Relevance? Permanence?

A question recently raised by a student researcher caused related questions I have been suppressing to clamor for attention. His question concerned the health of the music industry. Although vaguely stated, I assume the premise is that music sales on CD are in trouble because of the growing number of digital download sites for music.  Who would buy an album when you could buy just the tracks you want and create a custom listening experience? So where do musicians’ rights fall in the spectrum? How about the publishers of digital music? Who keeps track of the royalties? What about sharing the downloaded music with friends by burning to a CD or by playing it on a social networking site?

Parallel issues concern the book publishing industry.  Aside from the downloadable audio books and various textual e-books the library offers, some publishers are now offering chapter downloads.  At one point, instructors could take parts of several books and make custom texts available for the students in their classes.  So, how much royalty $$$ should an author get if only one chapter of his book is purchased? What about the publisher’s cut? And how does one know that digital rights management/ copyright protection is being observed/enforced if people share their playlists and collections?

A final factor is the library, the place where all this digital stuff intersects with the hard copies.  I remember thinking that PLA was smart to set up print stations in the main areas of the convention center in Minneapolis, where attendees could print handouts for just those sessions they planned to attend. This benefitted PLA as well, because there was no need to guess how many would attend, and no surplus of handouts for less-well-attended sessions to deal with afterwards. So, if libraries similarly become mere delivery points for digital materials, like a knowledge or entertainment fueling station, how many actual print artifacts should be in the collection?

My library has got a work group developing a short list of core reference works that is expected to be available in each branch.  I just completed weeding our telephone reference collection down to half its original size. Much reference information is online now, either through electronic subscriptions, the GPO, or otherwise.  Even though it hurt to withdraw some of those expensive works, I have to admit it has been years since I used them. Online information tends to be more current, so how can we justify spending hundreds of dollars on works that are outdated when they are published, and can only be used in the place where they are housed? The licenses we negotiate for our electronic subscriptions allow any patrons in any of our branches to use them free, and most also include remote access for our cardholders who may have Internet access at home.

My point is that these issues (viability and format) are not limited to the music and publishing industries. The ripples they are making in the press and in the industries are being felt in homes, in the classroom, at work, and in court.  There will be an impact on everyone, from individual students to library systems and businesses.  Right now, we are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work resulting from chronically short staffing combined with the rapid rate of change in the industries we draw our materials and services from.  New technology has costs over and above the purchase price and increase in telecommunications and electricity costs – staff continuing education seems like an insurmountable challenge.  Keeping up with John Q Public is like the Red Queen, who runs as hard as she can just to stay in the same place!

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