Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”


I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.

“Wait a minute Honey, I’m gonna add it up:” Kanopies, DRM, and the Permanence of the Collection

In my new position at the University of Washington I have a long commute, as one would expect, in a large city like Seattle. On this commute I listen to music and read and on the bus last week I reached for an old Midwestern standby, The Violent Femmes only to find that their first album, Violent Femmes (1983) had been removed from streaming platforms and, despite my purchase of the album electronically, had been removed from iTunes for me to listen to. (Reader, don’t worry many of the songs are available on their greatest hits record, aptly titled, Permanent Record.)

The Violent Femmes performing in 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the last few weeks librarians have been confronted in various ways with the difficulties surrounding streaming and licensed materials. Kanopy, one of the largest and most popular streaming services available for library users, was recently and publicly dropped by the New York Public Library (NYPL). How we found this news out, and how it became well known, was a result of Kanopy sending an email to NYPL users who had registered for the service prior to NYPL’s own statement on the issue. In part, their message explained “The New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Libraries have decided to discontinue Kanopy’s film streaming service to its patrons…Film as a public resource is a critical part of New York’s culture and communities. We have enjoyed furthering the New York City Libraries’ mission of providing open access to knowledge… [emphasis mine].” 

Kanopy's Letter to Patrons
The Kanopy Letter sent to New York Public Library Patrons

Setting aside for a moment the frankly gross overstep of a vendor directly reaching out to library patrons about library budgetary or mission changes, let’s focus in on the language that Kanopy uses to describe their service: public resource and open access. For those of us who work in academic libraries and have dealt with the ongoing difficulties with providing access to streaming media for our communities, and especially those who are aware of Kanopy’s expensive nature, these kinds of words might make us take a pause.

As a cinema librarian I can say that film is an important part of cultural legacy and should be a public resource and that access to film should be part of any library’s collection mission. Yet, for many of us the way we consume and purchase media has dramatically changed in the past decade, as streaming and licensing digital files have become the norm for the majority of consumers. Kanopy fits into this very nicely. It’s interface looks remarkably similar to any other streaming platform, and invites users to click through its offerings like they would for Netflix, Criterion Channel, and Amazon Prime. It’s hidden cost, as we know, only triggers when a user clicks on a film and watches a certain amount of it. For users it seems free; like the offerings from Netflix that despite the monthly cost allows users to peruse and sample any film in the catalog. For the most part this is how streaming platforms like Kanopy have advertised themselves to our users.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations.

Over the last year and especially in the wake of NYPL’s decision, I have seen many articles touting and promoting the great new “free” hidden service provided by the library. This article from Entertainment Weekly https://ew.com/movies/2019/01/18/free-streaming-service-kanopy/ emphasizes the accessibility and the free cost as these pillars of why Kanopy is amazing for users. And Kanopy for their part makes a pretty compelling case for this kind of access  CEO Olivia Humphrey states “‘We have such a wide audience,’ says Humphrey. ‘We have people who can’t afford an internet connection that go down to the local public library to watch…. That’s a really important demographic for us, [as much as] cinephiles in L.A. and New York.’ Part of serving that audience is finding what Humphrey calls “content gaps” in other streaming platforms and trying to fill the void” This is something that I think is a really wonderful part of Kanopy, is that it allows access to art and indie film through public libraries but at what cost?

Well…we often don’t know what the cost is. The model is certainly different at Academic institutions but one of the cited figures for public libraries is $2 a watch for each film, and some libraries have limited how often users can watch films a month in order to keep these figures down (
https://www.indiewire.com/2019/06/new-york-public-library-drops-kanopy-netflix-alternative-too-expensive-1202153550/ ) . For Academic institutions, Kanopy, and other services like it, are fairly reminiscent of our licensing agreements with our ebooks, and costs can be astronomical. In a Film Quarterly article critiquing the “freeness” of Kanopy, Chris Cagel, a film historian at Temple University, writes “Instead, Kanopy’s platform drives “patron-driven acquisition” in which three viewings (defined as 30 seconds or more of a title) trigger a library license fee per title. (The figures I’ve seen are $150 for a year, $350 for a 3-year license, though the price might vary or change over time.) (see: https://filmquarterly.org/2019/05/03/kanopy-not-just-like-netflix-and-not-free/ )” These costs can quickly go out of control for many libraries, and the larger the population and the more articles about how this “free service” is provided by libraries, complicate this matter. It leads us to the moment where we are forced to cancel subscriptions because our patrons are using it, rather than how we often weed in our collections based on lack of use or usefulness in a general sense.

…the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations and how we tell that story to our users. Our users will start to feel the loss of licenses when materials start to leave our collections, just as they are starting to see their own digital materials lost in their personal collections. On the same day that Kanopy and NYPL parted ways it was reported that ebooks purchased through the Microsoft Store would be deleted this month from those who had purchased them. https://gizmodo.com/ebooks-purchased-from-microsoft-will-be-deleted-this-mo-1836005672

Digital items with DRM (digital rights management) are never fully owned, instead they are licensed. You can read more about DRM from the grassroots anti-DRM movement Defective By Design. They even wrote an open letter to libraries https://www.defectivebydesign.org/LetterToLibraries. These objects can be locked to prevent sharing of the material to other users and they can be taken away, like the ebooks or like my precious Violent Femmes album. My institution is well off enough to encourage our subject liaisons to purchase ebooks without DRM (which increases the costs substantially), but many public libraries or smaller academic libraries cannot afford to pay an extra $150 to make sure digital items are the community’s to keep. But the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

In my own life I have begun collecting materials for myself in non-digital form. This means that I have spent money buying twenty-year-old video games, hard to find DVDs, and vinyl because I am aware of the tenuous grip that we have on our digital files and media. It is essential that libraries work to make our communities aware of the restrictions and the fugitive nature of digital licensed materials and platforms and work with our users to ensure their needs are met in this changing time. NYPL for their part explained their decision to move away from Kanopy stating that “The Library made this decision after a careful and thorough examination of its streaming offerings and priorities. We believe the cost of Kanopy makes it unsustainable for the Library, and that our resources are better utilized purchasing more in-demand collections such as books and e-books (https://www.nypl.org/press/press-release/june-24-2019/statement-about-kanopy

For a city of 8 million people, Kanopy was perhaps unsustainable, but NYPL is also making a point about how they see their collections growing and that is in books and ebooks. For libraries providing for the public good means making these kinds of decisions, and we need helpful partnerships with our vendors to provide this access. While I do not know what was going on in the minds of the directors of NYPL, it sure does not seem like the library system was wanting to wage this battle in the open prior to Kanopy’s patron email. Yet, this has become a moment where librarians can have conversations with patrons about the costs and limitations of streaming and digital materials. I, for one, have received several messages from my faculty colleagues about how the NYPL decision impacts us at the University of Washington, and I tell them that while it won’t change the way we interact with Kanopy (that decision was made long before I came here) but that this is an important teaching moment in our current climate. While the vendor spurred this conversation, I believe that libraries can have an important voice to share in this new media age.