Library as Partner or Door Mat

The Milwaukee Public Library will have to pay to get access to content it helped to digitize and provide for free through Google News.  MPL’s position highlights the challenges libraries face when asked to partner with other, sometimes commercial, organizations.  It requires library directors and governing boards to be more aggressive about protecting access to any collection enhancements.

I don’t know anything about Milwaukee’s project with Google other than what I’ve gathered from the Board minutes in 2009 and other articles on the Web.  I went looking to see what discussion there was about a contractual relationship and who was involved.  It sounds as though the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel approached the library, who agreed to lend its microfilmed collection.  Proquest did the scanning and Google hosted it in their news product.  Then Gannett purchased the newsaper, and the archive on Google News was shut down.  Newsbank will be its new home, but not (at this point) with free access.

Old Dirty Books

The MPL isn’t unusual as libraries go.  One of the things libraries are valued for are their collections and many libraries have historic content of one form or another.  As foundations of their communities, they frequently have unique local content.  Most libraries have a funnel-shaped collection, so that even with regular weeding, there are historic items that may get little use but still own a place on a shelf.

I once worked on a project where a publisher wanted to digitize old books in our collection.  This doesn’t sound like a big deal except that, to do the work, the books needed to be guillotined.  The library at this point needs to decide whether this book is rare – and so you don’t want to chop it up – or if it’s just old.  It has always surprised me how old books are treated as rare, from the perspective of giving them special physical containers or extra insurance coverage.  But I digress.

We decided to give up the physical books so they could be chopped and scanned.  The trade off was that we would get a reprint of the digitized book for our collection.  In addition, the publisher provided us with perpetual digital access to the book in their online collection.

This is a pretty straightforward arrangement.  Even now, if you’ve got a book and get a book back, you’re probably in about the same place you were before.  I didn’t view the digital access as a benefit at all, because I doubted the book’s contents would ever be accessed in that fashion.  But, as De La Soul discovered, you can get locked into the past if you don’t have flexibility for the future.

Get it in Writing

If you are approached by a publisher (or anyone, frankly) to partner on an information project, get something in writing.  What are your expectations?  When someone wants to partner with a library, it’s because the library can provide value.  There is a fiduciary responsibility for the director and governance board to ensure that the library gets value in exchange.  Someone – taxpayers, most likely – paid for the original resource and deserve the benefits that come from that investment.  I don’t want to suggest that every partnership or collaboration requires an aggressive posture, but rather that we should recognize that each one is a give and take and libraries aren’t always accustomed to being on the take side of things.

It’s also one of the few times the shoe is on the other foot: the library’s role puts it in the driver’s seat from the negotiation standpoint.   The only way to safeguard that role is to put it down on paper.  My preference is to have the partner send me the letter stating what it is committing to, rather than to only have something on my library’s letterhead alone.

In the Milwaukee Public Library’s case, the Board asked the director to send a letter.  I expect this would be typical in most libraries that don’t have their own lawyer or the funds to hire one.  I’ve posted before about contractual clauses that libraries have created to protect their own environments.

Books are easier than microfilm because you can assure access by getting a facsimile of the original.  If you’re taking non-print content and lending it to a digitial initiative, you might:

  • ask for perpetual digital access.  Your immediate partner will probably see this as a no-brainer.  The trick really is to ensure that this right of access continues to successor owners of the information.  Publisher consolidation and divestment can mean that your lent content is a bit like a subprime mortgage and ends up further afield within a few years.  You may already have an electronic license that incorporates language you can reuse (look for post-termination rights, backup or archival rights, that sort of thing).
  • get your own copy.  Just as with books, if the content you’re lending becomes a digital resource, ask for your own version of that.  A project I was involved with took content that had been prepared in one fashion and refashioned it for publication in a new resource.  The license incorporated a clause that meant, at any time, we could ask for a copy of all the original content (less any editorial or other enhancements the publisher had added).  This allowed us to partner with more than one organization as well as getting the value from the initial digital project.  Even if you have to archive a stack of PDFs or store it in a format that’s not terribly accessible, at least you have the raw materials to enable access for your library.

I feel for the folks at MPL.  No one likes getting jerked around by people who had initially been partners on improving information access.  The library’s in the enviable position of having had a positive financial position for many years but no-one wants to start paying a license for what had been free content.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.