Thursday, December 18, 2014

Are libraries losing their way in the digital age?

Now Entering the Information Commons: Admission, $100
(essay first published in the most excellent Canadian Notes & Queries magazine #90)

Not that long ago, while visiting the E.J. Pratt Library at the University of Toronto, I noticed the area in the building I might naturally call reference or the catalogue had been renamed. It’s no longer a humble catalogue, but a rather grandiose information commons instead. A little while later, I noticed the same terminology at the Toronto Reference Library. That vast, computer bank filled with folks watching YouTube? Toronto’s information commons.

The commonality of information is indisputable, isn’t it? There it is, all around us like air. But using the term information commons within a library is a political choice; it’s a declaration. It has its roots in the idea of a village commons, a plot of land that is not subject to private ownership, but instead is for the use of all citizens. A park, for instance.

Parks are nice. They make us feel good about being part of society, like we’re all sharing something. Declaring the presence of an information commons is like saying “Come on in, lie down on the grass, bring your dog. No-one can stop you from using this space or the information you find here.” Ironically, at U of T’s main branch, Robarts Library, the commons has been corporatized. Our common information at Robarts comes to us courtesy a sponsorship from Scotiabank, an entity created by and dedicated to the concept of private ownership.

This particular renaming undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that library spaces are now heavily connected to the outside world. Whereas the good old catalogue (card- or computer-based) was in place to tell you what information (i.e. writing) was available in the library itself – what had been acquired, collected, curated and stored within the actual brick and mortar building in which you were standing – now every computer terminal in every library in every city in the world has access to all of world knowledge through the connected tubes of the interweb.

Does that mean my iPhone is an information commons as well? If so, why bother with libraries at all? Let’s just make sure everything is available digitally, and we can tear down all those dusty old buildings. One library is good enough if it contains all of world knowledge and can be carried in my pocket. Give it a funny name and a colourful logo and no-one will ever have to suffer the humiliation of a public shushing again.

Digital utopian and free culture theories [i] depend heavily on the idea of the Internet being common ground, despite a great deal of evidence and practice proving otherwise (try to replicate and use Google’s search algorithm on the Internet, for instance – see how common that information is). What any of that has to do with the function of a library is a bit mysterious. I’m hoping we’re seeing a temporary fad take hold – like calling any combination of two things a “mash up” – and that soon we’ll all tire of the digital utopian lexicon and get back to calling things by their proper names. We may get a warm feeling from the idea of libraries as infoparks, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that’s what they actually are.
Getting Lost in the Library

Nicholson Baker’s brilliant 2001 exposé, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, detailed the scandalous destruction of many thousands of books and newspapers in American library collections during the microforming craze of the late last century. Libraries were sold on vast microforming schemes as a means not just of preserving old, crumbling paper texts, but of saving space within the physical collections themselves. Many American libraries even agreed to turn over physical inventory with no intention of ever getting it back intact. Books had their spines guillotined and their guts removed for quicker copying, entire runs of newspaper were quickly photographed and then destroyed.

The libraries retained tiny photographs of their former collections on acetate – a technology that proved over time to be riddled with preservation and documentation errors, was tricky to keep properly stored and catalogued, and would often corrode faster than the old paper it was meant to replace. Many microform collections quickly succumbed to “vinegar syndrome,” a condition every bit as bad as it sounds. Double Fold won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction, and made quite a few enemies for Nicholson Baker in the information sciences.

Many in the worlds of research, writing and publishing are wondering if Canada is right now experiencing its own Double Fold moment. After a chaotic decade of amalgamation, restructuring, staff changes (downsizing) and shifting collection policies, our national memory bank, Library and Archives Canada has begun to fast track a project involving the mass digitization of their current holdings. As in the microforming debacle that preceded it, this new mass scanning and storage is being contracted to an outside supplier, in this case an online repository and subscription service called

News reports from early in the summer of 2013 had scanning our publicly held archival collection in exchange for proprietary copies of all materials processed, which Canadiana would then load with metadata – the essential cataloguing and searching functionality that any national archive worth its salt is supposed to provide – and offer it back to the public, for a fee, through premium subscription services. What was once planned as a free service for all Canadians will now cost us upwards of $100 each.

