Stuck in the middle

It was with both a sense of resignation and a deep awareness of the irony of the situation that I read this short article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (and the comments that follow it) titled “Free our Libraries, Cry University Presidents.”  Such a brief report cannot convey (I hope!) all that actually went on during this ‘summit” of university presidents, but the article certainly implies that one aspect of the event was assigning blame to university libraries for our inability to make everything free for all on the Internet.  The presidents in attendance, we are told, “urged libraries to halt what they described as an assault on the public’s right to knowledge, done in the name of copyright.”

It is, of course, both ironic and ill-informed to blame libraries for an assault on the public’s right to know.  Our professional organizations, after all, have an official and highly visible commitment to that right that is, as far as I know, unmatched by any other such group.  To assign that blame because of libraries’ regard for copyright deepens the injustice of the position, if that really is the stance that was taken.  Copyright, of course, is a legal fact.  It is also, at its core, a system designed to support “the public’s right to knowledge.”  Librarians often believe, as these university presidents apparently do, that that system has become badly out of balance and is no longer serving the purpose for which it was created.  But neither group may simply disregard it because they find it inconvenient.

What I find most interesting about the position, as it is presented in the article, is how accurately it reflects the uncomfortable space librarians and others who are concerned about copyright currently occupy in higher education.  Many faculty members and administrators press us to tell them that what they want to do with copyrighted material is legal.  Often they hold the simplistic view that anything done in the name of education is acceptable.  Sometimes the sense of entitlement is more visceral than this, reflecting what I occasionally call (based on my background as a theological librarian) the “The Lord has need of it” syndrome.  Librarians are often the ones who have to say “no” in many of this instances; we are the ones who usually have at least some training in copyright issues, and we are also the ones who sign the licenses for access to so many campus resources.  Undoubtedly there are librarians who are overly cautious, as well as a few who adopt the same insouciant attitude they find in others on their campuses.  But by and large, it is librarians who try to instill respect for copyright, at least as a good idea if not as a successful implementation of that idea, and who explain its limitations to our colleagues.  And yet, from the other side, librarians are sometimes vilified by the major copyright holders as willful scofflaws; Pat Schroeder’s remark, in her role as President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, that all librarians are pirates is justly infamous.  All this makes it difficult for librarians, committed as we are to access for all and to continuous learning and creativity, to know where to stand.  The old saying that if you are making both sides angry at you, you are probably doing something right, may be true, but it is not very comforting for a profession founded on public service.

To be fair to the meeting that was held last week, however, it is important to recognize that the “cry” of “free our libraries” comes from a paper prepared for the event by Richard Johnson, founding Executive Director of SPARC and a consultant for a major organization of academic librarians.  His point in this short paper is not the overly simplistic one implied by the Chronicle article, but the more complex and nuanced argument that library partnerships with commercial interests need to be examined carefully and negotiated to promoted a balanced set of interests that does not shortchange the public, especially in terms of access to public domain works.  Johnson does not call for librarians simply to free themselves from the “bonds” of copyright at all; instead, he suggests quite rightly that:

we need new funding strategies, coordinated library action, and
forward-looking principles to guide us. It’s time to sort out the right roles and
responsibilities for companies, libraries, governments, and private funders and to get
about the work of building an Internet public library that puts the public first.

If this was the real focus of discussion at the Boston Libraries Consortium summit, even poor, abused librarians, caught, as they are, in the “no man’s land” of the “copyfight,” surely can agree.