Dear Library of Congress...

By Karen G. Schneider | In late February, the Library of Congress announced it was holding an “open” meeting on March 8, 2007 at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. Comments were invited.



With less than a week to respond with comments on an important public meeting that is quaintly labeled “open” because anyone who can fly to Mountain View, California on a week's notice may attend, my comments feel rushed and raw—more on the order of Valerie Solanas' screeds than scholarly communication. However, I believe that as a profession we are in enough of a state of emergency that I must address, if not the group, then my peers in LibraryLand.


Not long ago a librarian complained to me that he was having a hard time catching his library's attention on new digital initiatives, as everyone at the library was preoccupied with the hoopla surrounding the acquisition of the two millionth book. My response was to suggest he tell them there would be no three millionth book (at least as we know and understand books today).


It is both ironic and poignant that librarians are still worrying about “bibliographic control,” after ceding so much of the same to the companies that now rent them journal access per annum at usurious rates, digitize their book collections into DRM obscurity, or sell them ponderous, antiquated “management” systems that on close inspection do little more than serve as storehouses for the metadata specific to the formats of bygone eras, bold days when we saw our central roles as defenders and curators of our cultural heritage.


We have moved from the librarian as information artisan—a professional creating and using tools to manage information—to the librarian as surrogate vendor, facilitating what is essentially the offshoring of thousands of years of information into private hands.


These observations may seem to be beyond the scope of enquiry for the meeting in question, which is about users and uses of data. The issues I see the committee focusing on include the gulf between latter-day description and current-day access, and the problems with reconciling our very disparate and heterogeneous pots of data with the user's need for a fluid, continuous, unbroken data stream.


These are welcome issues for discussion, and I agree that some of the issues described in the background paper, such as FRBR, hold some short-term interest for improving access according to the rules and expectations of an earlier era; the references to user-added content were also fresh and timely.

However, I would caution the committee that tinkering around the edges of how we as a profession do our old-world business—buy a book, create a record—is to miss the point. Small upward bumps in traditional book circulation, coaxed by major redesigns of traditional tools—however important these redesigns--are no more comforting than brisk sales at a masking-tape store in a mall going out of business (to invoke an old Saturday Night Live skit).


To paraphrase Andrew Abbott's point in The System of Professions, we are behaving like the train companies, who thought they were in the train business, not the transportation business, and like them, there are already signs that the “train business” we do is on artificial life support. We are not even close to being the first service of choice for information seekers; we are pretty much down there with asking one's mother. Libraries across the country are increasingly asked to justify their existence in order to receive continued funding, and some have been unable to do so.

Even the very interesting work done with the concept of library as “place,” and the remarkable public commons that have arisen, should not obscure the increasing difficulty of explaining why this “place” needs to be library-based to begin with.


Meanwhile, as a profession, the largest “transportation” issue—the battlefields of intellectual property, fought in the chambers of lawyers, vendors, and legislators—has overall poor and uninformed representation from librarianship, with the exception of a few good organizations, such as the Office of Information Technology Policy out of the American Library Association, a group that understands what business it is in. Their Sisyphean battle is balanced on the other side of the hill with the many thousands of licensing agreements signed every year in which libraries agree to allow commercial enterprises to privatize a public good.


Then again, the number one indicator for Association of Research Libraries statistics is the number of paper-based books on our shelves, and anything remotely related to digital content is ghettoized in “Supplemental Statistics.” It is discouraging how discussions about intellectual property in its varied forms can be so quickly overshadowed by a single reference to what I think of as the ARL body count.


We do need a train--a clue-train. The paper-based book is already a metaphor; books are now born in digital format. The New York Times on my breakfast table is heaving its death rattle, if I listen closely enough. Looking ahead ten, twenty, fifty years, do any of us believe that the issues of access and description will not be driven overwhelmingly by issues related to digital content—some of it in fantastical, ever-mutating new forms (q.v. the networked book forms such as those proposed by The Institute for the Future of the Book)?


Or even more significantly, and my central point, can any of us deny that the forms in which we explore our memory work will pale next to the messy legacy we will have left behind regarding rights and access, a legacy born of our eagerness to offload our slog work on companies driven not by a commitment to and passion for preserving the written word, but driven instead by what Richard K. Johnson, in a recent ARL report, refers to as the “imperatives of business”?


Naturally, users want easy access to information; I furrowed my brow at the observation in the background paper that “users have come to expect that information should be easy to discover,” as I hope this point is not open to debate. Our old tools are not easy or particularly accessible; our old way of doing things is unjustifiably laborious and expensive (and may have contributed to the pickle we are in, by increasing the temptation to agree to less-than-optimal negotiations with content licensors).

Most of us in my profession understand and appreciate the value of metadata, and we appreciate the efforts, however uneven, to bring resource description into the 20th--excuse me, 21st--century. I do not intend this to be the New S.C.U.M. Manifesto (a la Solanas--perhaps the "Society for Cutting Up Metadata"?). It is good that we consider the issues of description worthy of a series of national meetings.

But in the end, after we conclude that the user is not broken, and that the tools we design must reflect this fact, and before the train pulls away forever... can we also agree that the first commitment to ease of access needs to include the right—forever, and always—to read?