Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Digital LibraryWorld Part 4: The Hodge Potch

Yesterday the UK government lawyers stated that they believe that public libraries would be legally able to charge for e-books that are downloaded remotely under a library service. This may be the legal position, but what about the moral or social position? More importantly should access to information and literary works be paid for twice. once by taxes and secondly by readers? Should a subsidised public service be allowed to compete unfairly with commercial services? Why should physical books be lent free and yet digital charged within the same service?

Margaret Hodge may have established the legal ground , but that doesn’t excuse her attempts to profit from the public library service as a political football. with little or no regard to the potential damage and the implications to the publishing and bookselling industry. Margaret Hodge will be in effect privatising the library service by the back door and opening the door so wide open to encourage even more radical and disjoined thinking. Today we face a real ‘Hodge Potch’ of ministerial action from a lame duck government and a personal in search for eye-catching headlines for votes in an election year.

It is important that we debate the commercial versus public service question and why one medium should be charged for whilst others aren’t for the same work?

If libraries are allowed to compete head to head with resellers, the fight will be created that never previously existed and it will be one that is both unfair and unjust. Public libraries occupy prime civic locations and will be given even greater preferences than the low rent that charity shops selling books enjoy today. Staff will be paid out of the public purse, the services and systems will be paid out of public purse, the content will be bought out of the public purse and the access will be paid for by the public. Even VAT will flow to the public coffers!

We then have the next Hodgism allowing libraries to sell downloads not rent them. In doing so they will compete unfairly head to head, not just with Amazon, but the very fabric of the booktrade and every bookstore.

Libraries have a role, a community place both in the physical and digital worlds. They need to go mobile and digital. They need to create a social layer of information access and service and not just be seen as a place housing books on shelves. They need to be creative and innovative. This should not be at the expense of the booktrade, publishing industry and authors livelihoods. What is the objective?

When we first saw the Barnes and Noble superstore in the90s, with their cavernous space, coffee shops, newspaper racks and casual retail space we immediately thought they were libraries. When the Espresso POD machines first appeared, we immediately thought what a great community hub libraries could give them ands the service and support they could give local bookstores. When we first saw music , audio and PC in libraries, we thought why not. However, what went wrong was that public libraries were starved of the true investment required to transform them, they struggled to modernise and what money was given was often at the expense of buying books. They were often lost with little direction and staff often found themselves torn between being civil servants, information officers and bookmen. There is a need to change, but change should be one that understands the publishing framework and interdependencies that exist today and not ignores them in blind idealism.

Today we must debate and understand the implications of ‘free to rent’ versus ‘buy to purchase’. If we tip the scales too far to one extreme, we could undermine the fabric of what we are trying to encourage – writing and reading. Today we musty agree how creativity is rewarded and although PLR offers a good safety net , expanding this without a further increase in real money, merely dilutes, and does not encourage and reward creativity.

We must now ask what the role of the library is and how we build it into the digital future in a balanced way that encourages creativity, writing, learning, reading and one that builds community and social harmony. The PLR funding and reward system has to be fully included within any change. We talk often about the public private initiatives and closer relationships and there is a real need to explore these in any change. We must avoid actions that can destroy one in order that we save the other.

If the bookstores were to disappear because of commercial competition, we as society will have played a part in it. If bookstores were to disappear because of governmental action, then we as society have ay best let idealism and at worst greed overcome years of establishing a social service. Creating a tax on reading is not what public libraries were established to do. Reading is reading and to condone charging for digital but retain it for physical books, makes little if no sense.

At a time that the government states that access to the internet and even broadband are become fundamental rights for 21st century citizens, to charge for to read digital books is morally wrong.

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