A future together
Being members of the public as well as writers, we support an expanded, rejuvenated public library system. Unfortunately, until our elected officials realize that in the information age, “national security” rests far more on the powers of the mind than on weapons of death, library budgets will face increasingly short-sighted budget reductions. It is imperative that some portion of the cost-savings and potential new services inherent in electronic publishing be used to rescue and nourish our starving libraries.
Just as they are funded now to buy physical books and periodicals, the libraries of the future should be funded to buy electronic works and subscriptions to data services that the public can use for free or on a discount basis. The costs of these programs should be paid by tax revenues or subsidized by surcharges on other library electronic services.
In the new information universe, libraries will have to be reinvigorated. There are at least three obvious roles for libraries:
REPOSITORIES & DISTRIBUTION CENTERS. Libraries should become the repositories and electronic distribution points for intellectual property not under copyright, as Project Gutenberg today is bringing online works into the public domain. Libraries are the logical distribution entities for government information and taxpayer-financed data. Public data should be made available through libraries at a reasonable cost. In this context, “reasonable cost” could include moderate surcharges used to subsidize library services to those who cannot otherwise afford access to the world infosphere.
TRAINING & ACCESS CENTERS. We assume that children will learn information-accessing skills in school, although that assumption may be optimistic given current debates over funding schools. For the adult population, one logical place to learn these new skills is a library. Libraries should also provide data access terminals and devices for students and those who cannot afford to have them in their own homes and provide subsidized access to commercial data services for those who cannot afford personal subscriptions.
INFORMATION SEARCH CENTERS. The greatest problem most of us will face in the infosphere will not be gaining access to information, but knowing where to look for what we want. When you can choose from 100,000 commercial and public data services and access nodes, how do you know where to go?
The answer is that you ask a trained data-retrieval expert — in other words, a librarian. Moreover, the indexes and catalogs created and maintained by libraries are themselves a valuable form of intellectual property for which libraries can charge business, commercial, academic, and government users on a fee-for-service basis, using the money so earned to subsidize other public services.
Preserving the Culture
There is an ominous trend beyond budget cuts that could undermine libraries’ ability to serve the whole public. Publishers are beginning to offer electronic material on a high-cost, limited licensed basis that must be renewed in order to continue access to past information. Under this system, a library will lose control of and access to our cultural and historical records if it can no longer afford the fees to keep the electronic portal open or if the publisher decides it is no longer economical to store a certain record. Writers must oppose this practice.
There is another danger that could further undermine the ability of libraries, or anyone else, to preserve our cultural records. In some ways, paper is hardier than electronic information. While paper may yellow or become brittle, it has been shown to have a life-span of generations. Electronic information, however, can become obsolete as digital formats evolve and change. What value does a disk using the now outmoded CP/M computer language have today? Zero. We must ensure that shifting digital formats do not leave libraries unable to use their information because of the costs of conversion. Such costs to libraries must be shared by those entities that profit from the electronic marketplace.
Rights of Writers and Readers
In the print-on-paper world, there has been a clear convenience-of- access differential between buying/owning a book or magazine and obtaining a temporary loan of the work from a library. This allows the library system to coexist with commercial publishing. The principle of coexistence must be extended to cyberspace.
In the electronic world, we need to rethink the role of libraries as lending institutions. The model of a library buying a piece of intellectual property, and then loaning it out on a temporary basis to users, one at a time, is not easily applied to information in electronic form. When entire encyclopedias can be downloaded in minutes to be digested at one’s leisure, the concept of sequential loans loses its meaning. Why would end users pay fees to vendors, publishers, or authors to download intellectual property if they could just as easily download it for free from a public lending library?
Creators and publishers have the right to earn their living from their craft and conduct business in an equitable marketplace. Libraries have to be capable of providing information at no cost to those who cannot afford to pay. Clearly there is a tension between these imperatives, and a common-sense balance must be struck.
