Electronic Information - Some Implications for Libraries

by Karen Coyle

[This is the written version of a talk given at the June 6, 1995 meeting of the California Academic and Research Librarians] ©Karen Coyle 1995

The "information society"

It has been said that we are now "the information society." Yet all societies are based on information; after all, what is civilization but a shared knowing? We are what we know ... collectively.

This knowing has been valued throughout human history. The keepers of the knowledge have been powerful members of society: priests, sages, rulers. It has always been known that information is power. Because we are a democracy, we distributed that power by moving knowledge out to the public through our educational system, our libraries, and our free press. One of the greatest democratic acts of our culture was to recognize information and knowledge as public goods.

Today, our libraries are the keepers of the "commons of knowledge" that is so vital a part of our society. Libraries are the only institutions that attempt to provide a view of the whole of our society's information resources without bias.

Libraries carry the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the proven and the dubious.

And they've generally had little competition - until recently, information wasn't a hot product. But now, suddenly, information is the "product of the 90's." Normally cautious investors seem unable to resist the media hype that has arisen from the idea of the "information highway." There is a frightening amount of financial activity taking place around non-existant products and a rather vague promise of future markets.

I see an inherent conflict between information as a "hot product" and information as a "public good." And I see it manifested in the proposed changes to the copyright law. At the hearings held last fall for public testimony on the proposed changes, emphasis was clearly on intellectual property as product. Only a handful out of the dozens who testified even mentioned our obligations to the public, and not surprisingly, most of those were librarians.

Information is an interesting product: it doesn't diminish with use. Electronic information can be copied without losing any quality. And it can be copied quickly and in large numbers of copies. To a manufacturer, this means a high profit margin. But it also means that it can be copied and distributed by people with inexpensive equipment and very little skill.

So information, the product, is hard to protect. One of the results of this is that the tendency is not to sell copies, but to lease them. You don't buy software, you enter into a license for it. This helps the original manufacturer keep control over the product. In the world of electronic documents, leasing, rather than selling, is already the norm.

This is a big change for libraries. The library of today still based on hardcopy/print model. Libraries buy print materials, organize them, and lend them to the public.

But libraries have already have some experience with electronic resources. These have primarily been finding tools, notably citations to hardcopy documents. What is changing is that we are now talking about actual end product, the document itself, being electronic. Some systems provide the full text of published articles; increasingly, government documents are being made available electronically, and libraries are accessing the Internet, which is an entirely new type of information resource.


Copyright law was originally drafted in a world where intellectual property was always embodied in a physical form, such as a book or journal. But in the digital age, we move from the physical piece, held by a library, to electronic information that resides remotely.

As we move from a relationship to our information resources that is governed by copyright law, particularly the "first sale doctrine" "fair use." Under these provisions, a library can lend, archive or dispose of the physical copies at will. We move to a world of licensed information use. In the model, the ownership and control remains with publisher or producer. The library doesn't buy the information, it enters into a contract for the right to make use of it.

Licenses can be more restrictive than the copyright law itself. Copyright was a Congressional act to create a balance between the creators of intellectual property and public good. Licensers are in the business of providing their information for revenue, and are under no obligation to consider public good. They exist not a service to the public, but as a business.

This is a big change in position of library in information "food chain." There was a line from the creator to the publisher to the library and finally to the public. In this case, the library is the public interface on all information, and is the guarantee of public access. The new model goes from the creator to the publisher to the public - because the publisher provides the interface to the electronic documents. The library is reduced to a pass-through point, both for someone else's information, but also for the organization and control of the information. This is not all that different to having a telephone or television in the library - patrons are accessing a service that would be the same whether or not the library existed.

Why does this matter? Isn't it the same whether the public gets its information from a commercial service or from a library. What's the difference between what libraries do and the world of information as product?

Organization, Selection, Collection Development

Libraries have always been distributors of other people's information, but through their activities they transformed the many voices in the information world into a coherent view of the full range of ancient and modern thought. This was done through:


Few libraries can even try to collect "everything," so libraries must select information based on its quality and suitability to the library's mission. This isn't always possible inthe presentation of electronic works. For example, most libraries don't select hard core porn, but it will be part of their offerings when they link to the Internet.

Online systems might not reflect needs of the library's users. After all, different communities have different points of view. The are branch libraries in San Francisco each carry extensive collections in the languages of that neighborhood, with some of fering almost exclusively works in Chinese, and others have large collections of works in Spanish, Vietnamese or Italian. Libraries need to be able to make fine choices - not just provide package deals to their users.

