Rent or Own?

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.



5 Comments on “Rent or Own?”

  1. Steven Harris says:

    Eric Hellman has another great post this week that makes arguments FOR containers but maybe AGAINST ownership. Interesting.

  2. Dennis Moser says:

    No, no, no, no, A THOUSAND TIMES NO!

    We are NOT in the business of “ownership”; we ARE in the business of custodial stewardship and curation for humanity. STOP thinking about OWNING the collections and get back to thinking about CARING for the collections.

    I think this is a major fallacy that has sprung up out of the library schools that have stopped teaching courses in preservation (and, tangentially, archives).

    LIbrarianship is a tripartite endeavor of providing organization, access, and preservation…we seem to be forgetting that way too often of late.

  3. Steven Harris says:

    That’s a “no” from Dennis. 🙂 Actually, the preservation question is very relevant in an electronic environment, especially if we aren’t the owner. Who has the authority and the professional commitment to make sure content is preserved?

  4. aline soules says:

    Ownership? I thought we’d given up on that long ago, whether you agree with the idea or not. Preservation isn’t likely to be our lot either–not in the long run. Google may run into glitches, but they have the resources and we don’t, so, ultimately, we’ll have a few little things here and there and Google (or one of its competitors) will have the rest. So where does that leave us? In the education business, I think–information literacy.

  5. Patricia Pettijohn says:

    It is interesting for those of us who are facing devastating budget cuts, and looking at the loss of major electronic resources, with no print to fall back on. Stewardship is about sustainability, and not just about preservation–it should be interesting to see what will happen when libraries lose access to licensed resources that they don’t own and that do not provide perpetual access or do so in a format that is difficult to manage. It is ironic that, just as the digital revolution is pretty much considered a done deal, libraries are facing economic challenges to owning OR renting.


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