Information Will Out

By Kate Sheehan |

I have something to confess to you all. For an embarrassingly long time, I thought the phrase “information wants to be free” (besides being the name of one of my favorite blogs) meant free as in speech, not free as in beer. My apologies in advance to my open source friends who are tired of “types of free” conversations -I’ll try not to mention kittens. But for quite some time, I was under the impression that “information wants to be free” was a rallying cry for access and simplicity, not content you didn’t have to pay for. “Information will out” was the underlying meaning I focused on.


I know, I know, it’s an insane mistake to make. Wikipedia disabused me of my naïveté. Both meanings of free are intended, but the money part is kind of important. I’d like to chalk up my focus on access to my library- skewed way of thinking. While I work for institutions that happily pay for information, charging for it rarely comes up. But ease of access is a different story.

Free has long been the reason libraries are inconvenient. As Courtney Milan said in her excellent post on the HarperCollins ebook debacle, “…let’s face the truth: libraries are an annoying way to get books. You have to wait. You have to read the book on someone else’s schedule–when you hit your spot–and you only have two weeks to read it before it’s ripped from your grasp, and later on, when you can’t remember the title or the author you can’t scour your shelves in vain.”

She’s right, of course. Lots of libraries have worked out ways to ease patron pain when it comes to our collections, though. We’ve long known that the “hey, we’re free” isn’t an excuse for bad service or lousy access. But our hands are often tied when it comes to ease of use. Once something ceases to be a physical object and goes digital, libraries are usually stuck relying on vendors for their user experience.

Sometimes, we’re good at working the system on behalf of our users. In the wake of the New York Times paywall announcement, Yale reminded students that their libraries provide access to the New York Times image edition. The extra clicks may prove to be too much for many, or (more likely, I’d wager), students will find their own ways around the paywall. The library’s version is just as free as the workarounds I’ve seen online, but easier is more free for those who value their time.

We know people will happily pay for easy. We also know that we can’t eliminate theft entirely. Anyone who has stood amongst empty DVD cases and wondered why people would steal what we’re loaning for free knows that there will always be thieves. Still, when it comes to electronic content, we can’t just give stuff away. There has to be authentication or some other kind of hoop to ensure that only the most dedicated pirates will get through.

These hoops are rarely library-made. Bohyun Kim asked why libraries don’t grow their own coders. I hope her call for more library-built coding expertise is heeded and applied first to ebooks. The collaboration between two Colorado libraries and the state's independent publishers is on the right path – actual ownership and access managed by the library. I have no particular problem with Overdrive – I think they’re in the unenviable position of being a middleman between libraries and publishers. But right now, when we buy access to content, we also buy someone else’s priorities, along with their user interface and authentication. We’re not buying control over our own destiny.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Overdrive is as easy to use as iTunes. That doesn’t make the library as easy as Apple. If my library has Overdrive, they also have an OPAC where I manage my print checkouts, and databases where I search for articles. As a patron, I’m not comparing iTunes to Overdrive, I’m looking at the 8 bazillion interfaces and places I have to authenticate and thinking the library is more trouble than it’s worth. Now what happens if my library adds another ebook vendor? I don’t know, because I’m buying my ebooks somewhere else.

Clearly, no one has great answers to these issues. Recently, I set up a Nook for my parents and somehow, despite years of IT work, managed to mess it up. I had to call customer service and I lost a $13 ebook because I ended up having to do a factory reset and start over. But now they’re happy Nook users (they ended up getting a second one because sharing it was just too much) and they haven’t had to do any fancy footwork since. Plus, they have one Barnes and Noble account for everything. It’s tied to their email and they don’t have to deal with a billion different interfaces when they want different kinds of content. Not perfect, but much freer than the library experience.

Also, my parents aren’t looking at every bookseller and thinking “books are hard.” It’s not fair, but that’s what happens with the library. The OPAC may be just as confusing as Amazon and Overdrive may be just as annoying as iTunes, but with the exception of folks complaining about “too many passwords,” very few people are lumping Amazon and iTunes together and deciding to give up on the internet. Not so for libraries.

We’ve gotten free down when it comes to cost, but we’re not able to make what we have free when it comes to access. For our communities, the library is free… forgive me… like kittens. A community has to invest in its library and care for it. As far as many of our users are concerned, the hoops they have to jump through to use the library are hairballs left in their slippers. Like Colorado’s libraries partnering with independent publishers, we need to take control of our collections and how we provide access to them. Whether that’s through growing our own coders, no DRM, making our own DRM, or something else, we’ve got to keep pushing for our free information to be free.


(Image CC from Flickr user Brad Stabler)