A People’s Digital Library and Prefigurative Politics

This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Part 1 is here.

The Occupy movement, and the People’s Library, are, in part, prefigurative movements. That is, they are attempts to create and embody the kind of society we want to see.  For many of us, doing business with companies that are so closely tied to the status quo, companies whose structure and management reflect the exact opposite of the world we want to see, is anathema.  We can’t change the world, rebuild it into a place of justice and equity, if we can’t reflect the values we support in our internal dynamics and operations.  That doesn’t mean that any of us want to see the employees of these corporations suffer or that we want to see the products themselves lost.  Rather, we would like to see a new kind of structure supporting the tremendous amount of work involved in creating and maintaining these products.  A new structure that, rather than acting as funnel to send wealth to the few, provided material support to those involved in building them, including authors, while still creating the kinds of high quality indexing and access that the information revolution has allowed.  While some of us are certainly Luddites, we’re Luddites in the true meaning of the word.  The Luddites hated the looms not because they were opposed to making cloth with a machine, but because they hated the economic and social consequences of that transition.

It’s worth exploring, briefly, the mechanisms that have allowed these companies to act as wealth concentrators and that have transformed them from genuine partners in the information system into a virtual information cartel run for the benefit of the few.  The first way this has happened is through the copyright law.  The idea that intellectual fruits deserve special protection under the law is an old one, and a good one.  However, like so many of our society’s laws, it has been come corrupted through money.  First, authors, especially scholarly authors who often make no money from their publications, are required to sign over their copyrights to the publisher of their work.  These contracts almost always serve the needs of the corporation to the detriment of the author.  Because scholarly authors require publication to get tenure and continue in their academic positions, they have very little ability to walk away from these contracts and even less to alter them.  It’s also worth recognizing that few authors have legal departments working on their behalf to write contracts to ensure their rights are protected.  Most are on their own when it comes to wading through these contracts.  There has been a strong and growing movement toward open access publishing, but it is being both co-opted and opposed by the corporations themselves.

On the other side of the transaction is the library.  Libraries have no choice but to do their best to provide access to the materials that their readers need, and often their readers are the very same authors who have provided the material to the publishers in the first place.  The publishers know that libraries are in a weak position and have acted repeatedly to raise prices far beyond what can be sustained by library budgets.  They have also made the decision to make information available largely through the so-called “big deal.”  The big deal offers libraries many different titles bundled together.  These “deals” cut into library budgets and make traditional collection development impossible.  Instead, it transfers that role to publishers who can add and remove titles at will.  The big deal also means that as the price increases, libraries are left with little choice but to cut other places, often the book budget.  This model, known as the “access model “, also damages libraries because rather than actually owning a title, libraries are merely renting them. So that when libraries do need to cancel a title or a database, often the entire run is lost.  In the old days, when libraries purchased actual physical volumes, a title could be cancelled, but the journals themselves still sat on the shelves, available for use.

The access model also creates problems for libraries when applied to ebooks.  Ebooks are a great idea and they certainly have a role to play in the information environment, but because of the tremendous power imbalance libraries are at the mercy of publishers when providing these to our patrons.  The legal doctrine that protects the primary activity of libraries, lending books and other materials, is called First Sale.   Under the First Sale doctrine when an entity purchases an item they are free to use it as they wish.  They can lend it, destroy it, or sell it.  The item is theirs in a very real sense.  Digital information, because of its very nature, has no such protection; instead digital items are controlled by private contracts, contracts that determine what can and cannot be done with the item.  That is why ebooks can be deleted after purchase and why publishers can place limits on how many readers a library can allow to borrow an ebook.  Since these corporations have both more money and more power than libraries, the contracts strongly favor publishers.

The digital environment also poses another serious problem: environmental damage.  The materials and energy needed to run the infrastructure pose a significant threat to the natural world.  Rare earth mining, disposal of technological waste, and carbon emissions are massive externalities.  Companies motivated by profit have no incentive to mitigate these threats and even less so move quickly and decisively to eliminate them.  Industrial capitalism, and for a while state socialism, have had two hundred years to reduce environmental damage and have consistently failed to do so.  The planet is now dying.  The climate is in chaos, the ocean is turning to acid, and we are losing species at an alarming rate.  It is time to give another system a chance to do better.  Can a high tech industrial civilization exist on this planet without destroying the very systems that make the planet a habitable place for humans?  The question is a good one and it one that is not settled.  Can industrial capitalism create that civilization?  No.  It has had a long time to prove otherwise and has failed spectacularly.

A better world is possible.  Occupy is about creating that better world.  A world that is just and fair.  A world where everyone has equal access to information and to literature.  A world of literacy that is guided by strong and universal moral principles—care for the aged, young and sick, care for the natural environment, care for those who have been marginalized.  A world that values democracy and nonhierarchical organization.  A world that understands that destroying the planet for our own wealth is insane and immoral.  We are building new systems in the shell of the old.  That new world needs Literature Criticism Online, it needs Business Source Premier, it needs Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw.  It also needs a healthy publishing sector.  Publishers and libraries are partners and each need the other thrive.  But we need a new structure to support these tools and this industry.  One that protects the employees, the authors, the library, the reader, and the natural world.  One that doesn’t exist to funnel wealth to the few at the cost of the well-being of the many.

4 Comments

Filed under Mandy, Scholarship

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

  1. Excellent analysis – clear and strong and inclusive. Thank you!

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

  3. Debby Randolph

    Enlightening piece!

  4. Librarians Unite!

    Thank you.

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