Non-rival is non-relevant

I’m glad that Elisabeth Jones wrote to our tip page about her post–Fighting for non-rival pudding–because I’ve been wanting to spout off about non-rivalness for a while now.

Anytime you hear someone talk about intellectual property you are going to wind up hearing the phrase “non-rival.” The idea is that information or knowledge is a non-rival good. What this means is that when one person consumes information, it does not prevent another person from consuming it. So information or knowledge is not like land or pudding, which are “used up” when other people consume them. Ok, fine.

But from this idea many people quickly get to conclusions like: information just wants to be free; intellectual property is evil; DRM is the devil; and the Kindle is a giant threat to intellectual freedom. Maybe all those things are true, but I don’t think you can get there from the claim that information is non-rival.

First, I’m not even sure that information is non-rival. What about a juicy piece of gossip? The more people hear about it, the less juicy it becomes, the more it is “used up.” Or what about the secret to a magic trick? Or an insider stock tip? Or a trade secret? Or any information that gives someone a competitive advantage?

But even assuming that information is non-rival, nothing follows from this about intellectual property rights. Information and knowledge should be widely distributed because everyone in society will be better off (not because they are non-rival). But that doesn’t mean information has no value, or that the creators of information can’t charge for it, or put restrictions on who uses it and what they can do with it (within reason).

And even assuming that information is non-rival, that does not mean that books as containers of information are non-rival. In fact books are not non-rival in all respects, as anyone who goes to a library and finds the book they want “checked out” knows. If someone is using a book, someone else cannot simultaneously use it, hence it is not non-rival. Oh unless it’s an electronic book, with the right kind of DRM set up.

In her post, Jones jumps from the idea that information is non-rival to the idea that the Amazon Kindle will do “monumental and egregious harm…to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace” because a person cannot take their Kindle book content to a used bookstore or donate it to a library like one could with a physical book. Jones claims that books are like bottomless cups of pudding because others can consume their contents hundreds or thousands more times.

This is going too far. It’s an open question whether Kindle will lead to a more or less informed populace. Kindle books are less expensive (after you shell out for the device) than physical books. Kindle makes it easier to carry more books at one time on a train or a plane. Perhaps for these reasons, Kindle will lead to a more informed populace, not less. As for not being able to sell or give away Kindle books, that is a disadvantage, but if people could give away digital books there’s a good argument that that activity would undermine the whole market because sharing networks would be set up. We may like that, but I don’t think there’s an inherent right to it simply because information is non-rival or because information is a public good. Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.

The debate of ownership vs. access for libraries is not a simple one, and it’s quite a stretch to blame the current economic meltdown on access over ownership. Intellectual goods may be non-rival, but physical books are not. Something follows from the fact that information is non-rival, but I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s interesting. Whatever it is I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectual property rights, the debate between ownership versus access in libraries, or if the Kindle is a boon or threat to intellectual culture.

Is Lifelong Learning an Academic Library Core Value?

Articulating “core values” has been touted by many conference speakers as a magic bedrocky goodness that will shield us from all sorts of scary nasty change that is getting up and roiling all our stuff.

One problem is you have to figure out what your core values are.

My library is up to the core values step in our strategic planning process. At our first meeting I attempted to participate by honestly and openly voicing my views (duh, rookie mistake!), but I think that just prolonged the meeting and earned me dirty looks from my colleagues. At our second meeting I tried the “just keep your big mouth shut” strategy and hoped that it would all soon be over. Of course that didn’t last long, especially when we got up to the part about considering “lifelong learning” as an academic library core value.

Who could be against lifelong learning you say? I’m not against it at all, but is it really a core academic library value? Is a list of core values a laundry list of all the things you are for and want to promote and encourage? Is it really one of our core values to provide services to our students and other adults throughout their entire lives?

Maybe I’m taking “core” too seriously, but I’d argue that our core values strictly speaking have more to do with meeting the information needs that arise from the current classes at our institution. If some lifelong learning needs get met because of that, fantastic!, but lets not overreach and call it a core value. If you asked a history professor if they wanted to instill a love of history such that their students read history throughout their lives, I’m sure they’d say yes. But would they say it’s a core part of what they do? Lifelong learning is a good, no doubt, but it’s something additional. A cherry on top.

My colleagues disagreed with me and contended that supporting lifelong learning is a core academic library value. They said something about we promote the disposition to engage in lifelong learning. I’m not really so sure what that means either. I suggested that perhaps what lifelong learning has to do with libraries is that libraries support independent learning, and for that libraries are useful. So I got the word “independent” added in front of our core value of lifelong learning.

This is what often happens when you write core values by committee. Eventually everyone adds their own words and you have a fairly long list of overly broad and not very readable “core” values that don’t offer too much guidance when really tough decisions have to be made. Then they get put in a drawer and no one ever looks at them again.

This one, however, might actually have some relevance to our collections and services. Like providing database access to alumni (or pushing hard for open access), creating a leisure reading collection, or offering information literacy classes on consumer, health, or political information.

The world would be a better place if there were more lifelong learners and if they had easy access to high quality information. What role should academic libraries play in bringing about such a world?

