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Public Libraries in the Digital Age

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Library fresco in Prague by Alex Berger

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If you are not overly tech savvy you probably think that Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Networks are a mostly negative thing…used solely to facilitate the illegal sharing of data, violating copyright, and depriving the rightful authors of their well-deserved due. While P2P networks do facilitate the illegal transfer of a lot of information, that’s not all P2P networks are used for (despite the perverted portrayal by the media ).  In fact, P2P networks are 100% legal and immensely useful. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) hate them because they take an a-symmetrical web and make it more symmetrical (users sending and receiving near equal amounts of data) but the technology is not only useful, it’s very sound.

The Problem

Public Libraries are an incredible resource.  They have quietly powered just about every major information revolution in the written age.  We have free public libraries to thank for the education received by some of our greatest thinkers. Fundamentally, they facilitate the free and easy dissemination of knowledge. The problem many libraries are facing in the modern environment is competition with the web and P2P networks.  Most of us would still prefer to read a 200+ page book over it’s digital alternative. With e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle even that may not last much longer. So how do libraries stay competitive and useful in the modern environment?

The Current Situation

For the sake of illustration I’ll use the Phoenix Public Library System (PPLS).   PPLS and other city libraries spend an average of $75,000 a year on custom subscriptions.  That $75,000 is in addition to the $1.5 million spent by/across Maricopa county.  On December 3, 2007 the Arizona Republic reported:

In Phoenix and its suburbs, they’re free passes to growing numbers of costly subscription-only Internet databases with genealogy research and auto repair instructions, foreign languages courses and antique appraisals. Maricopa County and Valley cities are spending more than $1.5 million a year to make this information free to cardholders.

As you can imagine, with that type of coinage involved they’re not just purchasing offbeat service subscriptions.  Instead they’ve put together a comprehensive, engaging list of offerings.  View it here.

In addition to adding access to these online research tools and services, they have also moved towards providing a comprehensive e-book and audio book selection…all available for download.  The website lists 1800+ titles in the movie section available for download, 1,500+ audio files, 18,500+ ebooks and 9200+ audio books. An impressive assortment and one that has the potential to cost the Library thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs.

The Solution

PPLS’s offering is impressive, with 60+ database subscriptions and with 30,000+ digital offerings but it’s still minuscule compared to the potential.  Why not turn our library system into a networked P2P network operating custom software which not only allows the distribution of the content they already have, but also the submission and potential addition of hundreds of thousands of new files by authors, documentary producers, and musicians? I know a number of musicians and authors that are eager to distribute their work freely who would jump at the opportunity to tie into the library network. They would be more than willing to submit their works on a royalty-free basis.

It would also allow libraries to share digital catalogs easily between each other.  To ensure availability they probably would still need to offer central download servers, but the load on those could be readily offset by tapping peers with the files first, before defaulting back to the hard servers.  There are hundreds of developers on sites like Source Forge working on open source projects for file sharing and P2P networks so the cost of development would be minimal.  I believe that given the benevolent nature of the project, you could attract a number of skilled coders and developers relatively easily and quickly.

Custom-sort options for submission/approval/maintenance could be built in fairly easily ensuring that illegal files were not dumped onto the server. This would allow the Library complete control over what was made available. It would also differentiate a Library-based system from your standard open P2P network while protecting copyrights. This would also mean that all content on the network was safe, unlike a conventional P2P network where rogue users sometimes submit viruses or mis-labeled material.

