A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics

This is part one of a two part series.

As a People’s Library librarian one question I get asked over and over again is why we don’t offer a digital library for our readers.  It’s a good question and one I think is worth exploring in some detail.

To start, we have to address the question of what a digital library is— is it an institutional repository or archive?  Is it a search engine for curated links?  Or is it a virtual library?  It’s an open question and one that I think different people can reasonably answer in radically different, but still valid, ways.  A digital library can be and is all of those things.

And if by digital library you mean archive, there is one, and probably there are plenty more I don’t know about.   OWS also has its own Archives group working to preserve the ephemera and other documents of the movement.  So, in that sense, there is a digital library for Occupy Wall Street.  But that doesn’t answer the question about bringing content to our readers.

The next question then is what the People’s Library takes as its mission.  As a leaderless library, the question of mission is tough to answer; the mission is fluid depending on who is asking and who is answering.  The simplest answer is that the People’s Library and the other occupation libraries exist to support both the full-time activists who live at the various occupations and the Occupy movement as a whole.  We also exist to serve the local communities surrounding the occupations, whether in lower Manhattan, LA, or Washington, DC.  Given that, a digital library seems a perfectly legitimate undertaking, especially after the raid and seizure of the books.

So, why don’t we have one?

The first barrier is time.  We could offer a list of useful links to our Occupiers and our online community.  With an all volunteer staff through, finding time to gather relevant links and then present them with annotations and so on is tough.  This kind of digital library also requires quite a bit of maintenance, links need to be added and removed regularly and annotations need updating as content evolves.   Searchable or categorized lists of links are also the most basic kind of digital library.  They certainly have their place, but what they don’t do is offer content that would otherwise not be available.  Instead, they make free content easier to find.  A worthy task, but one that takes many many hours of work.

Most libraries these days, both public and academic, offer access to databases that contain articles and books not legally available on the open web.  This is the virtual library that has evolved as more and more content is born digital and made available not through the codex or traditional journal, but rather through  databases like JSTOR, Gale’s InfoTrac, Ebsco’s Academic Search Premier and so on.

(Hey, wait a minute, those links don’t work for me!  It says I need a password!  Yep.  I know . . . read on.  If they did work, it’s because of your local librarians.  You should thank them.)

Those databases and others like them serve two main functions.  First, they provide an important infrastructure so that each library doesn’t need to gather and maintain servers, indexers, and so on.  This is valuable work, work that few libraries have either the expertise or funds to carry out themselves.  It is also work that has a pretty clear counterpart in the print world—remember that dusty old Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or the New York Times Index  In many ways, databases are the same thing, just with bits and bytes instead of pages and volumes.  The second function is that of gatekeeper.  This is a new function for the digital world.  Almost everything behind those pay walls you just ran into is copyrighted.  That means that the rights to the content are owned by someone and the database companies ensure that those rights are protected.

This second function, protecting the rights of the copyright holders, makes providing a virtual library for Occupy pretty much impossible.  What database company would (or even could given their contracts with rightsholders) want to offer access to the 99%?  These databases aren’t cheap.  Like the banks, the publishing industry–the companies who control the databases, has seen consolidation into the hands of a relatively few players.  More important than that even, the publishing industry has transformed into one dominated by multinational conglomerates.  Projects like JSTOR and Project MUSE are bright exceptions to this rule, ones that deserve our support, but they are exceptions.  So, let’s look for a moment at who owns our scholarly heritage and who the People’s Library would need to do business with to provide a virtual library for the 99%.

The market for large databases includes relatively few players offering a small number of comparable, but not identical, products.  The products fall into two main categories, single publisher databases and aggregated databases.  A good public library is able to offer access to both types.   ScienceDirect is an example of a single publisher database—you want access to an article published by Elsevier?  ScienceDirect is your go-to database.  Wiley more your speed?  Wiley Online Library is your one stop shopping spot.  Interested in a wider range of materials from multiple publishers?  Proquest Central, Ebsco’s Academic Search Premier, and Gale’s InfoTrac have got your back.   Or would, if you had the cash.  Which, unless you’re a 1%er, you don’t.   That’s one of the beautiful things about your library card, your local library may allow you access to some of these databases.  Or it might not.

And who are these companies anyway?  If the People’s Library had the funds, is sending them to these folks a good idea?  No.  Let’s start with the low hanging fruit—Gale.

