Paradigms upon paradigms

Libraries (or at least the law libraries I know best) have only slowly and gradually come to see ourselves as in the business of providing gateways to online resources as much as we are describers, catalogers, and archivers of printed resources. And, even once we saw ourselves in that role, actually putting the transition into work in our institutional operations has been very, very, slow. While online resources licensed and “subscribed” for remote access across our campuses (silently) account for the large bulk of our served communities’ use of our libraries, most libraries still devote most of their resources on the ground — budgets, staff time, space — on print. And I daresay many, if not most, law students and faculty still regard the library as “mostly” a provider of printed books and journals.

But we’re rapidly approaching another shift that effects the library’s very role as an aggregator of information consumption. While it has long seemed possible for vendors of online information to seek to reach directly to the end consumer, rather than to library intermediaries, there were obstacles.

Libraries have always existed to pool the resources of a community to better leverage the purchase of information access. The basic logic of our role has been that if each member of the community served by the library had to individually purchase, say, every book they were to read (including every book or journal volume necessary to complete a scholarly research project) not only would the costs be prohibitive but, since many of us would use the same materials as one or more of our peers, there would be a lot of waste and duplication. Meanwhile, publishers of conventional information containers have always lacked any reasonable way to “rent” access to what they publish.

Characteristics of the technology of printed books, including high reproduction costs, as well as cultural and legal traditions that include the “first sale” restriction on distribution rights, have always meant that a book sold once can and will be shared. Publishers have never particularly liked first-sale, and never particularly liked libraries, but (at least for the specialized press) never had many other options. This combination of consumer constraints and producer constraints has always meant that, absent combination on the consumption end through libraries, a wide range of books could not be sold. Libraries, in effect, have been the solution to a market failure.

So, there is a floor price below which books (by which I mean not specifically monographs, but printed containers for information) can’t be economically sold and a ceiling on the value to any individual scholar (or legal practitioner!) in having a copy of any individual book needed for consultation, reference, or citation. Books being costly to copy, that floor has always tended to (far) exceed that value-per-use ceiling and even to exceed the combined value of all of the anticipated uses of (most) individual users. The obvious solution is to pool users to share books — perhaps through some kind of pay-per-use mechanism. But the cost to copy books and their fixation in a specific location has meant that publishers couldn’t normally be the one to parcel our uses (as through some kind of rental model). So… so we have libraries.

But our naturally monopoly on content aggregation and point-of-need redistribution is coming to an end. What services do we provide to continue to add value?

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