One of these days, we'll figure out where we're going.
I’m just going to free associate on some ideas that have been bumping around in my head lately.
I had a conversation with my husband the other day about the increasing irrelevance of the Recording Industry to the lives of artists*. It used to be that the big labels were the ones who had access to the incredibly expensive recording equipment that made the manufacture of albums, then casettes, then CDs. Studio time was expensive and the labels could afford to front the costs for studios to lay down hours and hours of tracks to produce an album.
However, over time, that recording equipment became less expensive and professionals and hobbyists alike would be able to acquire multi-channel mixers and multi-track recording equipment. My dad had a four-track tape recording system in the barn where his band practiced. It was one of the most awesome things I had seen with four tapes rolling in sync with each other. Nowadays, with a few thousand dollars you could have a studio rig to rival the semi-professional studio spaces you can find in droves in every major city.
Pressing records is another thing that has also turned into a boutique niche for record companies. In 2008 digital downloads surpassed record sales, and it never turned back. And I’m using “record” here loosely to mean a physical object that you put into a listening device. More people download their music through iTunes or AmazonMP3 than go to record stores.
But now we have people who through the use of their home recording studios and the ubiquity of digital download services are increasing the volume of music that’s being produced and the volume of music that end user sees just increases and increases.
So, the one valuable thing that the Recording Industry has a hold of is the Filter that says “This is hot. This is not.” But even that is changing. Spotify this week announced that they were opening their API to allow for app development. Now, some people, like myself, said “an app for your app?” But think about this for a moment. By opening their API to outside development, individual users, like you and I, could create our own filter for the music that we appreciate and like and want to share with our friends, and the world.
And that’s a valuable development, that kind of mirrors where the internet is taking society, moving content curation out of the hands of “experts” and people who have a financial interest in the product, and putting it in the hands of users who enjoy that content.
But what does this mean for the library?
As an institution we have always been a place that has had a certain level of cache that we have maintained for centuries: the place to find what you’re looking for. While the library has never been a place that has been able to hold the entire spectrum of human knowledge, it has always been a place that one could expect a level of expertise in selecting works that would be of value to a community. Whether that be a community of scholars or a village of farmers. Out of all of the mass of human literature, the library has selected, cataloged and made available a particular collection. Every library is unique, and their collection policies help develop that vision of each unique place.
So, as we move into a digital future, where printed books become luxury items (like vinyl is for music afficionados today), and eBooks explode into stratospheric proportions (which we’re already seeing via Amazon and Barnes & Noble circumventing traditional publishing models), the question of what becomes of the library still stands. And I believe that content curation is going to remain extremely valuable. However, as we see with Spotify, user driven filters to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio will also start to arise.
Then the primary concern becomes one of access to resources. If the eBook market still prices works at an inaccessible rate for the average consumer, and especially the poor consumer, then providing access to users via a shared system, such as the library is the only way to make that happen.
Among the people on the Digital Public Library of America initiative there has been a lot of back and forth about being able to acquire current works and make them available via DPLA. In our current state of publishing, this is extremely challenging. Publishers barely want to provide access to their works to libraries at all. Many of the major publishers have been pulling out of consortium vendors like Overdrive, even though there are very rigid DRM practices in place. However, if through a service like DPLA, libraries would be able to provide access to a very broad body of freely available contemporary works, or at least eBook editions of works that are available via their physical collections, then we’re talking about a future for digital libraries. By participating in a national level consortium effort for eBooks libraries could reap an extremely high benefit. The library then becomes an API, enhancing user experiences in navigating the world’s aggregated content. The Library as a space becomes useful in other ways, as a collaboration zone, content creation space, a place to explore new technologies in a hands-on way, and a place to read when you don’t have access to read on your own, or get a physical copy on demand if you need one.
I guess the road that I’ve been walking down here is one that we cover as librarians all the time, i.e. what is the difference between a collection and an aggregation. If you think about The Internet, all of it, it’s incomprehensible to imagine that anyone would ever be able to cull out of its vastness an island of reliable sources and valuable sites. But search engines have developed massive algorithms to analyze this major body of work and help items float to the top. The Internet is an aggregation of content. The top 10 hits you get from a search engine (provided you phrased your query well) are the collection that the algorithm has selected for you. Out of all of the body of literature in the world, the aggregate body of human works, a Library makes a careful selection based on a number of factors, to craft a collection. The recording industry is in the business of boosting the signal against the noise, promoting those artists who they believed to be a cut above the rest to give them national or global exposure. The Library is also in the business of boosting signal against the noise, promoting those books that they believe to be more relevant to a community than others. As we think about the future of the library we’re going to have to ask bigger questions about content curation, participation across cities, states and national boundaries, and about what libraries as physical spaces mean to local communities in the context of these much bigger endeavors.
Edited to Add:
I’m just going to go ahead and update this as I woke up thinking about it. Nearly the entirety of the piece above ignores the entire lesson learned from the Recording Industry. That innovations that respect the consumers and the creators will continue to flatten out the hierarchical systems that we’ve built over time. If we’ve learned anything from Wikipedia it’s that with a few simple rules everyone in the world can create an up-to-date, encyclopedia. Though experts participate, this product is one that is curated by everyone collectively. Different people, with different bodies of knowledge contribute collectively and it all gets sorted out by everyone together.
I’ve been drinking my own Kool-Aid.
In continuing this exploration though I want to consider the possibility that not everyone is as web savvy as everyone else. That children who grow up in poverty, may not be versed in the ways of the Internet. That educators and intercessors to help people will always be necessary. Innovations keep coming rapidly and we should be able to respond to them in the moment of need. Adults, who are no longer in school, may need a venue to explore and learn new things from other human beings. Exploration space, as I mentioned in the preceding article, is more than likely what we’ll need to be. Attempting to boost signal against noise is a noble goal, but may not be our primary selling point. Service and human interaction may be the rule of tomorrow.
* Yes, this is the kind of conversation that I have with my husband. We didn’t get married for nothing! Okay, it was the insurance, but excellent conversations are really high up there in the reasons.