If you consider the success of the SETI home program, and people’s helpful default nature, combined with the knowledge that what they are sharing is legal, I believe many individuals would be more than happy to leave the P2P component running.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback and impressions.  Please post them in comment form below.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

18 Comments

  • Dan
    July 11, 2008

    I agree with you

    Reply
  • Dan
    July 10, 2008

    I agree with you

    Reply
  • Jonathan Pfeiffer
    July 11, 2008

    My first question is, Why is Phoenix doing this? As it happens, I have just been reading Richard Florida’s recent book, “Who’s Your City?”. The region that includes Phoenix and Tucson is one of forty so-called “mega-regions” in the world; its economic output is comparable to Denver, Colarado and Shanghai, China. My guess is that the powers that be in Maricopa County are hoping that those subscriptions, perhaps together with other services and benefits, will help to attract highly skilled workers who would otherwise choose to live in Austin, Texas or Los Angeles. (From a personal point of view, though, I can’t imagine that free access to JSTOR would ever factor into my decision to stay in Phoenix.)

    The tension between the broadcast model and the p2p model of cultural production is one of the great conflicts of our time. (See Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School for more theoretical background on that point.) Based on my limited experience with local government officials in Northern Arizona, I would venture to guess that most of the policymakers in Phoenix are older than 40 years old and have a poor grasp of any kind of cultural production that doesn’t involve Hollywood and the Big Media incumbents. I support anyone who would encourage the public policy establishment to understand the benefits of p2p, but I would expect much of it to be an uphill battle.

    These are just my initial thoughts. I also wonder if the highly uneven quality of user-generated content would be a problem, and whether or not local government funding is really the best way to make sure p2p multiculture gets the support it needs.

    Reply
  • Jonathan Pfeiffer
    July 12, 2008

    My first question is, Why is Phoenix doing this? As it happens, I have just been reading Richard Florida’s recent book, “Who’s Your City?”. The region that includes Phoenix and Tucson is one of forty so-called “mega-regions” in the world; its economic output is comparable to Denver, Colarado and Shanghai, China. My guess is that the powers that be in Maricopa County are hoping that those subscriptions, perhaps together with other services and benefits, will help to attract highly skilled workers who would otherwise choose to live in Austin, Texas or Los Angeles. (From a personal point of view, though, I can’t imagine that free access to JSTOR would ever factor into my decision to stay in Phoenix.)

    The tension between the broadcast model and the p2p model of cultural production is one of the great conflicts of our time. (See Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School for more theoretical background on that point.) Based on my limited experience with local government officials in Northern Arizona, I would venture to guess that most of the policymakers in Phoenix are older than 40 years old and have a poor grasp of any kind of cultural production that doesn’t involve Hollywood and the Big Media incumbents. I support anyone who would encourage the public policy establishment to understand the benefits of p2p, but I would expect much of it to be an uphill battle.

    These are just my initial thoughts. I also wonder if the highly uneven quality of user-generated content would be a problem, and whether or not local government funding is really the best way to make sure p2p multiculture gets the support it needs.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 12, 2008

    Jonathan, an excellent question. First, it’s important to note that it isn’t limited to Phoenix, or even Arizona. It’s the direction libraries all over the nation are moving in. Just look at the national archives project (archive.org). That said, it’s particularly relevant in areas with large minority populations. Arizona has an enormous Hispanic population some of whom are illegal. The public library system offers them an opportunity to educate themselves and i suspect that’s part of why one of the top resources the library provides in a language learning subscription.

    In terms of size, there are predictions that by 2020 it will be essentially one city from Tucson to Prescott. The city of Phoenix itself has been labeled one of the best managed cities for a number of years running. The valley itself has undergone major renovations and growing up over the last 5 years and is coming into it’s own as a potential tech hub. The relatively unique thing about the Phoenix area is that we have lots of space and virtually no natural disasters. The tech appeal for server farms etc. is substantial.

    The legislators in AZ would definitely pose an obstacle. It’s something that would require a sit down 20 minute conversation, as they will mostly have fundamental framework questions you or i would take for granted. The benefit there though would be the digitally savvy Millennial generation who make up the legislators support staffs. Also, I believe many are familiar with or have used Kazaa or Napster.

    The quality overload could be an issue, but guidelines could be established along with a peer review system. Wikipedia has a number of excellent lessons which could be applied.

