So Why Not Just Have a Universal Google Library?

Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library, writes in The New York Review of Books:

Like all commercial enterprises, Google's primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders.  Libraries exist to get books to readers –books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free.

Darnton's laser prose cuts to the heart of the mission of an academic library: to connect resources to users, period.  No shareholders, no restrictions based on an individual's ability to pay, no corporate interests to satisfy.  The academic library may be the last great commercial-free information commons, and it is endangered because it is often so misunderstood.

Academic libraries have, of course, service plans, budgets, stakeholders, access policies –and sit amidst institutions which charge tuition, often a lot of money.  But after the price of tuition, after admission to the University, after matriculation and registration –the whole of the library information commons is available to every user, individually for free.  Hardly free for the institution.

Darnton's three jeremiads survey the vicious cycle of esclation in the prices of materials followed by decline in library acquisition of those same materials; the unsustainability of commercial journal prices (written and edited by university researchers for the most part!); and the challenges of Google Books, the Google settlement with copyright holders (still not resolved), and the Digital Public Library of America.  The information commons –that bounded financial and institutional space which balances the interests of writers, readers, publishers, colleges and universities, and data bundlers (such as Ebsco)– is up for renegotiation.  Every major avenue of library acquisitions (monographs, journals, databases, consortia) is undergoing transformation as I write, even for a modest academic library such as Sacred Heart University's.

Fr. Victor Austin of St. Thomas Church (Episcopal) in New York City once told a story –a man stopped him towards the rear of the church after a evening service led by the church's renowed Choir of Men and Boys.  "Is it free?" the man asked Fr. Austin.  Confused at first, Austin replied that you don't need a ticket to attend the service.  "But is it really free?" the man persisted –perhaps used to religious communities where one needs to be a paying member to attend high holy services.  St. Thomas' Church  –with a professional choir, much less the Zeffirellian church itself, the ornate style of worship, the public location on Fifth Avenue– is a spectacularly expensive operation to maintain, possible only through generous gifts both past (read: endowment) and present.  "Is it really free?"  Fr. Austin responded, "No, it is infinitely expensive to provide this service.  But for you, it is free."

That is exactly the position of an academic library, a non-commercial, non-shareholder-driven information common space.  It is very, very expensive to maintain this service, this space.  Librarians can shower you with statistics.  University librarians read more spread-sheets than books on some days.  University administrators and trustees have every right to insist on a lively return on their investment, but measured in cultural, academic, intellectual terms –not expressed as net profit.  It is hugely expensive to run a library.  Academic libraries were once famously called "the bottomless pit, the library as viewed from the administration building" because of their insatiable budgetary demands (Munn, 1968).

But for the library user, it's free.  It must be.  Creative human life, the life of the mind is free.  It is not a return to the shareholders.

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