Collection Development

Libraries collect intellectually challenging works as well as popular ones. They collect works on all sides of an issue, and they include seminal works in a field, even if these are rarely checked out. Commercial online systems don't necessarily do this. They may drop works that are no longer popular, and will not include works owned by other publishers. Electronic resources often only include the lastest "n" years. (Most databases of electronic data go back only so far as computerized production of a hardcopy product.)

This means that older documents will be in hard copy, and newer ones online, so that neither provides a complete collection.


Another important thing that libraries do is that they organize all works under a single subject scheme. This means that one search retrieves items by all publishers. Electronic works often have their own organization, and it is not only different from the organization of other publishers, but it only retrieves works from that one publishing house. When libraries contract to use these electronic resources, they are not able to to bring them under a single retrieval scheme. This means a fragmentation of the intellectual world. Only with open systems designs can we provide a single organization of knowledge.


The goal of libraries is to get information to people. In the hardcopy environment, libraries loan works to patrons take them home (or to their office, or wherever they wish to read). The book is a marvelous storage medium for ideas. It is a physical form that can be handled by a majority of patrons; it requires no additional equipment beyond basic human physiology.

In online environment, information is delivered to a computer in the library. That does not get the information to the person requesting it. Providing the information to the patron means printing it, or copying onto a diskette. This assumes that in most cases the library user wishes to take information to their personal place of study. Making the copy of the digital information in a transportable form means passing cost of printing to the reader.

When all is said and done. the book is still the most cost-effective way to provide texts to a large number of people.

In addition to the issues of convenience and cost, providing copies of electronic documents may or may not be allowed under the contract with the vendor. And current proposed changes to the U.S. copyright law would make every transmission a copy. This would mean no "first sale" rights for electronic works and therefore no "lending" of electronic works to library patrons. The overwhelming interest in making a profit from information may sound the death knell for the free lending library.


Our library system is the archive of our written history. Once a book published, it is purchased by libraries and in the end at least one copy will be preserved by our major research libraries.

Because libraries do not "hold" electronic information, they can't be the archivers of that portion of our intellectual output. Archiving is left to the producers and owners of the online information resources. How well does this work? Well, how much archiving do you think taking place on the Internet?

In a more profit-oriented information world, archiving might not take place. It is expensive, and doesn't bring in immediate revenue (though some vendors are finding that their electronic archives are a selling point for their current products). The film industry is a prime example of what happens when the producers do not archive their own materials - we have have lost much of the first decades of film production because it was not preserved.

We need to educate industry and government to the need for archiving. It has been suggested that copyright protection for electronic works should depend on their being placed in depository (which becomes both archive and public access), but this is opposed by the information industry, which fears losing control if works are stored in a public institution.

While we have all been regaled with stories of the increasing capacity for digital storage, the fact is that electronic archiving is NOT a good idea. As you've all probably experienced, floppy diskettes can go bad unexpectedly; hard drives are known to crash. The computer tape used by large computer centers is guaranteed for only ten years. The life of CD ROMs is not yet known, but manufacturers are hedging their bets by guaranteeing them only for one year.

In addition to the fact that these storage media have lifetimes much shorter than that of paper, even paper with high acid content, there is the need for devices, computers and software that can interpret the digital files to extract the information they contain. Few files created ten years ago, even five years ago, are readable in today's environment.

Freedom Of Information

Libraries are our foremost defenders of freedom of information. I am amazed at how quickly many Internet sites have fallen to fears of censorship, even sites at colleges and universities.

Commercial information providers are less able than libraries to defend this right because they have to make a profit. America OnLine and Prodigy actually censor postings on their boards that others might find offensive. These are clearly not first amendment institutions.

Once we have a book on our shelves in a library we can defend the public's right to read it. But when the library is not the owner of the materials, as in the case with online services that we use, it can't stop vendor from withdrawing anything considered controversial. This means that in the new electronic information world, the library's position in the defense of intellectual freedom is weakened.


Where once we could simply DO what we considered right, we now have to become advocates and try to help others do the right thing. We have to speak out. We absolutely must get a librarian on every committee relating to the "information highway" or digital libraries.

We also have to use our voice to protest badly thought-out projects. An example of this is the proposed US Postal Service kiosk program. This is a federal project that would place information kiosks in post offices to disseminate government information. A group of outraged librarians called for a meeting with officials in charge of the project and explained in no uncertain terms that having information kiosks in an environment where no other information was available, where there were no reference servces, would not serve the public's need for government information. The project was amended to place a portion of the kiosks in libraries rather than post offices.

We absolutely must speak to other groups - to our computer centers, to government bodies at all levels. Librarians have a tendency to speak only amongst themselves, but this will no longer do. We have to become more outspoken and we must take our ideas outside of our own profession. It's time to throw off the image of the meek librarian and let our voices be heard.

©Karen Coyle, 1995
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