Libraries and the Information Commons - New Opportunities to Participate in the Information Society
Battles to control creativity and knowledge limit our ability to see new realities and paradigms in the digital age. Nevertheless, exciting new initiatives are emerging that prove we can bypass the controls of the information marketplace to foster free expression, public participation, and civic engagement. This essay presents the metaphor and reality of the information commons as an alternative to a highly controlled digital age. In so doing, it further describes how libraries—the original information commons--play an increasingly important role in the effort to ensure universal access and guarantee opportunities for all people to participate in an information-age democracy.
Tendencies and Tensions of the Digital Age
The emergence of the digital age brought the promise of open access to an infinite array of information—information that would enrich the way we live, learn, work, and govern. Observers of this technology revolution imagined an information world that would migrate from a state of scarcity to a state of abundance, transcending geographic, legal, and political boundaries. This dream envisioned a utopia where people could connect with myriad ideas and individuals just by clicking a mouse, no longer constrained by location, format, cost, time of day, on-site rules and regulations, or other barriers. In essence, anyone, anytime, anyplace could receive, interpret and exchange ideas outside the limit of government controls or the marketplace. Many enthusiasts predicted that this new information infrastructure would reserve public spaces for educational and nonprofit institutions charged with promoting and fulfilling the public interest, and would constitute a sphere of free speech and open intellectual discourse that enhances democracy.
Yet, over the past 20 years, a policy of deregulation prompted the industries that create, transport, and disseminate information to transform from independent operators mostly involved with infrastructure into highly integrated, multinational conglomerates eager to increase market share and dominate access to both home and business. The convergence of new technologies empowered these industries to expand their reach while controlling the terms and conditions of access. This evolution has resulted in an “enclosure” that creates a highly inequitable information marketplace.
Today, many people lack access and/or skills to use the new technologies. Others cannot afford the high prices or are forced to comply with rules that control and limit their usage and rights. New limitations on fair use and the first sale doctrine restrict the public from sharing information resources. And for those items that are freely available for public use, no plan for permanent public access has emerged. Meanwhile, with copyright terms continually extended, the possibility of many works ever entering the public domain keeps diminishing.
Given the array of new restrictions limiting public access, the promise of a free and open 21st century information society remains beyond the horizon. The technology that enables unfettered access is just as capable of restricting personal information choices and the free flow of ideas. The utopia of a high-tech information society is now threatened by the dystopia of a highly controlled social order. To protect our most precious right in a democratic society–the right of free expression and inquiry–librarians are working with scholars, educators, creators, and public interest advocates to develop viable alternatives that allow us to build and sustain a commons that preserves free expression in the digital age.
Working together, these groups are adopting a new language--centering on the metaphor of the commons--that offers a fresh approach to disseminating information and ideas in the digital age and emphasizes the public interest and the future of democracy. This metaphor provides an opportunity to stake a claim in the public sphere--to give a language from which to explain how the extraordinary public assets invested in our information infrastructure can deliver opportunities for the participation of all citizens.
To meet today’s challenge of open access to information, librarians and other public interest advocates are joining forces to amplify their voices and extend their reach. They recognize that only collective action under a uniting umbrella can address their common concerns and ensure a robust public domain. In short, their call for a new movement compares to the environmental protection movement of the last decades of the 20th century. As the legal scholar James Boyle observes:
In one very real sense, the environmental movement invented the [concept of the] environment so that farmers, consumers, hunters, and birdwatchers could all discover themselves as environmentalists. Perhaps we need to invent the public domain in order to call into being the coalition that might protect it. (James Boyle. “A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism for the Net?” Law in the Information Society, http://www.law.duke.edu/boylesite/intprop.htm)
Libraries as Information Commons
For centuries, libraries have served as models for information commons in communities throughout the world. They offer free and open spaces to all—lay people and professionals alike. They encourage public participation and deliberation and ensure inclusive, universal service for everyone. And they provide a safe place for people to encounter differing opinions on controversial questions and dissent from current orthodoxy, serving as the source—often the sole source--for the pursuit of independent thought, critical attitudes, and in-depth information. In the digital age, libraries utilize new technologies to promote economic well being, global understanding, advancement of learning, information literacy, digital inclusion, and public participation in the democratic process—essential ingredients of an information commons.
But the vision of free access embraced by librarians stands at risk in a high-stakes international policy debate that could result in a pay-per-view, or--even more chilling--a pay-per-slice, digital information economy where only those willing and able to pay can access electronic information. Librarians have played a key role in negotiating a delicate balance between creators’ and users’ rights to information over the past century. In the digital age, however, their struggle to secure comparable rights for the public has met with increased resistance by content industries, resulting in a tilt toward intellectual property owners. Should this imbalance persist, it will endanger free speech, innovation, and the advancement of knowledge. As a consequence, the widespread deployment of pay-per-view systems could effectively reduce libraries and other information commons to mere marketing platforms for content distributors, safeguarding corporate investment rather than creativity and free expression.
Librarians stand committed to counter the movement to enclose access to information by exploring new and exciting open access approaches to sharing information and advancing knowledge. They recognize that the emergence of the information commons as both metaphor and reality fills a critical need in the digital age. The discourse of the commons captures the essence of democracy by elevating individuals to a role above mere consumers in the marketplace, as well as re-focusing on their rights, needs and responsibilities as citizens. Reviving a language of the commons and adopting new paradigms for access enables the library community to fulfill its fundamental mission--the advancement of knowledge, innovation, and creativity through democratic participation in the free and open exchange of ideas.