JSB Symposium: Brewster Kahle

“The Closing of Library Services…the Opening of Library Services”

October 22, 2008

Brewster Kahle is internationally known as a leading proponent of open access to all knowledge. His 2008 JSB address considered the consequences of the consolidation of information into the hands of a few private organizations.

The founder of the Internet Archive and director of the Open Content Alliance, Kahle has been a critic of proprietary services like the massive Google Books project, which at the time of this talk had just scanned its one-millionth volume from the University of Michigan libraries.

“We think [Google is] doing great stuff,” Kahle said in a 2006 interview with CNET. “If the materials would be made available for broad public search and educational use, we’d be all for it.”

Kahle’s talk, “The Closing of Library Services ... The Opening of Library Services,” explored the implications for libraries of the “closing” of content and considered “open” alternatives.

He asserted that as print resources become databases, libraries move away from selecting and organizing materials from a multitude of publishers in order to create their information services. Instead, they act as collective bargaining agents with a small number of database vendors. This shift lowers the number of organizations that create and control the information services presented to library patrons.

In some circumstances, this has led to one or two corporations controlling a whole type of literature, such as Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw’s effective control over U.S. law literature, and Elsevier’s dominance in scholarly publishing. He added that Google, enabled by several large libraries, is making aggressive investments in book scanning.

If the same few commercial services are offered through most libraries, then the control of library services shifts to these few companies, Kahle maintained. While applauded by some as more efficient, a lack of diversity and a transition to commercial entities from a large number of nonprofit ones could create an information environment that will show monopolistic tendencies in pricing and single points of control. For instance, repurposing and bulk analysis of these resources is rarely allowed by commercial services, and a mistake or bias in one can become the bias for all readers.

This “closing” of library services causes some entities to invest in an alternative: “open” services. The Public Library of Science offers open journal publishing and the Internet Archive provides open digital book services. These nonprofit services support free end-user and bulk services that are rare in commercial services.

The talk explored some of the characteristics and differences between these two approaches to building library services in the Internet era.