Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fourth Branch Library

Today’s library is the result of twenty years of incremental changes: an institution buying access to information wholesale and restricting that access retail. As discussed here and here, the wholesale market for information is distorted and creates artificially high site license prices. Another expense is the inordinate amount of time staff spend on usage studies and community outreach to gauge collective information needs, negotiations with consortia that pool resources to obtain imaginary discounts from inflated list prices, negotiations with publishers and their agents, and internal library discussions. After they are acquired, site licenses remain expensive. As protectors of publishers’ digital rights, libraries spend significant resources restricting access at the retail level.

The time for incremental change is over. We must rebuild the library from scratch on a foundation of traditional library values. Here is my attempt.

The mission of the library is to serve the members of its community by:
1. Helping them create high-quality information,
2. Collecting, organizing, and archiving that information, and
3. Making that information widely available, subject to legal and ethical constraints.

This mission is steeped in tradition. Libraries of the antiquity were more about secrecy than openness, but their primary purpose was to archive locally produced information. The purest modern implementation of the vision I am proposing is the American presidential library, which collects, manages, and makes available the information from one administration. Public libraries routinely accept manuscripts and personal correspondence of authors and other luminaries. University archives preserve scholarly history. Many academic libraries have implemented various open-access initiatives and have set up databases containing publications of faculty and students (scholarly articles, books, theses, and dissertations).

This mission allows for specialization. Libraries are ideally positioned to add value to information produced by the communities they serve. A public library that serves a particular location may help its constituents with educational programs in information literacy. Other libraries may specialize in particular disciplines and serve communities that are dispersed worldwide. This is particularly the case for data archives, which require deep specialization.

This mission includes nonprofit and for-profit organizations. In this view, publishers are for-profit libraries. As such, they shoulder all the responsibilities of a library, including archiving the information under its purview.

This mission exploits the network effect. Through collaboration, libraries can create a worldwide network of high-quality information that is more than the sum of its parts.

This mission is critically important. We produce an exponentially rising amount of information that is poorly managed and in danger of being irretrievably lost.

For concrete examples, I could point to existing open access initiatives. Peter Suber’s The Open Access Overview is a good place to start. Most of these initiatives share the trait of being focused on disseminating information from a community to the world and letting the web take care of bringing the world to individuals. These are great initiatives, but I want to push the limits. I do not want to be boxed in by what is feasible today.

The largest producer of public-domain information is the government. Legal information, legislative records, and official government reports are readily available through established channels. Other government records, however, are more problematic. As a matter of expediency, officials tend to have a bias towards opaqueness. Impenetrable government records are managed by a hodgepodge of government agencies. The system hides problems ranging from bad judgment to corruption and complicates good governance.

What if we had an independent agency to manage the government’s records? This agency would create the systems to gather this information. It would decide the appropriate level of public access. By imposing standards, it would ensure that government records were machine-readable and discoverable. The infrastructure for such an independent agency is already in place: the public library system at the local, county, state, and federal levels. In its most extreme form, this independent agency could evolve into a fourth branch of government, one dedicated to transparency of the other branches.

As a practical matter, this may be an overreach, and more modest initiatives are more realistic starting points. However, considering the profound impact of digital information on our lives and considering that the information age is here to stay, we are forced to think big.

On the other hand, thinking small comes naturally. The latest innovation of the Los Angeles Public Library sets free the all-important Sony Music catalog, saving Los Angeles residents from the unspeakable burden of $1 song downloads. The Librarian in Black has a detailed critique.

<Note: edited title 8/26/2011>