In 2013, ALA Annual was in Chicago, and all of librarianship celebrated the greatness of the Chicago Blackhawks. It was a special time, and it was at this conference where I attended LITA’s Top Tech Trends panel. This panel was made up of smart folks all of whom I greatly respect (Gary Price, Aimee Fifarek, Sarah Houghton, Clifford Lynch, Char Booth and Brewster Kahle moderated by Loran Dempsey). The conversation covered many topics that have faded in my memory, but there was a part of it that has remained. Several panelists held up the benefits of free content and the need to break down pricing models. MOOCs, open access, and other forms of free content were glorified as an unstoppable force of empowerment. Panelists called on libraries to set content free. Techno-lust was in the air, and librarians were encouraged to join the disruption. Free was the new thing.
As former Wired editor and author of the book Free: the Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson puts it, “the Web has become the biggest store in history and everything is 100 percent off” (238). (Anderson was not part of the LITA panel, but he would very much support the discussion.)
Interestingly enough, the day before the LITA panel there was another talk by computer scientist turned philosopher Jaron Lanier, who offered a markedly different view. Lanier challenged us to think about the dehumanizing nature of technology and the ways that it is restructuring the economy. For example, social media is playing a big role in destabilizing media outlets. Small and medium news outlets that employed hundreds of thousands of people across the country have been destroyed by Craigslist which employees 100 people and Twitter which employees just over 3000. (An ovely simplified example of a larger trend.) Are we moving toward an economy where 1% of the people run the economy and the other 99% are disposable? Lanier in his book Who Owns the Future asks what happens if the internet destroys more jobs than it creates? What if we live in an economy where a select few profit from the free content created by the rest of us?
Over the last few years, we have been in the midst of a showdown over the meaning of “free”, and most of us haven’t even known it. When I think back to the 2013 ALA Annual Conference, I often think about the the contrasting conversations of the LITA panel and Lanier’s talk, because the contrast presents a challenge to our professional values. On the one hand, we support authors’ (and other creators’) right to make money from their creations, and on the other, we support open access and free information. These competing values have been with us for many decades, but their implications may be more acute. For instance, libraries offering OverDrive to patrons, and then OverDrive making patron data available to Amazon and/or Adobe would be the exact kind of problem Lanier would find disconcerting. The community building, creativity, and learning that occurs within our libraries could be reduced into a mass of data given away to companies in the name of better marketing. At the same time, Chris Anderson would argue that this is how “free” works in the new economy. We trade data for access. No biggie.
Libraries are stuck somewhere between Lanier and Anderson. In his book You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier discusses “journalistic Stockholm syndrome” where newspapers promote the very free services that are destroying news media. I wonder if there is a librarian Stockholm syndrome where libraries are promoting free services that are destroying communities? But at the same time, how can we not?
Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the recent book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at@t_swanson.