What does Free mean for The Library

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2009-08-03

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Chris Anderson's book has finally appeared. The new one, Free, much discussed already before it was printed, and, off course, much hyped in the Wired magazine. I've just ordered it from Amazon, but I've been walking around thinking about Internet business models, open access and the like. I've also written at length about this (in Swedish, I'm afraid).

How is Free related to the situation for The Library? Well... I'd say: in just about any way you may imagine. However, let me start at an entirely different angle. Blog and Wiki software were at the time the first easy ways to really take advantage of the new medium based on hypertext, a simple protocol and a global network. Through additions such as syndication and pings (notifications that new content have appeared) and automatic cross-linking (based on pings) to enable discussions across blogs, it goes beyond hypertext.

Built for interaction and transactions

This gave us basically a new medium built for transaction and human interaction.

When a blog really takes off, the traffic generated is enough for letting the ads pay your rent and buy milk for your kids. Obviously some quality is required or it won't take off in the first place. (Quality which is in the eye of the beholder). Content which is hard to get elsewhere. That is what gives the attention needed for the transactions to take place.

Blogging is cheap. You write about what's around you that you know. You benefit from from the transaction and attention economy which feeds the Internet. Syndication, aggregation and harvesting will move you're content around, and you'll mostly benefit from it.

Syndication, harvesting and leeches

On the other hand, much of the user's navigation will take place elsewhere, and many user's will not be exposed to your ads but Google's. This lead to Jakob Nielsen's out-cry where he labelled them as leeches already a few years ago.

Michael Massing discusses this and other issues in a recent article in The New York Review of Books. He quotes David Simon's statement in a testimony in front of the US Senate:

[Internet] leeches... reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating web-sites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

There is a problem deep in this statement. It assumes that there would be no news without the traditional media. Since the traditional media are on the decline, We can be almost certain that this is not the case. Massing continues:

... such statements seem as outdated as they are defensive. Over the past few months alone, a remarkable amount of original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening) material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.

Do we really need these big media institutions? What use do we have for Reuters, CNN, AFP etc. They are good to have, but I'd say we could do without them. For example, the notion that we cannot get proper information from distant places without having expensive foreign correspondents travelling there seems extremely arrogant to me, on the verge of being racist.

Adaption and struggle for existence

This is not to say that we don't need journalism. Indeed we do. But as Massing states, it is currently reinventing itself on the Internet. A new one which has adapted itself to the medium. One which is part of the transaction & interaction based technology and economy.

Now, let us return to The Library.

The business model The Library is based upon is the idea that it will save money to share media. It started with scholars sharing papyrus scrolls two thousand years ago. Continued with libraries within monastic societies during the middle age, where books were extremely valuable assets. Then, today, we're licensing electronic material which is meant to save money as an alternative to pay per view.

Those who invented The Library had clearly in mind collections of stuff that were not Free. Stuff that are scarce and only legal to copy for fair use. Produced by organizations that think that Google is stealing their content.

In Chris Anderson's world, and in Google's, the value of information is declining. Material which is Free or open access have the price corresponding to a zero marginal cost of producing one additional copy.

Who will fund each University library's fumbling and overlapping attempts to collect, preserve, organize and provide access to virtually the same digital resources through very similar integrated library systems? And do these resources belong at The Library at all if they are Free?

I leave these questions as an exercise to the reader (hint: think about the economics of blogging). And end this by quoting Google CEO Eric Schmidt

“We don’t have a big picture. We don’t have a five-year plan, we don’t have a two-year plan, we don’t have a one-year plan. We have a mission and a strategy, and the mission is… you know, [to organise] all the world’s information. And the strategy is to do it through innovation. It doesn’t bother us if something doesn’t work. Because we understand that something else will work.”


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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries. I have been that at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university library (Sweden).

The content here does not reflect the views of my employers. They are now all past employers, since I retired 1 May 2023.

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