Renting Keys to Walled Gardens

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just issued its third annual forecast of “The Future of the Internet.” It’s well worth a read. Among predictions:

–The mobile phone (or its descendant) will be the primary access point to the Internet by 2020.
–Social networking won’t increase tolerance. It might even polarize people into less tolerant camps.
–The original architecture of the Internet will not be replaced, but will be enhanced by research.
–Attempts to control access to content will continue to be challenged in an ongoing battle between intellectual property owners and users.

I’ve been thinking about this last point quite a bit since the Google settlement. I was very struck by a comment made by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, interviewed in the Mercury News after the deal was announced. He accused Google of breaking the model of the Internet, “trying to build a walled garden of content that you have to pay to see.” My first thought was “our libraries are full of enormously expensive walled gardens.” How did we let that happen?

How many of you realize that the Harvard Business Review articles that are in your databases can’t be used in course reserves or printed out and shared with a class (or even, technically, made assigned reading)? Just look at the fine print: they are licensed “for individual use” of the library’s authorized patrons and are “not intended for use as assigned course material.” You can’t link it in your syllabus or in course reserves. For that, you have to pay all over again. (Thanks to members of the Digital Copyright list for noticing this weirdness.)

I recently reread Rory Litwin’s 2004 essay on Google and the Monetization of libraries, and found it very thought-provoking. But it’s not just the Googlization of libraries that worries me. Are academic libraries building collections for the future and for all to use, or are we content to simply rent access temporarily for a limited audience? If we won’t stand up for free and equitable access, who will?

To be sure, we’ve partnered with scholars to push for open access, particularly to STM research. But I’m baffled when libraries pay money to subscribe to commercial versions of public databases like PubMed, ERIC, and NCJRS Abstracts, teaching our students to use interfaces that we think are better, but which they can’t access once they graduate. Lifelong learning? Pfui. Free to all? Feh.

When did we decide libraries are no longer a commons but a go-between that rents temporary membership in publishers’ walled gardens? Did we even notice?

Some quotes from the Pew report are worth thinking about.

“Traditional carriers have little incentive to include poor populations, and the next five years will be rife with battles between carriers, municipal, and federal governments, handset makers, and content creators. I don’t know who will win.” danah boyd

“Tribes will be defined by social enclaves on the Internet, rather than by geography or kinship, but the world will be more fragmented and less tolerant, since one’s real-world surroundings will not have the homogeneity of one’s online clan.” Jim Horning

“There will be cross-linking of content provider giants and Internet service provider giants and that they will find ways to milk every last ‘currency unit’ out of the unwitting and defenseless consumer.
Governments will be strongly influenced by the business conglomerates and will not do much to protect consumers. (Just think of the outrageous rates charged by cable and phone company
TV providers and wireless phone providers today—it will only get worse.)” Steve Goldstein

“Copyright is a dead duck in a digital world.” Dan Lynch

“By 2020, the Internet will have enabled the monitoring and manipulation of people by businesses and governments on a scale never before imaginable. Most people will have happily traded their privacy—consciously or unconsciously—for consumer benefits such as increased convenience and lower prices. As a result, the line between marketing and manipulation will have largely disappeared.” Nicholas Carr

“The Internet is not magical; it will be utterly over-managed by commercial concerns, hobbled with ‘security’ micromanagement, and turned into money-shaped traffic for business, the rest 90% paid-for content download and the rest of the bandwidth used for market feedback.” Tom Jennings

If that’s the Internet in 2020 – where will libraries be? Will any of our traditional library values remain intact?

photo courtesy of expatriotact, shared via Flickr’s creative commons pool

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

12 thoughts on “Renting Keys to Walled Gardens”

  1. I’m currently reading “Rainbow’s End” by Vernor Vinge, a favorite scifi novelist of mine. It’s about the near future, wearable computing, etc. He mentions “microroyalties” a few times. Companies are able to automatically pull money out of your account (that’s how connected everything is) for viewing documents, music, etc. Some of the quotes above seem to think this is the way things are moving. It would be a way for newspapers to charge for their content instead of relying on advertising. Instead of getting folks to subscribe to a newspaper, you’d be able to charge for viewing each article. Scary! How ‘micro’ would those royalties be?

  2. Just thought of another example of how libraries are brokering limited use: going to pay per use access to collections like Science Direct. It makes short-term economic sense to pay for just the articles a scholar wants, but nobody else gets to use them. This is a weird corporatization of the idea of libraries. They publish, we pay. Every single time. And the institution has no tangible assets for the money spent.

  3. Here is another set of questions to ask concerning academic libraries:

    Do we purchase content for our students who pay tuition or do we purchase content to make it available to all? Academic libraries are not public libraries. Academic libraries have limited resources and limited funds. Our primary obligation is to our own academic communities. Public academic institutions also have a secondary mission to serve the public but again it is not our primary mission.

  4. I realize that, but … in the past we built collections that were not just for students paying tuition this year. We built collections that were cultural resources for more than dues-paying members. I’m at a private college, but even we share our resources with local patrons and through interlibrary loan. A state-funded institution owes something to the taxpayer, not just to those who pay tuition. I think our priorities have narrowed and our horizons lowered – and it’s a shame.

  5. I agree but what choice do we have in a time of diminished resources? We can no longer be all things to all peoples.

  6. Err…. but we’re spending a ton of money on temporary access to collections that mostly have nothing to do with the users we serve. And they can change at any time. One of our collections of journals just pulled the plug on the smallish collection we were getting and said we’d have to subscribe to a bigger collection. If we couldn’t afford it, we’d lose it all. Trying to serve our immediate needs, we end up spending a lot of money and are left with nothing tangible or lasting. Bah humbug.

  7. bill drew said:
    > what choice do we have
    > in a time of diminished resources?
    > We can no longer be all things to all peoples.

    that is precisely what the general public
    will say when you go to them for funds
    to support your “academic” libraries that
    no longer serve needs of the public at large.


  8. We are actually spending money on resources that people use instead of sitting on a shelf gathering dust. We have started to do purchase on demand for books requested via ILLiad for titles not widely available in the SUNY system. It is working very well.

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