Monday, July 14, 2014

The complications that electronic media creates for libraries

Sometimes things just don't line up. From Wikimedia Commons.

I recently gave a presentation about the music and audiovisual librarianship and I've decided to share part of my presentation here. This slightly edited section is about how the advent of electronic mediums complicates music and audiovisual librarianship.

How much does the preservation of physical media matter if "everything is going online"? You can check out e-books and now even e-movies from libraries, Netflix is moving away from physical DVDs and concentrating on streaming services, and who buys physical copies of albums anymore?

Physical media: dead or dying?

My answer to such questions is that physical media may be declining, but it is not yet dying, especially in academic libraries. Electronic scores have yet to be standardized, and even academic e-books are scarce, especially in the humanities. And some physical media is on the upswing, for example the (modest) resurgence of interest in vinyl recordings. And physical storage remains the best way to preserve and lend materials. Digital storage, although often the best way to preserve old media (or as the Library of Congress calls anything produced in the 20th century, "New Media"), digital storage takes a lot and care and feeding to keep the data from becoming lost or unreadable.

Personally, I still buy physical copies of CDs, because I like the added value of art and liner notes and as a backup for digital files. I value the added information. At the same time, though, for space and financial reasons I often don’t purchase movies that 1) I’m not going to watch more than once a year, and 2) are readily available on Netflix or another streaming service, or the library. I, however, am not an institution that needs to plan for preserving the collected media of the generations.


One of the most troubling problems of the digital revolution is release of e-only music and movies and restricting licenses that accompany them. This deployment of e-media means that libraries often cannot even own it, much less preserve it or lend it. A recent court case ruled that in order for someone to resell mp3s, they had to sell the actually hard drive on which they were downloaded. This is frankly ridiculous. First Sale, the legal idea that makes libraries possible, has not been well clarified for digital material. This e-material debate is not over and needs to be addressed in the law. We’ve seen from past experience that publishing companies have little or no incentive to store and catalog their own recordings or music. For example, Capitol records was going to throw away their archive from the 1950s and 60s, including original Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole recordings and manuscripts, and would have done so if Brigham Young University's library had not spoken up and claimed the collection.

However, streaming is not going away, either. Sometimes, especially for small libraries, subscriptions to Naxos and Alexander Street Press are an easy way to get a lot of content. I’m sure a similar model of movie databases marketed to academic libraries will happen soon, but who knows how much it will cost? These streaming databased don’t have everything users need, either, and their catalog can change at the drop of a hat. And streaming does not solve the space issue. We may be able to move items available through streaming to offsite storage, or adjust acquisitions models so we don’t buy them, but with the flood of items produced each year, there will be plenty of resources to take their places.

Take-away: the jack of all trades

What does this mean for libraries? First, digital objects need care and feeding just like physical objects. Second, and more troubling, librarians need to plan for an digital electronic future but shouldn't abandon the physical objects. As time consuming as it sounds, we need to function in an online resource world as well as a physical resource world, shouldering the new forms while keeping up with the old. I hope these extra responsibilities comes with greater pay, but I'm not holding my breath.

Do you physical media is going to become obsolete?

Vocab: First Sale, streaming, vinyl


  1. Short term? Licensing legalities are likely to become more complicated. The balance of permissions and restrictions will continue to be weighed with the those favoring control choosing obscurity over preservation.

    Long term? The physical world is going to become obsolete. Qualities we associate with digital media (fluidity, non-rivalry, indexability) will become more and more characteristic of tangibles.

  2. As an example, consider the fact that in order to post comments on this blog, I need to identify the address of a house so as to better index locations in cities.

    1. Huh, I didn't realize you had to put a house address to comment. That's interesting that the digital world is starting to bleed into the tangible.

  3. Two Comments:

    1) I went to a conference the other year where an archivist from the MPAA was speaking about the current crisis they are in trying to decide how is best to store films, both current and old. With the growing popularity of digital filming, cloud storage is a popular option right now, especially since old film negatives are so unstable. But because old technology forms become obsolete so quickly, the archivist is convinced that having a physical reel on actual film is still the best option since all you basically need to view the contents of the film is light and a projection screen. The point is a good one, though I concede that cloud storage is a much less flammable solution.

    2) I've been teaching an online section of introduction to film since 2010. When I first started, the technology center at my university's library only required that I own a physical copy of the film I wanted to show my class and bring it in to the tech center for them to convert it to a stream-able format and post it to my class website. This made it possible for the course to be available fully online. As long as I only made each film available for a three week time period, I was considered in line with copyright.

    This past year, however, a lot has changed and the library now pays considerable fees to "rent" films from independent streaming libraries, similar to Netflix though with a purely educational objective, in order to meet changing copyright requirements brought on by the rising popularity of digital media. And some films simply do not have streaming copyright clearance (For example, Blade Runner or Waiting for "Superman"). If I still want students to see these films, I must stipulate in the syllabus that students find these films on their own to view or purchase, similar to a required text. On the plus side, though, streamed films from these libraries carry a one year copyright so I no longer have a three week viewing limitation, and as a result I get consistently better papers from students who can access the film under question whenever they need to.

    1. Thanks for your long comments! It's great to get a film perspective. I think cloud storage is okay in theory, but I'm skeptical of privacy and long-term preservation. Is it really less flammable? Couldn't the three back up be wiped free of data almost as easily as physical film? Maybe not, but time will tell. But why not have both.

    2. I agree that diversifying your back up is a good idea. In traditional film archiving, multiple physical copies of films exist in different locations precisely because of the fire danger and because experience teaches that it is good to have a dupe no matter what, though you can only truly have one original negative of the raw footage. Diversifying to physical copies and digital copies is useful, though to purists something is always lost in digital duplication.
      As for cloud storage itself, it may sound good now, but what if it, too, becomes obsolete? Does a library invest in each new technology form that comes along in hopes that it is the last one or the best one, or do they stick with the old/traditional, or do they diversity to minimize risk? And how much money is diversification worth?

      My experience teaching online also has merit here since if I want to show a film to my students but it just happens that I show it to them via the internet rather than sitting in a room and popping a DVD into a player, now I (or the university, in this case) have to pay more money than the cost of the DVD itself. And my and the library's right to show that film expires after a year even so. These new limits on access and time are unfortunate indeed even though I am pleased that films can be shown online so that universities can offer courses to an ever changing and diverse student body.