Post #2: DRM, copyright and librarianship

For much of my life I have contemplated copyrights, patents and trademarks. I know it sounds strange, and I certainly didn’t think about it consciously, way back when. Only in hindsight does it seem so clear.

I used to be a walking TV Guide. I could tell you when any program was on, time of day, day of the week, and possibly in rerun. By tenth grade a friend and I compiled a list of cartoons that we each had seen at least three episodes of, and in one hour long class we came up with slightly over three hundred. Around the same time, I figured out that I had solved or otherwise completed about the same number of video games, and in at least five platforms; Vectrex, Intellivision, Atari 2600 and 800XL, Commodore 64…

(Writing this today, especially remembering those lists, makes me wonder why I’m not anxious to be a cataloger)

At the same time, I started to notice how different some stores were from others. Why did Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks and Coliseum have such similar book selections, but Montclair Book Center and the Strand were so remarkably different. I resisted the pervasive culture of advertising, and each year NYC, where I spent much of my undergraduate free time, seemed to be reaching a saturation point. I started to think about the vending machines in my high school, how one year all of the ones I liked disappeared and suddenly we only had Coca-Cola products. I didn’t understand, but I started to recognize branding.

Times Square was reimagineered by Disney, and afterward I literally couldn’t see the traffic lights for all of the neon, belching smoke effects and animatronics. A few years later it was colonized by enormous television modules, and I had a vision of taxi cabs and vans enveloped by them too. By the time advertising started to appear on sidewalks, in urinals, and was blanketing 25 story building facades like a commercial Christo installation, I was curious about for-profit corporations and their principles.

What does this have to do with librarianship? Corporate consolidation is fundamental to the American landscape, I believe, and impacts every level of our profession. I am currently taking a class in management, and am working on a paper about the effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM), Creative Commons, and the dissemination of information. An article about the meaning of librarianship by Henry T. Blanke called Librarianship and Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment has really helped me understand what is happening in this digital age to our libraries, and why a record number of graduates with MLIS degrees are entering the corporate world.

As with health care, warfare, and water and energy supplies, forces are at work to privatize information. In 1982, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science published a report stating that “the Federal government should establish and enforce policies and procedures that encourage…investment by the private sector in the development and use of information products and services.” The age of mechanization has segued into the age of information, and today the United States primarily profits from an information culture, not a manufacturing culture.

Librarianship has held on to a notion of neutrality and allowed any guiding control over the dissemination of information to slip away. Colleges are beginning to reconsider whether or not they need physical library spaces. Public libraries are closing at rates faster than they are opening. Many librarians are now called Information Specialists, Data Providers, and Knowledge Managers. We are embracing marketing techniques, and our patrons are called customers, or even clients. These trends reflect a fundamental shift towards privatization, and are impeding our ability to provide equitable access, stewardship, and even limit intellectual freedom.

“The idea that any enterprise, scientific or social, can extricate itself from the political culture in which it is embedded is dubious. Often such enterprises that strive for an ideal of neutrality will unconsciously adopt a dominant value orientation, one all the more tenacious for being unexamined… Without a willingness on the part of librarians to define their values in political terms and actively defend those values against the interests of wealth and power, such fundamental library ideals as free and equal access to information are in jeopardy. (Blanke, 40)”

The remarkable success of Amazon, of Google and of Netflix comes in part from their ability to aggregate individual’s recommendations. They have succeeded by encoding what librarians have always done, through readers advisory and collection development, and made it broadly effective in a populist and enjoyable way. It’s a shame, really, that these collaborative and communicative channels did not already exist in the library profession, and that we did not recognize what they were doing immediately. We need to be working with one another, harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” and putting our own expertise to good use. We need to be acting with a community focus through global intelligence, much in the manner that SARS was initially investigated through responsive, unimpeded scientific dialogue.

We cannot compete in the marketplace by any stretch, but we need to responsibly adopt marketing techniques, with an eye toward transparency, not inculcation. We cannot let DRM systems wrest control of information away from us, nor should we quietly accept the infiltration of spyware bundled with them. By embracing licensing such as Creative Commons advocates for we can stay ahead of our information supply competitors, and help keep information in the public domain. The more regulations about how information is disseminated there are, the less relevant we become. We need to build on the emotional connections that people have with libraries, and we need to welcome everyone to the table, especially our younger users, respectfully.

The elements of life are being copyrighted, as is the food we eat. We need to advocate for the rights we have to our selves and our environments. A bedrock of this is freedom of information. “Not only the health and vitality of our library profession is at stake, but that of our democracy as well. (Blanke, 43)”


3 Responses to Post #2: DRM, copyright and librarianship

  1. jgross says:

    You have raised an issue here that I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s been very overwhelming to say the least to try to compete with large corporations that seem to be branding just about everything they can find in the information field. I’ve always felt that there will always be a need for some sort of human connection to make things really come alive.

  2. Sara G. says:

    Two thoughts, offhand.
    First of all, I can’t help but think that as company’s become more and more vigilant about copyright protection and intellectual property rights (what a strange phrase) we are losing the free play of ideas that leads to innovation in the first place. An article I read recently about Silicon Valley talked about the key role a particular bar had played in the early semiconductor industry, how engineers and the like had swapped tips over etching chips and the like over beers. “It was an intellectual property rights lawyer’s worst nightmare,” said one quote.

    Second is that it is interesting to observe the way we adapt and resist the branding/advertising efforts and the advertisers and branders come chasing after us. It’s an arms race out there. We aren’t watching as much tv, we skip the ads with Tivo and we are better at tuning out the ones we do see. So the advertisers respond by hitting us in new locations where they hope we will have our guard down– screens in supermarkets, cafes, bathrooms.
    Clearly some of this stuff must be hitting its target, or it wouldn’t be worth spending money on it. Which means that, like it or not, on some level we must be watching, listening to, reading and liking the ads.

  3. bgood says:

    I work for a company that helps other companies with their marketing and branding, and we are also trying to uglify the landscape with message centers. LEDs and other things that scream “look at me.” Everybody wants to get their message across, and hopefully libraries can do this without being as obnoxious as some of my customers. Good advertising doesn’t have to assault your senses to be effective.

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