Libraries Gave Up Control

This is a rant post.  Please feel free to turn away now.

I’m not sure how, why or when, but libraries have totally given up control.  Think about it.  We don’t control our revenues.  We don’t control the systems we depend on.  We don’t control the content.  We have almost no content that we actually own.  We barely control the organizational mechanism we have relied on for decades.

As a public institution, most of us relying on tax dollars, it makes sense that we just can’t spend whatever we feel like.  But our insistence on remaining unbiased has certainly hurt us here.  Not only do we need to speak up.  We need to control the messages associated with libraries.  Other Public service groups have a much louder and more sophisticated voice than we do.  Teachers, police, fire fighters, even postal workers are much more organized than we are.  This has to stop!

Why do educational institutions still get to control their prime service?  Yes, educators, for the most part, still have control of the curriculum they teach, the methods they use, and what happens in the classroom.  They still have control over their prime business.  We do not.  Publishers, vendors, and other content providers are eroding the very core of what we do.  Is it inconceivable to believe that eBooks will dominate the book world?  In many cases, eBooks already dominate.  So what will the world look like in 10 years when every has an eReader?  What will our business model be when we have virtually no content to provide the technology that seems to be mainstream?  We need to defend our rights as providers of a public good.

When did we turn over control of system creation?  It’s actually kind of funny, we make the systems and then we turn them over to someone else who charges us for the very systems we created.  We need to refocus on system design, but more importantly, we need to retain the control over the systems.  This is about much more than the ILS, but I’m talking just about every worthless, complicated system we have.  I’m talking about calendar and event systems, ILS, print-release, computer-reservation, CMS, discovery layer, etc…  As an added bonus, if we created these systems, we could actually integrate the systems.  Wouldn’t it be nice if a library member could make a computer reservation, register for a program, and check out a book all from one system?

I know this is just a rant.  I don’t really offer much in the way of constructive solutions.  I am so hopeful for the profession that I love.  But I am simultaneously worried.  I can’t look anyone in the face and say that I think the trend will be good to us.  If our control over revenue, content and systems continue to erode I think the writing will be on the wall.  I guess much of the solution from where I sit (it’s snowing in Chicago) depends on us joining together.  We need to join our voices together.  We need to pool our talents and resources to create systems that actually work for us.  And we need to talk directly to the authors.  The SPARC addendum works (sometimes) in the academic publishing world, maybe it can work here.



Filed under rant

6 responses to “Libraries Gave Up Control

  1. StevenB

    I can understand your concerns, though I’m not entirely sure we’ve totally given up control. But rather than elaborate on that, I’ll just suffice to say that I’ve got hope for Project OLE – see This project seems to be what you are describing.

    And if OCLC is indeed an organization that is owned by the member, then their webshare ILS is something that was created because we all pooled our resources.

    So perhaps we have a little more control than we thought – but clearly it takes some external agency to help us get organized so we can get something done.

  2. Thanks Steven. Project OLE certainly makes me hopeful. I know of a few other projects in the works too. As for OCLC, I know many people who don’t feel that they will be our answer.

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  4. Cynthia

    Thank you for writing this. The speed with which libraries jumped on the Overdrive/Amazon e-book push is amazing.

    E-books were originally designed to be read on computers–any computer. The idea of e-readers is simply as way to marry the consumer to a specific vendor. Libraries have said–ok, that’s great we will promote B&N and Amazon aren’t we lucky that we can now buy a Kindle so cheap–thanks Amazon!

    Perhaps we should reflect on what that position has done to us like it did with reference sources? …paying for NYTimes historical articles from a 3rd party while we subscribe to the paper and therefore get free access to the archives via the NY Times website? Oh, and yes it is content many already owned in microfilm format?!? How does that kind of decision making promote a public good?

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  6. Joe Matthews

    Jamie LaRue, Director of the Douglas County Public Library (Colo), has a interesting take on eBooks. He discusses this topic in a recent Public Libraries (January/February 2012) article available at

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