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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Access vs.Ownership

Those of us of a certain age remember the debates in libraries over “access vs. ownership.” We don’t see those terms used as much any more, but the issue remains with us as libraries increasingly opt for a service-only, libraries-without-collections model in which they license access to information rather than acquire information that they can carefully select, organize, preserve, and for which they provide not just access, but access and services customized to their user-communities.

The distinction between having “access” to information — where the access (and fees) are controlled by others — and owning information has mostly been too subtle for the popular press. You can see this as the popular press regularly refers to Google as a “Library” and now refers to Amazon’s new e-book loaning feature as a “lending library.” This loose use of the term “library” diminishes its association with free-access libraries that are run by and accountable to their communities and replaces it with an association with fee-based commercial services accountable only to stockholders or company owners.

So I found it very interesting to see not one but two recent articles in the consumer press that make a clear distinction between access and ownership and make at least a tentative argument in favor of ownership even for individual consumers.

  • Why Amazon lending worries me, By JP Mangalindan, CNN Money (November 4, 2011).

    For users, there’s a drawback that isn’t nearly as obvious yet, largely because it’s still early days. By subscribing to one of these services, they’re relinquishing ownership over the content they consume…. It’s renting versus owning in its most basic form. In one scenario, that money is going towards something that’s yours. In the other, you’re paying for temporary use of a good, service or property.

  • What happens to ownership as the world goes digital?, By Mathew Ingram, GigaOm (Nov 4, 2011).

    [T]here’s also the way that renting changes our legal relationship to the content we are consuming. Amazon has shown the downsides of this in the past by actually deleting copies of e-books from people’s Kindles remotely after a complaint by the rightsholder — and those were copies that people had actually bought, not rented. One of the reasons I argued that a “Netflix for books” made sense was that it would at least make it clear to people that they didn’t actually own the books they were buying, but only a short-term license to use them.

    That kind of behavior could become more common as we move to a streaming, rental-style model for all content. Netflix has run into trouble by changing the terms of its service in order to promote streaming at the expense of physical DVD rental — but what is to stop it or Amazon from altering the terms of the contract that allows you access to the content that you listen to or watch or read? Amazon was quite happy to remove access to documents that were hosted on its platform by WikiLeaks, even though the organization had not been charged with nor convicted of any crime. What if companies decide you no longer have the right to watch certain TV shows or read certain books?

Maybe if the consumer press continues this trend and continues to point to the distinction between access and ownership, the idea will migrate to libraries and we’ll begin to see more libraries fighting to control information for their communities. That would be a welcome turn of events. We’d be able to get back to valuing services and collections.


51 Days to Government Information Liberation

Having just experienced one of those travel nightmares engendered by a combination or bad weather and collapsing service resources in a major domestic airline, combined with underfunded road and traffic infrastructure investments that allows gridlock when only a few inches of snow fall (we are talking about the metropolitan Chicago area here — no stranger to snowfall) — I do not have many good thoughts left today to devote to the long term goals of government information liberation.

Except for this one stray notion — which is spinning off of Rebecca’s comment asking for a parsing of what we mean by “possession” and how it relates to the purpose of libraries.

For me, the idea of possession begins (and in some ways ends) with the physical ownership of material. Over the centuries librarians and libraries have built many intellectual tools (indexes, catalogs, classification schemes) and sustained services (reference, readers advisories, instruction). They often did this regardless of what the publishers or creators of the material wanted to do. They did cooperate on some projects — but for the most part these tools and services were hatched according to local needs and sustained through local investment. To be sure, broad coalitions of library organizations supported what we now call standards and protocols (MARC records, AACR2, etc.) that greatly influenced how these tools/services were fashioned and deployed by local libraries. But, I would argue their primary purposes were shaped by local needs. We sustained our pre-Internet reference and public service cultures even more so on these local purposes, with only broad guidelines or studies being developed for these important library purposes.

In fact, I would argue that the indigenous reference cultures of many libraries remain still largely untouched by the social web in any substantial way at the organizational/departmental level. We still rely on a model that is largely one librarian to one user, with little cross sharing among the librarians except perhaps on through anecdotal comparison. I wonder how many libraries that use digital reference tools extensively keep the data for any length of time and go back and review the questions and answers for patterns, accuracy, ways to improve the reference interview throughout the department, not just at the individual librarian level.

And here is where I think I break with Jim and/or Daniel, or, as we politely put it, agree to disagree. Though I can see some kind of limited future for the traditional ownership/possession of material model (whether it is for preservation or civic purposes) — I wager that the shape and future of librarians in general is going to come from how well we adapt our institutions to that stark reality that we will not own (possess) much of the material we mediate on behalf of our user communities. For many of our users, the digital environment is now the “default library” that supports broad access to a “collection” of government information once only possible through a physical library just a few short years ago. What are librarians to do in order to help people make some kind of civic sense out of this digital mash up of ownership?

Just as our possession of the physical volumes fostered a series of innovations and public techniques that supported free public accessibility, so to will we have to innovate some kind suite of tools and services to help our user communities make sense of all the possible choices they have when the government information can be delivered to their digital door step by either public agencies or other third parties.

Libraries and librarians will have to reanimate their primary missions in such a way that offer better services/resources in a local market now open to more competition from other national, regional, and local service providers (be they other libraries, public institutions, or third party information providers.) I do not think the three of us disagree with the overall purpose of government information in libraries for the near future — they must remain critical links in our civic culture regardless of the technology.

However, the bibliographic bulwarks of information democracy created in a Gutenberg universe are not the same as those needed in an environment dominated largely by the dictates of digital creation, access, distribution and preservation. And these critical differences are what this present 75 day discussion is all about, and what Free Government Information, in my humble opinion, continues to seek to reveal and deepen among the community of government/civic information librarians.

Now, back to the gridlock.

See you on Day 50 (perhaps a red letter day.)