Information Futures:
Thriving in the Electronic Age

An Institute for Librarians and Information Professionals

New Models in Information Ownership

by Karen Coyle

August 29 and September 9, 1997

The Digital Age

It's no wonder that there is a nostalgia in the library community for the "paper age" -- the time of books and journals and newspapers. In the paper age we had a well-understood line of progression from the author to the reader, moving through the editorial process, the publishing house, to the distributor and finally to the bookstore or library and then to the end user. Libraries came into being in this paper age and we understand it well and are organized to function in it. The "digital age" changes everything. It changes the way we produce information, the way we reproduce and distribute information, the relationship of the library to the information resources and even the role of the library in terms of getting information to users. It brings up fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it.

One of the questions that it brings up is: what have you got when you've got digital information? You've got a display on a screen, not a physical object that you can lend. You've got pre-organized information that doesn't fit easily into the organization of the rest of your collection. You've got unusual bundles of information, since digital information comes usually not as single documents but as large collections, such as all of the works from one publishing house, or the text of articles from a set of journals, but only covering 1993-1997. Because of these odd characteristics, digital works often don't fit into the library mold for collection development, reference or circulation. This could be why we're feeling less than friendly towards these materials.

Copyright and Digital Works

As if all of that weren't bad enough, digital information defies the logic of our copyright laws. A computer is nothing if not the perfect copy machine. A digital document can be copied quickly, cheaply and in any number of copies. Each copy is an exact replica of the original. This has thrown a great fear into the hearts of copyright holders.

From the very first, when the Clinton administration published the "Agenda for Action " in 1993 announcing the program that would encourage the development of the information highway, it was clear that copyright would be one of the problems that had to be solved. As a matter of fact, copyright reform was listed as one of the action items in that document. Since then there has been a lot of activity around the issue of copyright, part of it trying to define what copying means in the digital age.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that the copyright discussion has broken down to two sides, with the publishers and media companies on one side, and librarians and educators on the other. The copyright holders, that former group, are concerned about piracy and loss of revenue. The educational community is concerned about possible loss of access to information. In the middle of all of this is computer technology that is not entirely understood but that -- by its nature -- makes a copy for each act of viewing of a work. Each time you click and bring up a Web page, a copy has been made and sent to your computer for viewing. Even looking at a file that is stored on your own hard disk requires a copy to be made in memory.

So far our attempts to reconcile digital documents and the copyright laws have not been terribly successful. There was an initial proposed change to the copyright law introduced in Congress in 1996, but that didn't go anywhere. In 1994 six task forces, in areas like distance learning, multimedia and electronic reserves, formed to discuss the meaning of fair use in the digital age. Of these, four came to the conclusion that they could not find common ground between the publishers and the educational community, and they ended up simply agreeing to disagree. The other two (distance learning and digital image collections) did propose some guidelines, but these have not received great support in either community.

Other aspects of the copyright law as it relates to digital information could have far-reaching affects on libraries. The first government report issued about this copyright reform advocated that First Sale Rights should not be applied to digital information. You probably know that First Sale states that the copyright holder is remunerated only for the first sale of the item; after that the purchaser can resell or lend the item at will. It is first sale that makes library lending possible. American publishers and an international publishers' association have clearly stated that they do not believe that libraries should be allowed to lend digital works; and that the delivery of information in digital format to the end-user is the sole purview of the publishers themselves because it means the delivery of copies to the end-user.


As frightening as it is, all of this discussion of copyright law may be moot because the fact is that you do not purchase digital resources. Instead, you sign a contract for their use. We know this from our use of systems like DIALOG, where we entered into contracts that determined how we could access and disseminate the information on that system.

Contract law is becoming one of the basic skills of librarianship, and it will be even more important in the future. Contracts for libraries are even more complex than most business contracts. Not only do they have to cover all of the basic legal issues, like who pays how much and when, etc., but they have to take into account the complexity of the library itself. The main complexity is that a library is not a single institution, but a complex of relationships -- relationships with parent organizations, like schools and counties; relationships with other libraries with whom it has lending agreements; relationships through ILL and shared purchase. Library patrons are also not a single class -- a library may serve professors, students and staff, with different levels of service to each; a public library has its own patrons plus those from nearby jurisdictions.

