Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Protecting the commons

Photo credit: _PaulS_ via flickr
Before becoming a librarian, I earned a BA degree in environmental sociology - studying the interaction of social and ecological systems. During that time I was influenced by the idea of the commons - specifically the tragedy of the commons. This is the theory that natural resources shared by a community need to be properly managed and protected.  The classic example is a communal pasture where herds of animals graze. If each herdsman decides to add more animals to their stock, soon the pasture will not be able to support any life form. While many writers and theorists have discussed the commons in regards to environmental thought, the concept was made famous in Garrett Hardin's '"The Tragedy of the Commons," published in the December 1968 edition of Science. Hardin open the article building off Wiesner and York's discussion of the nuclear arms race, quoting them as saying "It is our considered professional judgement that this dilemma has no technical solution." Hardin took the further and looks at the tragedy of the commons as having no technical solution but requiring a fundamental extension in morality.

An example of a successfully managed commons is the Maine lobster industry. Maine lobster-men know that they must follow loosely-regulated restrictions in order to secure the future of their industry. If they over harvest, there will be no more lobsters. That's why, in the face of technological innovations, they have been using the same harvesting methods for close to 125 years.

What does environmental theory, the nuclear arms race and Maine lobster have to do with libraries?  As open space and natural resources are the commons to environmental theory, access to information through libraries (both physical or digital) are the commons to library science. I believe that the management of ebooks will be the libraries industry "tragedy of the commons."

There is a battle being raged, between publishers and libraries over access of electronic content: dealing with the licensing, access and distribution of electronic information - and ebooks seem to be the latest vanguard of this fight.  I will admit, a lot of what is happening is over my head, having never had to deal directly with library acquisitions or collection development policy. But what it seems to boil down to is the publishing industry protecting its profit margins while librarians protect the right of their patrons to access information.

Hardin stated that "a technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural [or communication] sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values of morality."  Digital rights management has been part of the publishing industry as a technological solution to control content - which is handy for fighting piracy, but when applied to libraries can limit access of information. It seems that the argument on side of the publishers is that they are trying to protect authors and copyright holders. But we need to remember that copyright was founded as a balancing act - to not only promote incentives for authors and creators to share their ideas, but also to allow for the general public access to their ideas to build upon them.

And just like Wiesner, York and Hardin concluded, I do not believe that there will be a technical solution, but we need to bring about a look at our morality in dealing with freedom to read. Do we value open and private access to information? As a democratic nation whose foundations include the creation of modern libraries, I would like the think that we do - we just might have to make others see that, too. 

As I still try and learn about the logistics and strategies of this fight - I do know that librarians need to stick together and raise their voices. It is through collected action that gains can be made. Look at the fight in academia over the controversies of scholarly communication and the rising costs of journal titles. The collected action of librarians and faculty to boycott these journals is starting to make an impact.

As we work to combine our voices, we should look to leaders in this fight. This is who I am currently following:

K.G. Schneider had an excellent recent post on her blog, Free Range Librarian. Keeping with the environmental theme, she describes this as a problem with "reading ecology."

Andy Woodworth has been a constant voice in the discussion of eBooks in the library setting through his blog, Agnostic, Maybe.

Sarah Houghton, the Librarian in Black, has also been very vocal in speaking up for readers rights - and even has a YouTube channel where she uploaded a video discussing her views of how Amazon treat library patrons.

This is an ongoing debate, and I would love for you to share your thoughts. How do you think libraries should handle the ebook situation? Who have you heard speak up to publishers in the name of freedom to read? What will the future look like? Let us know in the comments below and let's keep this conversation going...

J. B. Wiesner and H. F. York, Sci. Amer. 1964; 211 (No. 4): 27
G. Hardin, Science 1968 Dec 13; 162 (5364):1243-8


  1. this is way over my head but it's a really interesting question, the idea of solving something with a technical adjustment vs a moral one. DRM is so frustrating. What I think is somewhat perplexing is that for over a century, libraries have been answering the issue of access to information to everyone, not just those with money, and now because of ebooks and online journals, instead of making information more accessible it may make it less so? crazy.

    1. A lot of it is over my head, too. But the situation is, indeed, crazy. Thanks for reading, Lizzy!

  2. Interesting. I reread Hardin's essay when someone commented on a column I wrote about OCLC's reluctance to have competitors that if OCLC had to give up its unique position we'd have a "tragedy of the commons." I think it's a pretty messed up essay. It argues voluntary family planning assistance won't prevent human overpopulation, for which more coercive action has to be taken. It assumes self-interest will trump common interests because humans are naturally, rationally self-interested. Publishers would agree; they don't think the commons that the library represents should exist because it threatens their opportunity to control the market and humans will greedily consume everything in sight if library allow them to. I think it's a mistaken understanding and that the tragedy of the commons is that they have been enclosed and "managed" to death. If you're curious about my old post, it's here: