Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Access to Information & Libraries: It's never free to begin with

I’ve been pondering about a post by Oogaoogachukka, about the library shifting from a contributor of public good to the model where economics dictate. One line goes: "‘Democracy’ of information is eroding. You’ve got to pay for information that you want."

I'd argue that libraries were never free in the first place. The Library of Alexandria of antiquity wasn't meant to be freely accessible to everyone. I could even argue that the reason for setting up the Library of Alexandria was far from altruistic reasons; it was a way of accruing information and knowledge, so that knowledge could be used as a leverage to conquer more land and obtain greater riches.

Public Libraries are a relatively recent feature in the library landscape. I'd read somewhere that Andrew Carnegie set up the public library as a way to make up for the fact that he used child labour. Ok, so give the man a break. Labour laws weren't that stringent in those days, and that Carnegie didn't have to donate money to set up the library (I salute him for doing so). Still, one could argue that the first Public Library was built upon Carnegie’s wealth, which was built upon the sweat and tears of working-children, and hence it isn’t free – merely paid indirectly.

We may not charge for most public library services, but it’s not free. There’s a difference.

Public Libraries are funded by taxpayer’s money. In countries (like the US) where local residents vote on how their local tax revenue is allocated, some have chosen to reduce or eliminate their local public library service. Between filling up that pothole on the road and buying a book, some prefer to maintain their roads.

Life is about making choices – economics is the means by which our choices are measured.

In the final analysis, I suspect that the issue of information access would boil down to what they say about choices in Engineering - Good, cheap, fast: Choose any two.

You want it to be good and fast? Then it won't be cheap.
Want it fast and cheap? Then be prepared to accept a lower quality.
You get the picture.


  1. I read and commented on Oogaoogachukka's post before reading yours.

    While libraries did not start off free as you argue, it does not follow that they cannot eventually become free. However, I personally do not see how they can become free, at least not in the near future.

    But, as I mentioned in my comment on Oogaoogachukka's post, we cannot just look at library economics on a micro level. A public library is just one small part of a greater strategy to educate a society. Societies that fail to see this and choose to reduce or eliminate their local public library service will pay in the long run, probably without realising it. No doubt the societal structures in the US are quite different from here in SG, but it doesn't matter.

    P.S. Heard of google? good, free, fast =)


  2. Lifeatngeeann like most users of libraries (including librarians) would like libraries to be free invariably, no matter what social structures they may originate from (US or SG). Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that libraries cost money, and we are talking millions of $$. Its not just a one time fee for establishing a building but it is the cost not only of purchasing publications, regular subscriptions but also of maintaining these resources. Behind-the-scenes are trained professionals who help select and provide access to these resources. Again money. The work of libraries remain heavy on manpower, and even if we are talking about digital libraries, these issues remain - infrastructure costs, purchase of digital items or of digitising, preservation of digital item, cataloguing or metadata tagging these items. Who pays for these? If its not the subscribers of libraries (the early concept of libraries during colonial days), its the tax-payer - (SG) or some great philantropist (US?). Someone is paying (and paying a great deal) for the service. Unfortunately, we have become so used to free service that we expect it to continue. With cut-backs, some effects can be seen, but pple will still expect us to deliver at the same level of expertise and the same speed. Technology is not the cure all and is one of the reasons for the added costs. Is there a way out? (Sorry i am rambling but then i guess most librarians do... )

  3. In response to 'LifeatNgeeAnn', who said "Heard of google? good, free, fast =)": Well, yeah... maybe. But someone's got to pay for the Internet access, the connectivity charges, the hardware, software etc. And if we compare the relative definition of "good" of the content of a web article Vs. content in a subscription journal, chances are the latter is better.


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