All of this means that every contract a library signs affects these relationships; affects this ecology of information services. It is for this reason that organizations such as ARL are especially concerned that librarians learn to negotiate contracts that are good for libraries and for library users. We want for our contracts to honor the many relationships of our libraries. We also want contracts that don't put undue obligations on libraries; obligations to monitor library users or to gather detailed statistics on use. It is also very important that contracts respect the rights of users, especially the rights of privacy and confidentiality. Libraries are unique in the degree of privacy that we afford our users and many vendors may be surprised at this requirement. Another factor that we need to include in our contracts is the use of standards. Libraries are probably the most efficient institutions in our world today and much of this efficiency is due to our use of standards. Few vendors are able to provide information in a standard form; they don't use library cataloging practices (they hardly use cataloging practices at all). No matter what the price tag is on the contract it will always cost libraries more to work with non-standard data.

In our move to the digital age we want to develop a new information ecology that serves the public and provides equal access to information. How can we do that?

Models for the Future

It's clear that libraries cannot afford to negotiate individual contracts with each vendor of digital information. A better system will have to come about. I'm going to give you just three possible models for the delivery of digital information.

Vendor model

The first is well-known to us, and it is the vendor model. In this model, a vendor contracts with the information providers and presents the library with a kind of one-stop shopping for digital information. We know this model well through our use of systems like DIALOG and CARL. Larger libraries can probably afford a single-priced "all you can eat" account with a such a vendor, while smaller libraries may have to opt for a "pay as you go" deal.

Consortium model

This is a model that is used heavily by the University of California. Each time we negotiate a contract we are negotiating as a single institution covering all nine campuses and hundreds of libraries. This spreads the cost of the contract negotiation over a large number of libraries and each contract covers many thousands of users. One advantage of the consortium model is that small libraries are included in the same contract as large libraries. Once large libraries have been included in a contract the cost to the entire institution to serve the small libraries through the same contract is negligeable. Smaller libraries often get better service as part of a consortium than they would on their own.

The Digital Library model

Examples of this model don't exist yet, so I admit that I'm speculating here, based on my own reading of the proposal for the University of California Digital Library (UCDL). So I should present this one in terms of "Suppose... ." Suppose a large, state-funded educational institution, with the support of the state, decides to take the first step in harnessing the power of digital resources. This institution develops a policy for contracts and has the clout to engage in strong contract negotiations. Because this large institution is also expected to be the heaviest user of digital resources, once its contracts are in place it is relatively inexpensive to begin adding other educational institutions to the Digital Library: colleges, junior colleges, then k-12. Eventually these contracts could cover the public libraries as well. For-profit users would pay the DL to enter into the contract, thus covering some of the public costs.

What I find compelling about this model is that it is based on public funding and it creates an information resource that serves the public. It supports the idea that information is a public resource. It also has the potential to be the basis for a huge cooperative agreement between libraries in terms of sharing. If all digital resources can be equally available to all users we can ease some of the administrative barriers that are sometimes placed in users' way.

This model is still untested and it may undergo a great deal of change as we try to develop a workable future with digital information resources. The important thing is that we must keep our eye on the true goal: that is, not the workings of the individual library but the function of the larger information ecology. If we can create a new ecology for the digital age that truly serves the public then we will have transformed libraries to meet the challenges of the future.

Some Recommended Readings and Web Sites


Digital Future Coalition

Information Policy: Copyright and Intellectual Property (IFLA)


Liblicense. Licensing Digital Information: A Resource for Librarians</p>

Association of Research Libraries. Licensing Electronic Resources: Strategic and Practical Considerations for Signing Electronic Information Delivery Agreements

University of California Collection Development Committee. Principles for Acquiring and Licensing Information in Digital Formats

Digital Libraries

University of California Digital Library. Executive Working Group. The University of California Digital Library: A Framework for Planning and Strategic Initiatives

Lynch, Clifford. The Changing Nature of Collections in the Digital Age. Keynote speech given at the Third Annual Conference of the California Academic & Research Libraries, October, 1995.

©Karen Coyle, 1997
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