When the interests of publishers are prioritised, who defends the public good? asks Mandy Henk 

This week, the oligopoly that is the global publishing industry won another victory over libraries. 

With five major book publishing houses left around the world — which is soon to be four unless the US Department of Justice manages to block the latest mega-merger — this group’s ability to wield power far from their respective headquarters continued unabated, but this time it happened right here in New Zealand.

This week, a signed-and-done deal that would have seen the digital preservation of about 600,000 books from the National Library of New Zealand was indefinitely postponed. These books, which have completed their service as physical objects, were to have been made available to New Zealanders and others around the world via an innovative new library service known as ‘controlled digital lending’.

The project, managed through the Internet Archive, would have transformed these books from dead wood on an inaccessible shelf into a useful, loanable, full-text searchable collection – one that would have met the needs of far more New Zealanders than the books ever did sitting in a closed warehouse in Whanganui.

Reborn as a digital collection, these books could serve those readers stuck in lockdowns, those who have print disabilities, and those doing digital humanities research that benefits from text and data mining and other complex search tools that such digital copies enable.

But as of this, the project seems as good as dead. Why? Because of monied interests using political power to get their way in the face of experts advising a path which has the public good as its guiding principle. In other words, it’s the usual reason we can’t have nice things.

As National Library put it, the project was put on hold because of, “concerns raised by the various interested parties, including issues associated with copyright”. That’s a somewhat vague statement — even by the standards we are used to from government departments. However, later in the statement some of the mystery is at least cleared up: “We are taking some time to look at all available options that align with our collection plans, while preserving author and publisher interests.”

They are careful to point out that: “We are aiming to balance our duty to all New Zealanders with the concerns of our valued book sector colleagues and will continue to build relationships with them.”

But wait a minute … to preserve whose interests? ‘Author and publisher’ interests? Really?

While libraries, their acquisitions budgets, the succour they provide readers and writers both, and our public lending right all do tremendous service to authors and publishers, is that the job of the library? Do libraries exist to look after a single industry and its underpaid workforce, forced to survive on the equivalent of zero-hour contracts?

If National Library sees their role as balancing the interests of publishers and users, several questions naturally arise: Who is advocating for the needs of the wider public? Who is protecting our access to knowledge and information? And ultimately, where is the public good in all of this, and how can we address the power imbalance between authors, publishers, and ordinary library users.

There’s no doubt that being a librarian brings with it some real challenges. There’s the lack of funding, the safety issues that come from providing front line public services in a pandemic, the pay inequity, and associated injustices that all historically feminised professions face. It’s also a reality that in an entire profession of public servants, hardly anyone is able to speak freely about issues that impact the public good.

And then there’s the publishing industry – hiding behind authors, underpaying those who create stories and knowledge, all while working to expand into eternity their ability to control our cultural heritage and scientific knowledge. The destructive impact of monopolistic power and short-term financial gain that we see in other industries is no different in the world of publishing.

The end result is that a very small number of publishers are making it near impossible to build library services that meet the needs and expectations of 21st Century library users. They are unconcerned about the social cost, so long as they can expand their profits and send cash to shareholders and owners, all while starving the authors who write the books and taking market share from our local publishing houses.

It’s a common speculation on the internet that if libraries were invented today, they’d never actually be built. Creating something so obviously focused on the public good is nearly impossible to imagine in our current global circumstances.

But libraries do still exist, and as such they need to adapt to change. They need to develop services that meet the needs of people living through Covid, who are used to using a computer for fun and learning, as well as people who are subject to disinformation campaigns designed to tear our social fabric. But they can’t do this alone. They need vocal support from library users and everyone who has a stake in making sure that our public services are fit for purpose.

Publishers will try every trick they have to make sure that libraries are forced into becoming an underfunded and outdated husk of a public service, little more than a convenient way of funnelling public dollars into their private purses. But libraries have so much more potential if we actually let them build innovative public services and collections, just like the National Library of New Zealand is trying to do with the overseas published collection.

New Zealand is at risk of losing so much of the potential that rested in the combination of the 600,000 books that were to be digitised, and the minds of the clever readers and creators that would have used them in this form. Let’s now remember and use this moment, not to mourn but to realise how important it is that we defend our libraries and find new solutions to the issues they face before they fall into disrepair and the librarians into despair.

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