Sunday, February 17, 2008

Access and Ownership

Yep, it's February

A few of my recent posts have been on the topic of books. I think the reason is this: Despite the usefulness of the web as an archive of information, there is still value and importance attached to a physical collection. What I mean is, there are lots of things I know and then forget, and when I want to retrieve them I use google. Then there are other things that I want to own, rather than just have access to.

A few examples: every time I want to make a certain recipe for pasta sauce, I can find that recipe online. But after a while I want that recipe printed or in a book on my shelf -- I don't want to have to rely on the computer for access to it. I can use dictionary.com every time I want to find a word's definition, but after a while I prefer a dictionary sitting on my shelves. Netflix is great to play movies instantly, but I still want my favorites on DVD. 

The main point here is that creators of content think they're doing everyone a favor by providing access to it online. And while they're right on one level, for some things ownership is preferable to access. Sometimes I don't want to have to request access to something from a third party. I just want to have it.

The thing is, I think consumers have been getting a sweet deal on content while we've been allowed to buy a copy of the work. Imagine -- a copy of a movie or piece of literature, and you really OWN it. You aren't just provided access to it -- you own it and can do whatever you want with it, within certain legal copyright restrictions. Where once the web threatened this model, the trend in online business (particularly with the big guys) now seems to be this: license limited, temporary online access to customers, and stay away from providing them with a copy they can own and distribute. 

But back to the place of libraries in all of this. Books and physical copies of materials are increasingly devalued. However, libraries have the responsibility to continue to collect physical copies so that when patrons or customers are denied access to them for whatever reason (money, servers, not being near a computer), they can still find and use the material. Yet on the other hand, libraries are also responsible for providing online access to all manner of materials for their patrons, and they risk becoming irrelevant if they focus exclusively on physical media. I seriously doubt that budgets will ever allow libraries to maintain both a complete physical collection and access to the range of expected content and services online. My cynical thought is that physical collections will thus be neglected in favor of access to online materials, and that private collections of physical things will replace libraries as repositories of artifacts. In bleakest of terms, this implies that by choosing short-term relevance, libraries would lose their long-term value. 

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