The uproar from the cultural sector was predictable, resulting in the immediate postponement of the mass digitization project, presumably until better optics could be arranged. Strangely, about the only culturally-based organization not to voice concern over this privately arranged shift in ownership of public records was the Canadian Library Association. In fact, the CLA wrote a public letter [ii] of strong support, essentially quoting from Canadiana’s own project bumpf, while all but abdicating the traditional work and responsibility of public libraries:

“Those who provide financial support to this project will have the added value of access to the metadata…”

To be clear, all Canadians have already provided “financial support to this project,” and there would be no metadata from which to extract “added value” without the essential gift of all the public documents that make up the bulk of the collection. What is being proposed is extra pay for standard service. What’s more, it is being described by its defenders as simultaneously a common good and a premium value-add. appears, at least, to be a non-profit consortium of libraries and universities. Nevertheless, it is decidedly not Canada’s national archives – an institution into which the Canadian taxpayer has already invested many millions of dollars on the understanding it would preserve, organize and make freely available our national documentary heritage.

Lost in all of the fuss over the Canadiana deal is any sense of what will happen to the physical collection once mass digitization and metadata attachment is complete. Digitization is easily mistaken for preservation in such schemes. A scanner copies a physical document; it does not preserve that document. Will we still bother to keep and properly store our precious documentary history once we get copies of it all in a hard drive? Recent reports of books and paper collections from Canada’s contracting network of science libraries being discarded and dumpstered suggest we don’t value the hard copy as well as we should. [iii]

“Like Nature,” writes Alberto Manguel in his exquisite love letter to book collecting, The Library at Night [iv], “libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books… ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted.”

One wonders if the universal access promised by digitization is so tantalizing to libraries because they are simply running out of shelf space.

The Myth of the Universal Library

The best-known version of the “let us help you preserve your collection by copying it” sales pitch is Google’s scanning deal with a consortium of public and university libraries called HathiTrust. The search engine gargantua continues to do all the heavy lifting (literally) of hauling millions of books off the shelves, scanning them, storing the digital files and then returning the books to their home libraries. In exchange for this work, the libraries allow Google to keep a digital copy of each of the scanned books, and use those copies in its own online library called Google Books.

Despite all the coded language of universal access and common information sharing surrounding that project, many argue Google’s interests are private and entirely commercial. In the era of big data, more equals money, and Google layers its profitable (and proprietary) search architecture on top of those millions of library books, something no other company is allowed to do. What’s more, it remains an open legal question whether or not Google or the libraries have the right to carry out this work in the first place, since vast numbers of the books in question remain under copyright protection, and no good faith attempt was made to secure permission for the copying from the authors. These matters remain before the courts. [v]

Will the libraries and archives actually achieve the goal of universal access to their collections through their deals with Google or, or will they merely provide unparalleled access for restrictive commercial enterprises, and transactionally-dependent access for the rest of us? LAC and insist that Canadians will only have to pay the premium price for our historical record for a decade or so, but that’s cold comfort for those wanting access right now (say, the octogenarian ex-soldier working on her memoirs). Since much of the material in the LAC collection remains under copyright, it’s also entirely likely that some Canadians will be forced to pay for digital access to their own writing. Welcome to the commons everyone! Hope you brought your wallet.

The dream of a universal library is not new, but for some reason it can become an obsession that encourages pretty awful behaviour. The ancient library of Alexandria apparently benefited from a royal proclamation requiring all ships visiting the Egyptian port to surrender their books for copying into the library collection. Often, the more handsome originals were not returned.

Rising Up From the Commons

I love libraries. Few physical spaces draw me with such intensity as the stacks, reading rooms and study carrels of a really great library. I go to libraries when I’m on vacation – simply cannot walk past the 42nd Street library in New York City without wandering in for a couple hours of reading or writing, or for no purpose at all. Did you know that a huge cistern used to stand on that block of Manhattan, providing drinking water to the city? I do know that, because I read about it… in a library. The Croton Distributing Reservoir used to hold upwards of 20 million gallons of water. It was torn down sometime in the late 1800s, replaced by the now familiar Beaux-Arts building and its adjacent Bryant Park.

The main public library branch in downtown Seattle is a wonder to behold, with precious foggy daylight streaming through massive slanted windows framed by redwood beams in the upper floor reading rooms, suggesting both mountain and forest vistas of the great Pacific Northwest. When I was there this past winter a man approached me, said he was from Alaska, and just kept shaking his head as he looked around the room, taking in its grandeur. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” he told me.

Even the humble little Aurora Public Library, my old suburban hometown haunt from the 70s and early 80s, squat and ugly and utilitarian, with a weird cold war air-raid siren installed right by the front door – even that place felt more special than any other spot in that sad little town.

These three buildings have almost nothing in common architecturally, nor in the atmosphere they provide to those who use them. Yet they all have one very important thing in common. They exist because our world contains writers, and those writers create the books, magazine and journal articles that make up the core of a library’s collection.

Let me make a bold and not very populist suggestion. Libraries are not about commonality; they’re about exceptionalism. Or, at least, they’re supposed to be.