    The added benefit is, that this would add another credible feather in P2P’s hat. It’s already being used quietly by Blizzard and other companies for content distribution. It would also go a long way towards undermining the abusive and illegal throttling major ISPs are using while helping ensure the continued relevance of one of the cornerstones of the intellectual infrastructure.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 12, 2008

    Jonathan, an excellent question. First, it’s important to note that it isn’t limited to Phoenix, or even Arizona. It’s the direction libraries all over the nation are moving in. Just look at the national archives project (archive.org). That said, it’s particularly relevant in areas with large minority populations. Arizona has an enormous Hispanic population some of whom are illegal. The public library system offers them an opportunity to educate themselves and i suspect that’s part of why one of the top resources the library provides in a language learning subscription.

    In terms of size, there are predictions that by 2020 it will be essentially one city from Tucson to Prescott. The city of Phoenix itself has been labeled one of the best managed cities for a number of years running. The valley itself has undergone major renovations and growing up over the last 5 years and is coming into it’s own as a potential tech hub. The relatively unique thing about the Phoenix area is that we have lots of space and virtually no natural disasters. The tech appeal for server farms etc. is substantial.

    The legislators in AZ would definitely pose an obstacle. It’s something that would require a sit down 20 minute conversation, as they will mostly have fundamental framework questions you or i would take for granted. The benefit there though would be the digitally savvy Millennial generation who make up the legislators support staffs. Also, I believe many are familiar with or have used Kazaa or Napster.

    The quality overload could be an issue, but guidelines could be established along with a peer review system. Wikipedia has a number of excellent lessons which could be applied.

    The added benefit is, that this would add another credible feather in P2P’s hat. It’s already being used quietly by Blizzard and other companies for content distribution. It would also go a long way towards undermining the abusive and illegal throttling major ISPs are using while helping ensure the continued relevance of one of the cornerstones of the intellectual infrastructure.

    Reply
  • Jonathan Pfeiffer
    July 15, 2008

    So the target audience might not be highly skilled workers, but rather highly unskilled workers? I didn’t think of that.

    This is interesting. I would say, Alex, that if you can come up with a compelling one-page document — not too full of text — that explains the benefits in very simple terms, then you might be on to something. You might need two versions: one which explain why it is in the best interest of a typical resident, and one, similarly, for a typical policymaker.

    Reply
  • Jonathan Pfeiffer
    July 14, 2008

    So the target audience might not be highly skilled workers, but rather highly unskilled workers? I didn’t think of that.

    This is interesting. I would say, Alex, that if you can come up with a compelling one-page document — not too full of text — that explains the benefits in very simple terms, then you might be on to something. You might need two versions: one which explain why it is in the best interest of a typical resident, and one, similarly, for a typical policymaker.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 15, 2008

    The two papers is a fantastic idea.

    The ultimate goal is to continue to expand the benefits of libraries and expand it easily into the homes of every day citizens. Especially those – be it low income, or the elderly who use the internet as one of their primary sources for reaching out.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 14, 2008

    The two papers is a fantastic idea.

    The ultimate goal is to continue to expand the benefits of libraries and expand it easily into the homes of every day citizens. Especially those – be it low income, or the elderly who use the internet as one of their primary sources for reaching out.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 22, 2008

    The consumerist just did a feature piece on public libraries:
    http://consumerist.com/5027723/7-ways-your-public-library-can-help-you-during-a-bad-economy

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    July 22, 2008

    The consumerist just did a feature piece on public libraries:
    http://consumerist.com/5027723/7-ways-your-public-library-can-help-you-during-a-bad-economy

    Reply
  • david lee king
    August 7, 2008

    Thoughts from your post…

    “So how do libraries stay competitive and useful in the modern environment?”

    We are working on that very question! We even have a moniker for it – Library 2.0. In general, libraries have fallen behind in the whole web 2.0 thing – but some of us are working to catch libraries up to the present!

    “An impressive assortment and one that has the potential to cost the Library thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs.” The bandwidth payment model is more like a business – static monthly payment, usually at least partially funded by the state.