Gale has an honorable history as library vendor.  But, like many fine companies, it has changed hands repeatedly throughout the years.  Started in 1956 with a single title, the venerable Encyclopedia of Associations, Gale was bought by Thompson in 1985.  You can learn more about the younger Thompson, the 2nd Baron Thompson of Fleet here.  His Lordship was the richest person in Canada in 2006.  It was in 2006 that Thompson spun off its Learning Division, and with it Gale, for  7.75 billion dollars.  The new owners, private equity groups Apax and OMERS (the Onterio Municipal Employees Retirement System) are a mixed bag.  OMERS is an institutional  investor working on behalf of the upstanding municipal workers of Canada.  It controls about $53 billion, but is struggling right now and cutting benefits to workers.  Apax is a private equity group.  This means that they invest in companies with the goal of bringing them to short or medium term profitability and then selling them off.  As the newly named Cengage, aka Thompson Learning, says in its annual report,” Investment funds associated with or designated by Apax control us.  Apax is able to appoint a majority of our board of directors and determine our corporate strategy, management and policies.  In addition, Apax has control over our decisions to enter into any corporate transaction and has the ability to prevent any transaction that requires the approval of shareholders regardless of whether we believe that any such transactions are in our best interests.”

Apax owns a lot of different companies.  They also claim a commitment to sustainability and good labor relations.  They’ve had a few issues in Israel, are working hard to bring the glories of for profit medical care to India, and they even owned my favorite anthropomorphic train.  Pity they haven’t lived up to their commitments—but then who could?  With 57 different “investments” across five sectors, Apax isn’t a business or even a corporation, it’s an empire.  And like any empire, it has an emperor, one whose salary at 502 times the median wage in Britain certainly befits his position.  And like any 1%er these days, Apax owns its share of politicians.

Other database companies suffer from the same problem: an extreme concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few.  ProQuest is a bit old fashioned in that its parent company is family owned—a very rich family indeed the Synders are (you can tell by the board memberships, those don’t come cheap).  Ebsco, which recently merged with the beloved H. W. Wilson company, is a conglomerate of truly stupendous proportions.  Committed to Growth through Acquisitions, Ebsco seems to be run by good people.  But they are people who are caught up in a system that has run its course, a  system that has generated tremendous wealth for the few through the wonton destruction of the natural environment and human society.

Stay tuned for part 2 . . .

13 Comments

Filed under Mandy, Scholarship

13 responses to “A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics

  1. grateful reader

    This is an excellent post, and perhaps someone would take a moment to clean up some of the typos. Ontario, not Onterio, and Thomson with no P, wanton destruction, not wonton. This is trivial compared to the message of the post, but when a piece circulates it should sparkle down to the last detail. Please, I hope you will clean this up, delete (or not put through moderation) this comment and keep on keepin’ on!

  2. Pingback: A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics | Occupy Wall Street Library

  3. Debby Randolph

    Excellent article; I learned a lot! Books Forever! Words Forever! Ideas Forever! Librarians Forever! We’re all out here with you, every step of the way!

  4. a librarian

    Anyone with a NY State Driver’s Lic or non Driver ID can log in to NY State Library resources paid for by your tax dollars here: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/gate/esubject.htm
    NYPL (Manhattan, Bronx, Staten Island), BPL (Brooklyn), QBPL (Queens) and most other public libraries offer remote access to databases and downloadable e-books using your library card barcode. You can get a library card if you live or work in the Borough.

    http://www.nypl.org/help/library-card

    http://www.bpl.org/general/circulation/whocard.htm

    http://www.queenslibrary.org/index.aspx?page_nm=Get+a+Library+Card

    In additional to google books, free e books are accessible from these and many other places:

    http://www.archive.org/details/texts

    http://www.gutenberg.org/

  5. Catherine

    Excellent post,
    perhaps wanton destruction rather than wonton (dumpling) destruction?

  6. “(Hey, wait a minute, those links don’t work for me! It says I need a password! Yep. I know . . . read on. If they did work, it’s because of your local librarians. You should thank them.)”

    Thank you for the shout out!
    (and thank you for the excellent exploration of the communication lifecycle)

  7. This is brilliant. I can’t wait for part two.

  8. Pingback: OWS Library on the 1% in Publishing | The People's Library of Pittsburgh

  9. This is a really excellent examination of who controls our resources, thanks guys!

  10. Librarians Unite!

    Hi Moderator – I must quit posting so late – could you please post the comment below and delete the first one, as well as this note to you, obviously – if it is not too much trouble. Have a great day – :) Where is that editor, anyway??

    My inner most extreme library geek is foot tapping to the sound of the drum circle with happiness that you would take the time to write this interesting piece. Thank you, I learn more here almost every time I visit. (I would dance, but I will save that for the poetry anthology posts.)

  11. Looking forward to reading part two!

  12. Librarians Unite!

    My inner most extreme library geek is happily foot tapping to the sound of the drum circle with happiness that you would take the time to write this interesting piece. Thank you, I learn more here almost every time I visit. (I would dance, but I will save that for the poetry anthology posts.)

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