Why does New York City protect the entrance to its library with lions? Because only the brave should approach such a building, only those willing to find and absorb and at least attempt to understand the wisdom therein. Walk through the information commons in any university or public library these days and you are likely to see a student catching up on some Netflix or updating Facebook. Something essential about these spaces has been flipped on its head. Serious research of actual information is often now secondary to entertainment. Is that really what we want from our libraries?

Philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie is widely considered the father of the modern public library. One might be tempted to think of Carnegie’s generous grants to build libraries across the continent as some sort of democratizing gift to humanity - to the commons. Of course, by day Carnegie was a union-busting industrial capitalist with little time for common folk (or, at least, the common folk who expected union wages and benefits). His vision of the purpose of these libraries is clear and unequivocal. They are for the  “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.” [vi]

Can I walk into the Vancouver Public Library (another spectacular building) and walk out with a copy of one of my own books? No, I cannot. They have my books (thanks Vancouver!), but if I want to read them at the VPL, I will have to actually stay within the friendly confines of the VPL. Not being a resident of Vancouver, I cannot get a Vancouver Public Library card [vii], and you sure do need one of those to borrow a book from there. VPL, like every other public library you will enter these days, enforces control over its collection with sophisticated surveillance and electronic security measures. Strike one against the idea that libraries are for everyone. They are for everyone resident in the municipality on which the library depends for tax revenues.

The same goes for university libraries, like the Pratt in Toronto, where I do a great deal of my own writing. In many university libraries, I’m free to wander through the stacks and take books back to a study carrel for my immediate use. As long as I don’t leave the building, I can touch whatever I want (and touch it I do). But this is certainly not true for Robarts Library, the monolithic, turkey-shaped building at the corner of St. George and Harbord. The stacks at Robarts’ infopark are guarded by electronic gates and card-checking technology. The last time I was in that corporately-sponsored commons, I was watched very closely by a uniformed security guard. Never mind taking the books out of the building, if you want to even see most of the books in the Robarts collection, you will need to be a tuition-paying student at the University of Toronto [viii], one of the more exceptional, expensive and exclusive schools in North America. It’s all very nice and democratic sounding for libraries to promise universal accessibility, but they don’t really mean it [ix], and maybe that’s ultimately a good thing.

I don’t make these observations out of any Randian insistence on keeping the rabble away from the good stuff, and I’m as likely to lean toward Antonio Panizzi [x] as Andrew Carnegie for my essential understanding of and belief in the purpose of libraries – Panizzi, the Principal Librarian of the British Museum Library famously declared it was the government’s responsibility to make sure the poor and rich had equal access to his collection. That said, the job of providing access is nowhere near as easy as opening a door, and it carries with it an immense responsibility.

The elitism of the U of T library system serves an essential purpose for that system and for the public and private donations on which it is built. If anybody could walk into Pratt or Robarts and remove any book they like whenever they like, there would very soon be far fewer books in Pratt and Robarts. Protecting and preserving the collection they have is as much the job of a library as is building the collection in the first place. In fact, library workers should want to control access as much as they want to provide it. Otherwise, they are working themselves out of a job. And library workers have an essentially important job. They are the highly educated human conduit between some wonderful new tools (digital text, metadata, search algorithms, etc.) and the collections of human work to which they will be applied.

Schemes like Google’s library-scanning and’s archive-scanning put the metadata first, the search second, and the people third (or lower), all the while making disingenuous promises about being stewards of the information commons. If we are building a universal library, it’s one designed with plenty of cloud-based servers and wired conduits, but precious few human-sized doors and climate-controlled storage rooms. Let’s leave the information commons where it belongs, with the digital utopians, and instead let’s expect of our libraries the real, human work for which they are uniquely suited. We can start by using the proper names for things as they are.

[i] The Information Commons: A Public Policy Report, by Nancy Kranich. The Free Expression Policy Project. Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

[iv] p. 66, The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel, Knopf Canada 2006.

[v] Full disclosure: My day job is as executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, one of the named plaintiffs in the current HathiTrust legal proceedings in the US.

[vii] Vancouver Public Library website – How to Get a Library Card:

[viii] The U of T library system does have options by which non-students may access the stacks, but these options are costly and certainly not universal. A 7-day “stack access” card costs $20, and is available only to “Visitors, who are faculty members, staff, or graduate students in other universities.”

[ix] I can’t even get past the home screen on a “commons” computer terminal without entering a U of T access code.

[x] Thanks to Nigel Beale for pointing me in the direction of Panizzi through his article, “Empty Archives: Reflections on an Institution in Crisis,” pp. 18-21, in the Summer 2013 issue of Write magazine (the member publication of The Writers’ Union of Canada).

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