Of libraries, big steel and Bill Gates: Lib vision crisis isn’t the only survival threat

National Tube plant in Lorain - old postcardI once lived in a midwestern factory town where parts of the sky could turn red with smoke from U.S. Steel. The pollution sullied the paint of cars and the lungs of humans. Just the same, all that fire and smoke meant local jobs, of which I suspect there are fewer now than when I was a reporter on the public housing and poverty beats. So when Peter Brantley, a digital librarian, compares the library world with big steel, throwing in a cathedral metaphor along the way, he brought back old memories. Peter notes that the large steel companies worried more about dividends and cannibalization of existing operations than about the benefits of new technology. In this case, yes, Google-type companies come up. He worries that libraries won't adapt, that "cathedrals are lost for people who can find their scripture[s] online." As he sees it, a big problem is lack of vision, and I agree. Not swimming in cash But there is another challenge for the library world---the fact many libraries lack resources and are all too subject to the whims of powerful individuals and organizations into whose business models libraries may not fit as well as I'd like. Lest you think that all libraries are swimming in cash, the way the steel companies were at their peak, you should read History, Digitized (and Abridged) in today's New York Times.

I, of all people, am aware of all the millions that some libraries are lavishing on big buildings rather than on digitized information. But given the small percentage of books digitized, we need physical libraries in the here and now—not to mention their roles as community meeting places, which Peter recognizes.

Library budgets: A measly $43 per capa in 2000—and probably not adequate today, either

Just as significantly, the resources issue is far, far more than just a matter of shifting from P to E.

Guess how much America was spending per capita on libraries, as of 2000, the most recent year from which I could quickly Google up information? All of $43. Total annual expenditures on American libraries in 2000 were around $12 billion, compared to Google’s current enterprise book revenue of $12.22 billion for the trailing twelve months and its market cap of $140 billion. Just one company is well on its way to eclipsing the library world in sheer dollars-and-cents terms, if it hasn’t already.

Bill Gates: Nonbenefactor Number One—from a content perspective

Then there is the thorny issue of who’ll pay for libraries to get e-books and other items online in a truly massive way.

Perhaps we can start with Nonbenefactor Number One, Bill Gates, on whom I’ll focus here. I’ll insert the obligatory praise for his efforts to wire up the libraries—he’s Da Man—even though the campaign has taken up just a fraction of his resources. No jihad! But in this case I’m talking about the amount of money for actual library content and related services such as scanning and OCRing without any commercial catches. While Microsoft the company is a participant and supporter of the digitization-oriented Open Content Alliance, Gates’ foundation side should do far, far more in the content area. Let “Donated by the Gates Foundation” appear in millions of e-books!

No free Gatsby, alas

Bill Gates lives in a $50-million plus mansion, which is fine by me, except that to this day I’m still wondering why he hasn’t put The Great Gatsby, a favorite novel of his, on the Net for free via libraries—rather than simply contenting himself with several rare editions in the mansion’s private library.

Get in touch with me, Bill. From afar, my hunch is that the Fitzgerald heirs would be open to such arrangements if the terms were right, and as for Simon & Schuster, which currently sells the e-book version of Gatsby, I wouldn’t give up, either. It’s among the most beloved novel of Claire Israel, an e-booker at S&S, and if her company can turn a buck while promoting her personal enthusiasm, my guess is that she and her colleagues would leap at the chance. Of course, there’s the issue of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, without which Gatsby would be in the public domain by now. But like it or not, and I don’t, Bono is the law, and there are ways for Gates and libraries to work within it.

Unfortunately, however, while Bill Gates has been hailed as a modern Andrew Carnegie, I’m not counting on his putting Gatsby on the Net even though I’ve been on Microsoft’s case about this for years. The reason is that intellectual property is Gates’ steel.

The difference between Gates and Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie could finance libraries without worrying about competition with his steel mills from free access to books—the heart of the very Carnegie model threated by Amazon and Google. While I applaud the Gates campaign to “wire up” the libraries, that’s not the same as putting the Great Gatsby and other American treasures online. What a tragedy. Considering his tens of billions of dollars, Gates leads the list of list of people who could truly reinvent library content—both in terms of books and mere snippets of information—while respecting old traditions and narrowing the digital divide.

Not to pick just on Bill Gates and his foundation alone. I’d love to see other foundations jump in, including Google’s (disclosure: I’m a very small Google shareholder). And, yes, along with others involved with the LibraryCity project, I have some very specific ideas in mind. I’d love to see some interest from the Digital Library Federation, of which Peter is executive director.

Needed: Less pie-slicing, more pie-growing

Along the way, I hope that librarians and content providers can spend a little less time killing each other over pie-slicing issues and more time collaborating on ways to grow the size of the pie—including some aggressive and well-coordinated lobbying in D.C.

The library model, if financed adequately and not used as the only one, could be very good for not just librarians and society but also for the content industries. I continue to believe in the TeleRead concept of a truly well-stocked national digital library system with a mix of public and private funding and fair compensation for authors, publishers and others, as well as tight integration with local libraries and schools. A digital library system ideally will be a noncommercial effort in spirit and not simply an extension of Microsoft, Google or any other company, even though synergies would abound for all.

Peter’s group could help lead the way by mapping out specific plans (an endeavor in which I’d be happy to join him or others with open minds). Vision can and should start at home.

(Post card image via Roots Web—showing the old National Tube Works, once among the pride and joys of U.S. Steel.)

(Thanks to Samuel Hendrix for the pointer to the Times article.)

2 Comments on Of libraries, big steel and Bill Gates: Lib vision crisis isn’t the only survival threat

  1. David;

    While there a few Fitzgerald in the Public Domain (This Side of Paradise), The Great Gatsby was published post 1922. Since we (Simon & Schuster) do not currently participate in selling our digital books to libraries, there is nothing Mr. Gates could do without the consent of the copyright holder.

    My Best,
    Claire Israel
    Director of Digital Content & Business Development
    Simon & Schuster

  2. Thanks for your timely reply, Claire. Yes, as I’ve made clear, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act resulted in Gatsby’s not going into the public domain for now. The heirs directly or indirectly have sold the rights to S&S, and while I’d prefer that Bono not exist, I think it would be great if both the heirs and S&S could arrange for library distribution.

    I’m curious. Why does S&S not sell digital books to libraries? Is there a marketing reason, piracy concerns, or something else? What could libraries to do make sales possible?

    Many thanks, Claire, and best wishes right back!

    (Fellow Gatsby fan)

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