Public Libraries in the Digital Age

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.