The first, best defense

For part of this past week, I was in the Netherlands, attending a meeting hosted by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). The organization convened about two dozen people to consider options to improve libraries’ ability to lend digital content.

The meeting was held in Den Haag, a bit less than an hour south of Amsterdam. The train between the airport and Den Haag passes through a couple of larger towns, but it also traverses a flatland of farms and light industry.

Watching from the train window, it struck me that the Dutch could claim full rights to the idea of “mixed use” planning. Muddy fields bordered small office complexes. Industrial parks sat by broad canals that also supplied water to fields where cows, horses and sheep grazed.

In the distance, modern windmills (not quite as quaint as the iconic Dutch models, but more efficient) provided backdrops for rows of local apartments as well as small homes on flat farmland. Along the way, cities would come up suddenly and recede just as quickly.

As a Low Country, the Netherlands has long struggled with water, a battle it has pretty much won in the last century. After the widespread damage done by Hurricane Sandy to heavily settled areas in and around New York City, I wondered if Americans might learn something from the Dutch experience.

Like Venice, the part of the Netherlands that I saw seems to have made peace with the water around it. Rather than try to prevent an incursion, they’ve created conduits to absorb and redirect it.

These examples reminded me of a piece that ran in the New York Times just before Sandy struck. In it, author Paul Greenberg tells the story of how, more than 400 years ago, a robust oyster population protected the area from storm surges and stabilized the shoreline between what is now Washington, D.C. and New York.

Highlighted to me by a seafood-loving friend, Greenberg’s assessment underscored how a series of independent actions can combine to create significant unintended consequences. We removed a natural solution so that we could build harbors and roads, and we’re now facing the prospect of spending billions of dollars just to “storm-proof” the city.

I wonder if there is a parallel when it comes to libraries lending digital content. Fears of piracy led to locked content that requires technical skills to manage and unlock. Fears of cannibalization lead to high prices, replacement requirements and in some cases a refusal to sell to libraries. Library budgets are stretched to support new infrastructure. Reader experiences suffer on all counts.

In rough terms, the growth of book publishing has paralleled the growth in access to the world’s information, including books. Literacy is an underpinning of democracy, but it may also be the single best measure of a market’s appetite for book content.

The growth in supply of self-published material shows how a strong culture of authorship has developed as controls on the creation of new works have been removed. The same trend might be seen among readers, if publishers and libraries find a way to work together on digital lending.

One of the things I said at the IFLA meeting grows out of the piracy research we’ve done. There is a market for content whose price is effectively zero. Publishers have a choice: serve that market and get paid by libraries; or ignore that market and teach readers how to pirate content. I’m still with the idea that libraries are the first, best defense against piracy.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.