Introducing Our New First Year Bloggers – Dealing With Vegetable Bribes

We’ve selected two new librarians, Susanna Smith and Olivia Nellums, to blog about their experiences during their first year in academic libraries.

Here’s one of the winning posts, from Susanna Smith of Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. Susanna says,

I work at a community college library, which comes with its own sets of challenges. I just transferred up to a new campus, and am the quintessential “one-person library”, doing a little bit of everything. Also, I share a frustration that many just out of library school share – the college hired me as a “Library Specialist” (non-faculty, support staff classification) yet I still do everything the librarians do (or more!). Many of us take any job in a library we can find, hopeful that we can build a resume to be promoted or find a “true” librarian position.

In her post, Susanna writes about the awkwardness of receiving gifts from patrons. Olivia’s post will follow. Please welcome them both to ACRLog!

I’ve been working here at the community college library since November. I’ve had all sorts of strange requests and questions and completely “off-topic” conversations with patrons who just needed to vent their spleens about something completely unrelated to library services. My prior experience in bookstore management and customer service prepared me well for those things, but today was a first. It was bribery – of a sort that I was completely unable to refuse.

During my shift I helped this very nice lady find some books on nutrition. She was quite energetic, and excited that we had a large selection (we have a nursing program so most of what we have is more technically-oriented than for a layman’s consumption). She also had a very thick accent, and so it was a bit of struggle for both of us at first to figure out what each other was saying. Finally we got to the section she was looking for, and I had to leave her there because I was the only one working the front desk and had someone else waiting.

She came down with an armload of books, ranging from a juicing guide to a nursing-and-nutrition title. She thanked me profusely and headed out the door. Just minutes later she popped back in with a bag, and proceeded to hand me some tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “I have a garden, and I have enough to share! Thank you so much! I will bring you more when I bring back your books!” I gave her my heartfelt thanks and told her it really wasn’t necessary to bring more vegetables, but she said “No, you helped me! I will bring more!” So how do you handle a patron who insists on bribing you with fresh vegetables??!?

Our college has a very strict policy about accepting gifts from vendors and other “people of influence”, but I don’t think patrons count. And on the whole I thought it would be quite rude to turn down this kind lady’s offer, and I must admit if she brings some zucchini I couldn’t say no to that either.

Guest Post: Loyola University Prepares for Hurricane Gustav

Today is a half day, yet I’m not taking vacation time or sick leave for the remainder of the work day. The library is closing at noon, not for lack of business on Friday afternoons or a professional workshop that everyone’s attending, but because we have to leave town. Reel in the imagination–we are not gun-slinging outlaw librarians being chased out by a pitchfork-yielding mob. We are running from Gustav, whose name to me evokes Oktoberfest, Bavarian chocolate, and a possible distant relation to Heidi Klum, but who is in reality a storm that has set the Louisiana coast in his sights exactly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Yesterday, the university decided to take preventative measures: cancel classes beginning today and send all of the students to safer locations, whether that be home or to a university in a safer area…just in case. Immediately, the library became a frantic place, full of students and faculty all clambering to make final arrangements before evacuating. Most of the problems related to getting Blackboard accounts and e-reserves up to date so that everyone could continue studies from remote locations.

Just as with Katrina, Gustav threatens at the end of the first week of classes, so some students find themselves having to continue studies in a class they have not yet attended. However, as I tried to help them situate their class schedules, I felt that I needed to be something more to them. So many were freshman, from somewhere other than this hurricane ravaged and threatened city. I wanted to hug them and tell them “thank you” for taking a chance on this place and that I was so sorry that this had to happen on their first week here when they had barely unpacked their things and set up their dorm rooms.

I can now only hope that like before Katrina, this storm will threaten and turn away from us–save us from the destruction that it would surely bring to this fragile city because we deserve more time to rebuild and more time to prove to those young students that they made a good and ultimately rewarding decision to spend their college days in New Orleans. For now, though, it’s time to go and wait on Gustav to make his decision.

Beth West
Interim Public Services Librarian
Loyola University
New Orleans, LA

First Year Out – Just Not That Into Us

A sociologist at my institution, Tim Clydesdale, has written a book, The First Year Out, about the mindset of students during their first year out of high school. A main point of the book is that during their first year of college, students are primarily concerned with issues relating to “daily life management,” especially relationships with friends and family. Only after students have the “first year project” behind them will they become more open to the possibility of serious intellectual engagement.

I found this very helpful in explaining some of the complete blank looks I get in some of my instruction sessions with first years. It also fit well with my memory of my own first year of college. Clydesdale suggests changing our expectations for first year students and doing a better job of meeting them where they are. He suggests using any material in classes that has to do with personal relationships or personal conflict.

An example I thought of for library instruction could be that when introducing first year students to the variety of information sources–books, magazines, journal articles, web sites etc. to be also sure to include “people” as information sources. Talk about professors, librarians, and friends as sources of information. From there you could introduce the idea of trust and credibility, and how we trust the word of some people more than others. Then apply that to information, and how some information sources are trusted more than others.

In trying to understand and reach students, it’s useful to not lump them all together as “millennials” and to remember that first years are different. They’ve got a lot going on, and most of it’s not academic.