One of the unfortunate things the internet has done is upset a number of traditional relationships and alliances that used to govern the way knowledge was created and distributed. Consider the various players in the knowledge network we are accustomed to:
|Writers & Researchers
|Bookstores & Vendors
If you drew arrows to create relationships between the different elements of the network, they would go in all directions, because each part of the network affects and is affected by other parts.
Writers and researchers created the content: literature, stories, knowledge. Government and universities in many cases funded the research; government also protected the patents and copyrights of the creators. In return, it made the research it funded available free to taxpayers through depository libraries.
Publishers served as a filter, selecting manuscripts for quality, subjecting them to peer review, and editing them. They, along with bookstores and distributors, gave the chosen writers and researchers easy access to readers.
Schools and libraries not only provided a reliable market -- in some cases, the only market -- for publishers, they also created readers. Schools taught children to read, while libraries made them eager readers, with story hours and summer reading programs and a vast inventory of books, new and old, for every interest. Libraries kept publishers' backtitles alive by housing them and recommending them to readers who might then buy them.
Readers relied on both bookstores and libraries to sample books and magazines and find out what they liked. They also relied on librarians and booksellers for good talk about books; librarians and some bookstores provided reading recommendations, public readings by authors, and book discussion groups, all of which promoted further sales for publishers.
Universities were not only creators and publishers of research but primary consumers of it as well. Their faculty taught students research method and demanded that students learn to use scholarly journal literature. Research libraries provided the archival repository of knowledge that both researchers and students drew on as a springboard to creating new knowledge.
It was a system of indirection: writers used publishers, libraries and bookstores to get to readers. Publishers used bookstores and libraries to get to readers. Government used libraries to distribute information to taxpayers. Researchers searched libraries to learn what previous scholars had said, which allowed them to add to that body of scholarship or create entirely new knowledge.
When the worldwide web came along, this complex web of inter-relationships altered; as each party saw more direct ways to reach the target audience, allies began to see each other as potential enemies. Writers and researchers seized on the opportunity to go around the gatekeepers and seek their readers directly on the web, threatening the primacy and bottom line of publishers. Readers were able to find each other on the web without benefit of libraries or bookstores, creating their own online book discussion groups, reviews, and recommended reading lists.
Government agencies began to publish their research, laws and court cases directly on the web, which also threatened publishers who had organized and distributed that information in reference books. Meanwhile, museums and libraries began to digitize archival collections of out-of-copyright books and journals and make them available for free on the web, in some cases competing with commercial suppliers.
Publishers of periodicals saw a new profit opportunity in offering their backfiles online, for a fee, or licensing them to database vendors. In rushing to digitize, many of them didn't ask the writers and photographers and artists for permission for this additional use and didn't compensate them, which led to the Tasini case and other successful lawsuits against publishers. And as libraries began dropping journal subscriptions, relying entirely on full-text databases, magazines and journals themselves, already hit by rising production costs and declining advertising, became an endangered species.
Owners of copyrights watched with alarm as people began freely copying and pasting their work onto the web without payment or attribution; they became even more alarmed when Napster started the peer-to-peer transfer of digital content. Publishers pushed for, and got, an extension of the life of a copyright, taking back works that had been in the public domain. They began suing and intimidating people who violated their copyrights, however innocently (the movie studio that made the Harry Potter movie sent threatening legal notices to children who had built fan sites). Database publishers pressured Congress to de-fund services like PubScience and Medline so that they could offer like services for profit.
What has gotten lost in all these attempts to restore the balance of things thirty years ago is the fact that we still all need each other.
- Publishers still need schools and libraries to buy their books and magazines
- They still need libraries to retain backfiles of their titles
- They still need government to fund research and protect their copyrights
- Publishers and bookstores need schools, universities and libraries to create new audiences for their products
- They need schools and libraries to create readers
- Libraries and bookstores need publishers, writers and researchers to supply them with product
- Writers still need publishers as a proof that their work has withstood critical scrutiny
- Researchers and writers need libraries for information and ideas
- Researchers, writers, and readers (remember them?) need all of the above PLUS the internet, to work together smoothly as one overarching knowledge system.
- Since information on the net -- including government information -- has a way of disappearing, everybody needs libraries to preserve intellectual content, regardless of form.
ALL of us need readers for our product, which means the more exposure people get to things worth reading, the better for all of us.
That being the case, isn't it time that the various components of that knowledge system stopped throwing bombs at each other and started talking about their mutual interest in preserving the system itself? Shouldn't they stop talking AT each other through lawyers and lobbyists and start talking WITH each other about the ways they can make the knowledge system work better for everybody and still make a living at our trades? Isn't it about time for the American Library Association to be talking with the American Association of Publishers, and the National Academy of Sciences and the Software & Information Industry Association about the dangers of drying up the well from which researchers draw to create new knowledge?
Change is always hard on us. It threatens our profits and our self-image, and leaves us scrambling for the lifeboats. But we need to remember that we've been in this lifeboat together for a long time, and we'll have a better chance of surviving if we have a diverse range of talents on board.
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Barlow told the gathering in Camden that as far back as 1991, he had written that the openness of cyberspace would create a great series of 'holy wars,' as local systems that would feel threatened about being embedded in a global system would push back. Many 'cultures' would find openness a significant threat. Then on September 11th, he said he had a realization -- that the 21st century would be one great struggle between open and closed systems across the planet -- systems of belief, of national organizations, of boundary conditions (both real and virtual), of the ownership of ideas, etc. And these struggles would be intensified by technology, which tends to undermine elites and move communities towards democratization.
Tom Regan. "The true battlefront of the 21st century: Open systems versus closed systems." [reporting on a speech by John Perry Barlow at the Pop!Tech 2001Convention] Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2001, http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1113/
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2001.
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