These are not insurmountable problems. If cooperation and common sense prevail, we can develop solutions that accommodate the legitimate needs of both information consumers and information creators. The infosphere is still in its infancy; it is far too early for anyone to take rigid stands on specific methods to resolve this conflict. But it is time to consider various approaches. Methods by which these conflicting needs might be reconciled include:
TIME EMBARGOES. The publisher of a periodical may simply choose not to sell any electronic copies to any library until a day, week, or month after the issue became available on the open info-market. Similarly, the writer or publisher of a book could withhold electronic library sales for some amount of time after the book is made commercially available in cyberspace.
A best-seller, for example, could be withheld from library distribution until it drops from the best-seller list. This is similar in principle to movie studios that do not market videotapes until after the film’s theater run. Some librarians find this to be a poor solution because they want to provide information to their patrons in a timely manner. However, if no alternative method is adopted, publishers will have the power to impose time embargoes unilaterally.
METERING. With print on paper, libraries operate on the principle of discrete sequence. In other words, a book is a discrete item, and only one person can borrow it at a time. That principle could be adapted to downloading material from the library to the reader’s home or viewing material on- screen at the library by metering the number of downloads or accesses. For example, if a library buys one electronic copy of a book, only one person per day or one per hour would be allowed to download or view it. In the case of a periodical, the library would buy one electronic copy and limit the number of accesses to so many per day or hour according to the purchase terms.
COMMERCIAL VS. NON-COMMERCIAL. Throughout this paper, we make a distinction between private/personal use of information and commercial use of information. That distinction could be extended to libraries by instituting procedures that allow individuals to access library-stored information for free, while business, government, organizations, and institutions would be charged for that service. The money received from commercial access could be split among the library, creator, and publisher.
Electronic library cards could distinguish between individual and commercial users, or libraries could petition the world standards bodies to create a new top-level Internet domain address for individuals (.IND to go along with .COM for commercial, .EDU for educational, and .GOV for government). These domain endings could help libraries determine the type of user. This is similar to the current practice whereby institutions pay a higher subscription rate for professional and academic journals than do individuals.
ROYALTY PURCHASES. Today, libraries have, or should have, budgets to buy new books and subscribe to periodicals. It would be easy for creators or publishers to sell their work to libraries on a royalty basis. Every time a reader accessed or downloaded the work, some small royalty would be transferred from the library’s purchasing budget to the author or distributor’s account. This would allow libraries to acquire works without up-front cost while paying only as much as actual reader usage required. Of course, they would run the danger of bankruptcy with some wildly popular item. Most likely no one would use this method for popular works; it might work better for the technical and scientific fields.
None of the above are proposals of the National Writers Union. These are merely some possibilities that we and society should consider. No doubt other ideas will be proposed as the electronic information market develops. The potential conflict between free libraries and creators’ pay most likely will be resolved by some combination of methods.
When One Copy Gets Around Digitally
We assume that in the information age, people will access a library’s electronic information by viewing the work on a computer screen or by downloading it from the library to their home or office system. We also assume that most libraries will store digitized intellectual property at a central location that can be accessed directly or remotely by users.
This means that the print-on-paper pattern, in which a library system purchases multiple copies of a book or publication so that every neighborhood branch library has its own copy, will not apply to electronic works. Whereas, writers and publishers once sold thousands of copies to libraries across the land, a central library could conceivably buy a single digital copy of a work and provide universal access to it.
The prices creators and publishers charge libraries (public, corporate, and institutional) for copies intended for multiple-access depositories will be higher than the prices charged to individual consumers. These multiple-access prices must be structured to balance the competing needs of each community. First, publishers must share the income received from higher-priced multiple-access pricing with the work’s creators. Second, a portion of the cost savings inherent in electronic publishing and distribution must be passed on to the libraries so that they can supply information to those who need it at less cost than is now the case with print-on-paper. In other words, neither creators, libraries, nor publishers should be allowed to reap all the benefits of the digital age.