Friday, April 23, 2010

container vs. content

Jason Griffey brought this up during a WebJunction/ALA webinar on gadgets and libraries yesterday. And I think it's a key question for libraries in this day and age. It used to be that the container and content were singular - books and periodicals. That made it pretty easy, you bought the container and got the content within it. This lasted as long as the container. You could extend the life with mending and/or binding but that was about it. Then we started microfilming, scanning, etc. putting the content into new containers to preserve. But there's always been the unanswered question of what happens to the content when the containers are no longer accessible or viable.

This has all gotten even more difficult of late with the advent of container-dependent ebooks, audiobooks, video, etc. Just a few years ago, librarians were complaining of having to buy the same content in multiple formats - hardcover, large print, audio... Now we're also worrying about multiple containers. And we don't even own the content anymore. Instead we're just buying licenses to access it under often restrictive conditions.

I came away from the webinar yesterday thinking that librarians can't afford to get distracted by the containers. These are bound to change all the time. This year is supposedly the year of the tablet and ebook reader. No library can reasonably be expected to provide all of these various devices to their patrons. Librarians are rightfully concerned about the cost of replacement of damaged devices. Do you charge a patron for the cracked screen on a $499 iPad? What if s/he can't afford to pay for it? Do you then send out a collection agency and/or cut off borrowing privileges? I can't see that this is a road we want to go down. Nor do we want to have to spend large portions of our budgets on expensive devices that will only work with a limited amount of content.

I feel very strongly that we need to be focusing on the content itself. We don't want to get into this DRM (Digital Rights Management) game where Barnes & Noble purchased ePub content will only work with B&N ebook readers. We need to be pushing for open standards and content that will work with as many containers as possible. We are not pirates if we want to to purchase one digital copy of a book and lend it to our patrons who use Kindles, iPads or netbooks. And once the dust settles a bit and there are some functional under $100 ebook readers, we need those to be able to support all of our digital content.

This is the fight we need to be leading right now - protecting access to intellectual content. It is about the content. We can't let all the shiny new containers get in the way of that access.