    One more side thing before getting to your main point – “PPLS’s offering is impressive, with 60+ database subscriptions and with 30,000+ digital offerings but it’s still minuscule compared to the potential.” Definitely miniscule… but also probably has a different focus than what you’re talking about. My guess is PPLS’s goal isn’t to collect or make everything available – it’s to make only the best, most useful, and potentially most requested stuff available. That’s the old non-digital model, anyway – and right now, most libraries are translating that old model into the digital age. Then they have web access, which covers most other things.

    Now to the meat: “Why not turn our library system into a networked P2P network operating custom software which not only allows the distribution of the content they already have, but also the submission and potential addition of hundreds of thousands of new files by authors, documentary producers, and musicians?”

    Very cool idea. Remove the “digital” part for a sec, and some libraries already do that – my library, for example, actively collects books written by Topeka-area authors. Plus photographs, etc.

    That local area thing is the catch – most public libraries aren’t interested in collecting EVERYTHING. They might be interested, however, in collecting everything from their local communities. What if, for example, Seattle Public Library collected mp3 files from local bands… we could have had early demos of Nirvana downloadable for free – years before they were huge. That’d be cool!

    P2P networks might not work for libraries in the near-future – state-funded networks frequently have policies against that type of thing, and libraries don’t have the money to buy the bandwidth themselves.

    But – the ideas behind P2P are library-friendly. Libraries have been working on the customer-to-customer communication thing, just in littler baby steps. For example, my library allows library customers to write book reviews and we post em online, and we’re also blog-based, so customers can converse with each other via commenting.

    My thoughts, anyway…

    Reply
  • david lee king
    August 7, 2008

    Thoughts from your post…

    “So how do libraries stay competitive and useful in the modern environment?”

    We are working on that very question! We even have a moniker for it – Library 2.0. In general, libraries have fallen behind in the whole web 2.0 thing – but some of us are working to catch libraries up to the present!

    “An impressive assortment and one that has the potential to cost the Library thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs.” The bandwidth payment model is more like a business – static monthly payment, usually at least partially funded by the state.

    One more side thing before getting to your main point – “PPLS’s offering is impressive, with 60+ database subscriptions and with 30,000+ digital offerings but it’s still minuscule compared to the potential.” Definitely miniscule… but also probably has a different focus than what you’re talking about. My guess is PPLS’s goal isn’t to collect or make everything available – it’s to make only the best, most useful, and potentially most requested stuff available. That’s the old non-digital model, anyway – and right now, most libraries are translating that old model into the digital age. Then they have web access, which covers most other things.

    Now to the meat: “Why not turn our library system into a networked P2P network operating custom software which not only allows the distribution of the content they already have, but also the submission and potential addition of hundreds of thousands of new files by authors, documentary producers, and musicians?”

    Very cool idea. Remove the “digital” part for a sec, and some libraries already do that – my library, for example, actively collects books written by Topeka-area authors. Plus photographs, etc.

    That local area thing is the catch – most public libraries aren’t interested in collecting EVERYTHING. They might be interested, however, in collecting everything from their local communities. What if, for example, Seattle Public Library collected mp3 files from local bands… we could have had early demos of Nirvana downloadable for free – years before they were huge. That’d be cool!

    P2P networks might not work for libraries in the near-future – state-funded networks frequently have policies against that type of thing, and libraries don’t have the money to buy the bandwidth themselves.

    But – the ideas behind P2P are library-friendly. Libraries have been working on the customer-to-customer communication thing, just in littler baby steps. For example, my library allows library customers to write book reviews and we post em online, and we’re also blog-based, so customers can converse with each other via commenting.

    My thoughts, anyway…

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 8, 2008

    It’s wonderful to see that there are community leaders exploring how to continue Libraries forward march. A huge hat tip to you and the others tackling the subject.

