pay for each use individually. This is scary for both libraries and publishers. It can make it difficult to budget for usage. For the library there are no discrete costs; they are behavior driven. For the publisher, they might discover that large swathes of their catalog do not generate any library sales at all. (See Go To Hellman on the Pareto Principle–in fact all of Eric’s recent posts.)
What one hopes is that the as-yet undetermined pricing model is fair to both libraries and publishers. For the libraries, one would hope that the unit or usage cost would be low enough to enable use of a greater number of unique titles at a total cost that was not greater than what we are already spending. Obviously, that is a hard thing to work out. Publisher: “How much money you got?” Library: “$100,000.” Publisher: “Send it to us.”
What kind of math can we use to determine fair usage cost? I think the library world needs to spent some energy thinking about this. Otherwise, the models will be entirely driven by the publishing world. ALA now has a Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content, but the thinking needs to spread out beyond the task force. It is something all collections and acquisitions librarians should be thinking about and talking about. Collectively, we will come up with more and better ideas.