Libraries—both public and academic—are in the business of gathering, organizing, and presenting to the public the intellectual content of our culture. To some extent, we’re also responsible for the preservation of that content. Generally speaking, academic libraries take the lead on this longer-term collection management; public libraries focus more on the popular and perhaps ephemeral content.
But digital publishing here, as in so many other places, changes the game. Public libraries aggressively “weed” their collections (remove things no longer in demand) to make way for the new. The practice is, or was until now, mostly a question of space. Public libraries simply don’t have enough room to keep everything. Academic libraries, although not without storage pressures of their own, seek more to hold onto those titles with some academic street cred: that which is definitive to a field, often-cited, and so on.
On the one hand, it would seem that digital publishing solves the weeding problem since digital storage is cheap. To avoid having older titles choke the more typical searches for new titles, we might do well to move the older stuff into an online “archive” collection. But once paid for, particularly at the many-times-consumer-cost prices we are currently charged, those items are probably worth holding onto for long-tail searches.
Has the day come when we need to weed no more? (The answer, of course, is no. Will libraries even hang onto health and science books based on now-disproven theories? Well, maybe collections specializing in the history of health and science will.)
But there’s another problem. Far too many digital books are only leased to us, not sold. Under software license agreements rather than the First Sale Doctrine, publishers can impose all kinds of “now you see it, now you don’t” restrictions on libraries—and do.
The real and growing trend of digital-only titles, the preservation of the human record has become a surprisingly fragile endeavor. (See Adi Robertson’s “The Fight to Save Endangered eBooks,” posted May 9 to the Verge blog.)
Publishers often ask me if ownership even matters. The answer, clearly, is yes. And it matters not only to libraries. It matters to authors, too, most of whom would like their titles to endure, but whose publishers seem to have other plans.
JAMES LARUE is a writer, speaker, and consultant on the future of libraries. He can be reached at jlarue[at]jlarue.com.