    Interesting revelations about how the bandwidth costs are handled. This is an area I hoped to bypass with the primary search going out and downloading from other Peers exclusively and only running a secondary pull for the files from the library as a guaranteed source when there were not any peers available. I think it would be very important to have it an either or instance, so the library was not supplementing the P2P pull and associated bandwidth consumption.

    Your point about libraries wanting to focus on relevant, region specific data is an excellent one. The way I see this being implemented the software would allow multiple tiered membership. For example the city of Sedona’s public library (pop 15k) has it’s own network. Depending on the wishes of the administrators that network can be joined with the Yavapaii County library system, the Arizona library system and then conceivably even international elements depending on the goal and desire of the offering. In a way, I see it as a very easy to integrate P2P version of the inter-library loan.

    Also, following the above model, I see a sort function eg: Sedona library network, .mp3, author – as the users submitting the content would be submitting through the library they signed up with (important for copyright reasons and identity verification through library cards) so that Sedona user submits his/her music/book etc. to the Sedona library.

    This way the local library still can grant access to massive amounts of general information by associating with the state network, but only have to focus on maintaining and offering local resources…thus enriching the network as a whole.

    Also, if the whole software side was developed open source, transition costs would be notably less as there would not be software purchase or usage costs.

    Love the blog based elements and review stuff your library is working on. Sounds like a fantastic way to increase community involvement.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 8, 2008

    It’s wonderful to see that there are community leaders exploring how to continue Libraries forward march. A huge hat tip to you and the others tackling the subject.

    Interesting revelations about how the bandwidth costs are handled. This is an area I hoped to bypass with the primary search going out and downloading from other Peers exclusively and only running a secondary pull for the files from the library as a guaranteed source when there were not any peers available. I think it would be very important to have it an either or instance, so the library was not supplementing the P2P pull and associated bandwidth consumption.

    Your point about libraries wanting to focus on relevant, region specific data is an excellent one. The way I see this being implemented the software would allow multiple tiered membership. For example the city of Sedona’s public library (pop 15k) has it’s own network. Depending on the wishes of the administrators that network can be joined with the Yavapaii County library system, the Arizona library system and then conceivably even international elements depending on the goal and desire of the offering. In a way, I see it as a very easy to integrate P2P version of the inter-library loan.

    Also, following the above model, I see a sort function eg: Sedona library network, .mp3, author – as the users submitting the content would be submitting through the library they signed up with (important for copyright reasons and identity verification through library cards) so that Sedona user submits his/her music/book etc. to the Sedona library.

    This way the local library still can grant access to massive amounts of general information by associating with the state network, but only have to focus on maintaining and offering local resources…thus enriching the network as a whole.

    Also, if the whole software side was developed open source, transition costs would be notably less as there would not be software purchase or usage costs.

    Love the blog based elements and review stuff your library is working on. Sounds like a fantastic way to increase community involvement.

    Reply
  • Peggy
    September 2, 2008

    Yes, libraries are moving towards all digital. Are they aiming at keeping subscribers or generating new subscribers. The building of subscribers is in the hands of public school librarians. They are the ones that are engaging students in readership and connection to online resources. I talked to the new President of the California School Library Association two week ago and she showed me a couple of sights that clearly indicate that librarians are savvy Web 2.0 users.
    AS for P2P, that can be set up as a resource that subscribers can access but for which no legal connections are made to the public library system. They do not have the funds to support that service nor should they bear responsibility for how it is used, by whom etc.

    Reply
  • Peggy
    September 2, 2008

    Yes, libraries are moving towards all digital. Are they aiming at keeping subscribers or generating new subscribers. The building of subscribers is in the hands of public school librarians. They are the ones that are engaging students in readership and connection to online resources. I talked to the new President of the California School Library Association two week ago and she showed me a couple of sights that clearly indicate that librarians are savvy Web 2.0 users.
    AS for P2P, that can be set up as a resource that subscribers can access but for which no legal connections are made to the public library system. They do not have the funds to support that service nor should they bear responsibility for how it is used, by whom etc.

    Reply

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