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Where will the new repositories of knowledge be? January 25, 2010

Posted by michaelpawlus in Uncategorized.
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I am preparing for next term which starts a week early for me with an intensive week-long course on building digital libraries.  I was scanning some books today to get ready and came across the following quote which doubtlessly has been written countless times in other library-related tomes.  The quote is: “Libraries are society’s repositories for knowledge: temples, if you like, of culture and wisdom (Witten, 2003)”

Yes, Mr. Witten, I do like .  However, how long will libraries retain their temple like presence in society?  A few disturbing trends do paint a rather ominous picture.  One is the latest news from Amazon that they will make a new royalty model for ebooks which reflects an agency model instead of a wholesale model.  What this means is that Amazon is accepting that for electronic titles they are merely acting as an intermediary connecting a buyer and seller which differs from their operations in physical materials requiring titles to be bought and warehoused.  This is all being seen as a preemptive strike against Apple.  While this may result in better profits for publishers it also pushes electronic titles back further away from libraries.  Of course, Amazon was already dealing in licenses but maybe in the wholesale model talks could have continued to try and get Amazon to sell actual copies of digital works to some like libraries but now the whole metaphorical framework has changed.

Not to be a doom-sayer here but there is more: EBSCO has moved into become the exclusive distributor for a majority of popular magazines.  The more that these exclusive deals start to take place the less options that will exist for libraries when it comes to purchasing.  In this way, the fates of publishers and libraries are inextricably linked with publishers getting scared and feeling like they have to move into these types of deals to stay afloat.  One more piece of news: a handful of authors that once opposed the Google Books Settlement have now decided to support it.  Again, I use Google Books, it is a good service but they will more or less have a similar near-monopoly like EBSCO but over digitised books.

One more somewhat disturbing trend: the move towards cloud computing.  In the cloud model, stored data is saved out somewhere in a cloudy space.  Where you may ask?  Irrelevant.  It’s out there.  Sell your servers, your data is safe.  Proponents will argue that servers in the cloud are backed up and data is safe.  I don’t argue that but having so much centralised data just seems troubling when that centralised place isn’t the library?  (Here is a great article with lots more about cloud computing)

Really, I don’t want to sound too serious about any of this.  I get uncomfortable doing too much crystal ball gazing.  Everything may be fine.  However, I think libraries do need to be on the lookout for any potential Faustian bargains.  For centuries, libraries have stood as cultural temples, preserving ideas throughout history.  Do we really want libraries replaced by a bank of computers spread out in places unknown all over the globe and referred to only by the extremely ambiguous metaphor “cloud”?

Reference:
Witten, I.H. & Bainbridge, D.I. (2003). How to build a digital library, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers: San Francisco, CA.

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