What Can Libraries Learn from Publisher Paywalls

I find paywalls fascinating.  There may not seem to be much connection between libraries and paywalled content but I think there are some interesting shared concepts and concerns.  In particular, how to continue to tailor and deliver information in an environment where people assume information is freely available?

The latest story to catch my eye has to do with the Wall Street Journal.  They, like the Telegraph, are making their paywalls more porous.  One of the original proponents – and apparent success stories – of the paywall, Arkansas’ Democrat Gazette, did the same thing last year.  Each of these publications is now going through that process of figuring out where – between 100% audience when it is free and whatever remaining audience when it’s paywalled (15%?) – the balance is between using ads and premium accounts to generate revenue.  I’d mused on these issues earlier this year, because the shifts seem so random.  But paywall shifts are, I think, an interesting example for libraries of another information deliverer trying to get the right balance of information and funding.

Libraries are often seen as a free resource because they’re freely accessible, without thinking about how they’re funded.  When taxes go down or millages fail or funding for other programs isn’t sufficient, library funding is often a target.  The UK has a national problem, one of the world’s biggest public libraries could lose nearly 3% of its budget next year, and US public libraries with funding challenges are talking mergers, closures, and other collaborative approaches to share the burden.

One of the things the paywalled publishers are doing is to test their content, to see which is rich enough to drive paid subscriptions and which is just enough to generate traffic.  Libraries do a similar, albeit much slower, function in developing a collection to meet the needs of the patrons.  Just as publishers shift resources away from stories that don’t pay (and just license that content from somewhere else), libraries try to cut and acquire to put our resources to the best use.

We don’t really have the ability to be as nimble as an electronic information delivery resource.  A/B testing on a web site means very fast change is possible online.  A typical library collection may leave a book on a shelf for a year or two after it’s really past its prime, where it’s no longer generating foot traffic.  Or leave it permanently, if the funding is so low that there aren’t new books to fill the emptying shelves caused by weeding.

Membership libraries are the paywalled version of our institution.  You can access it if you pay; and not if you can’t.  But we’ve even seen this changing, particularly in the membership law library.  There are very few subscription law libraries left that haven’t considered opening their space and collection up for other audiences, especially the public, because of the opportunities for additional funding that can bring.

Membership dues aren’t paying any library’s bills anyway, and public access can mean publicly oriented grant and government funds.  At worst, it can mean significantly higher activity levels – foot traffic, reference questions, name recognition – beyond the membership, many of whom may view it more as a charity than as an integral information resource.

Most libraries want to be in that same sweet spot:  if we’re free to use, we still need to be funded; but we can’t live on user-driven funding alone.

Libraries with falling foot traffic because the print collection isn’t as valued by their users any longer are shifting towards information commons and other non-traditional space uses.  We’re trying to regain that measure of activity that creates the visual – and hopefully analytical, if we capture data about the activity – support that funders seem to need to see a busy library.

Unlike a publisher, increased online use just encourages a sense that the library doesn’t provide its function any longer, even if that online use is only enabled by licenses and online tools provided from library funds and resources.  Also unlike a publisher, who may value the journalists and editors and others involved in the content creation and delivery, libraries are often viewed as resources and not services.

The librarians get left out of the equation because they may not (probably won’t?) actually interact with all the people who are using resources:  online databases, downloadable e-books, self-checkout.  The funding cuts that lead to staff cuts lead to automation that further separates the staff role from the visible use of the information.  Which is great, except that funding decisions that short the staff function will result in consequences – perhaps unintended by the funder – that negatively impact the resources.

What was I talking about again?

The evolution of the publisher paywalls are, I think, going to help generate some ideas for how libraries can move towards that middle.  Not benchmarks, but ideas:  do we create a premium collection (even if it is freely accessible but underwritten by local companies), or leverage little free libraries by getting a quid for the pro quo of giving them weeded items?  How do we find the middle ground ourselves between what’s entirely open but can’t be fully funded, and what’s entirely closed and can’t be fully funded?

My own preference would be to move towards that middle without leaving the information role too much – I’m not a fan of justifying the library by bodies in seats – that we are so good at.  I don’t think we have the local qualities or the audience to remain at the fully paywalled end that membership law libraries currently hold.  I don’t foresee a time in my life when libraries will be entirely electronic, either.  Even public libraries are faced with some publishers or authors or popular books that are not available/affordable in an electronic format.  But I do think we can look at some of the hard decisions information providers are making and perhaps gain some insights that will help our own information access work.

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.