Why the library establishment will wither away.

tl;dr – information is abundant, not scarce, so why are we letting database publishers charging so much for it?

Sometimes studying at library school has felt like monkeys have been flinging handfuls of stupid at me. I’m not someone who likes wasted effort: I’m a very lazy person (hopefully in a lazy programmer = good, rather than lazy slob kinda way). When I feel like I’m doing something pointless, my hackles rise, and I actually get quite angry.

I’ve felt like that a lot recently.

In an advanced online searching class I think I realised why. It seemed to me that the establishment librarians (lecturers, and a lot of my class) did everything they could to denigrate free (libre) sources of information. My lecturer telling me that PLoS wasn’t a real database was the final straw.

As ever, putting myself in their shoes, trying to understand where they were coming from, helped me realise what was going on.

We used to live in an environment of information scarcity. Brand’s famous quote, talking to the Woz:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other” 1

Information feels like it should be expensive, but the marginal coats of finding and duplicating it are getting less all the time. They are not zero, and that is partly what my dissertation is going to be about, but more about that later…

The establishment librarians still work in a world where Dialog charged them for every search, and searches took time. In fact, the readings we are set for class talk about Dialog a lot, and DOIs not at all! The reason PLoS is not seen as a real database is partly that you don’t pay for it, and partly because it doesn’t smell like a database: vendors don’t give you free lanyards for it at conferences, it isn’t centrepiece of advertorial in trade magazines. Institutional repositories that have no marketing budget are the lowest of the low. Just before wikipedia.

Combine that with the nature of ‘research impact’, which is based on how often work is mentioned in the same journals you publish (an incestuous, and I think actually corrupt practice intended as a marketing ploy in the guise of the advancement of human knowledge) and I can see how proprietary information sources have a grasp on librarians who want things to stay the same.

But the world changed. Information is actually now free. Good information. We no longer live in scarcity, but in abundance. What we should be paying for is brains, not bits – this is central thesis of a text that should be at the heart of librarianship, Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar.2 (OK, so Raymond in a gun totin’ libertarian crazy, but he’s right on this). The only money worth paying is on people, not software licences, or database access. I want to pay journal editors and administrators, not publishers, because publishers don’t add anything anymore.

This 180 degree shift from scarcity to abundance terrifies establishment librarians, because the rules all change. No longer are you a gatekeeper, or a shepherd, but a publisher and leader. Book museums become the purview of librarians interested in preservation, not in new knowledge (and there is absolutely no good or bad suggested there – museums are vibrant vital places).

This change is taking time, and its painful. I modify my behaviour to get pass marks, so instead of writing about PLoS, I write about how JSTOR is opening up to wikipedians3 (in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, probably after it was (un)successfully pirated4 – funny how pirating is the first activity in changes like this). Just remember that information is free, and that anything that stands in the way of that will be worn down – like a stone in the way of water finding its own level. Article databases will charge less, trumpet their non-value-add more, and slowly open, but they will fail and wither as libraries and institutions become publishers, and the benefits will be for everyone, everywhere.


1 “Information Wants to Be Free,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, November 23, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Information_wants_to_be_free&oldid=522286807.

2 Eric S Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, Rev. ed (Beijing: O’Reilly, 2001).

3 Igor Bonifacic, “Wikipedia Aims to Bolster Credibility with JSTOR Partnership,” 10 2012, http://torontostandard.com/technology/wikipedia-and-jstor-announce-partnership.

4 Tim Lee, “Swartz Supporter Dumps 18,592 JSTOR Docs on the Pirate Bay,” Ars Technica, 2011, http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/07/swartz-supporter-dumps-18592-jstor-docs-on-the-pirate-bay.ars.

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