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WP. No-00-02

Earths Largest Library -- Panacea or Anathema?
A Socio-Technical Analysis
- A detailed critique of Coffman's proposal

 Mark E. Napier & Kathleen A. Smith

 May 2000
Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University


The dream of a library encompassing all areas of knowledge and all books has surfaced in various forms throughout Western civilization.1 At its peak, the Alexandrian library in ancient Egypt is estimated to have contained all, or nearly all, of the existing literature of the time on over 600,000 rolls.2 Texts were purchased, copied, or stolen to bolster the collection, and scholars were sent throughout the world to acquire new materials for the library.3

Centuries later, Etienne-Louis Boullee described a giant basilica which could contain the memory of the entire world--"the library of all books"-- in his proposal for a reconstruction of the Bibliothéque du Roi (precursor of the Bibliothéque Nationale). The year was 1785, and the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century had posed an insurmountable challenge to the dream of the all-encompassing library. For with the proliferation of printed materials came the necessity of selection.

More recently, technological developments such as film, microfilm, video, and HTML have posed even greater challenges to the dream. Now a bewildering array of titles, editions, and formats exists, further complicating selection. In the latest version, Steve Coffman attempts to harness the power of online union catalogs to form the basis of a new "library of all books."

Coffman, head librarian of the San Francisco Public Library, has touched off a small fire storm of controversy with his vision, which he calls "Earths Largest Library" (ELL). While ELL sounds very attractive at first, there are a number of issues, both technical and social, that must be resolved before progress towards that goal can begin.

This essay will analyze the ELL debate from a social-technical perspective, a model used in the field of social informatics which views technology and social systems as an intertwined, inseparable whole. We seek to show that in the discussion of ELL, the social side of the idea has been grossly neglected in favor of its technical aspects, which are perhaps more exciting, easier, or more impressive to discuss. Furthermore, this holds true not only for the visions for creating ELL which have been constructed by Coffman and others, but also for the conditions which stimulated Coffman's idea for ELL in the first place. Finally, we maintain that a careful investigation of the social aspects of ELL is necessary, both in the interest of addressing current problems in librarianship and in preparing for the possible future existence of ELL.

Background: the events and the major players of the ELL debate

The original vision for ELL was formulated by Coffman in "Building Earth's Largest Library: Driving into the Future," published in print and online versions of The Searcher (a magazine for database professionals) in March 1999.4 Here Coffman proposes a four point plan to create the worlds largest library catalog, or Earths Largest Library. Specifically, Coffman advocates:
  • Doing away with the local library catalog.
  • Building a global catalog which allows patrons to search local collection, OCLC's WorldCat (which contains over 40 million records), and Amazon.com (which contains about 3 million items).
  • Eliminating the distinction between local and non-local library holdings. The distinguishing categories for available materials shift from the traditional dichotomy of "locally available" and "available through interlibrary loan" to a spectrum of possibilities such as "immediately available," "available in 24-48 hours," "available in 3-4 days," and "available in 2-6 weeks."
  • Creating a more user-friendly catalog interface. Coffman suggests adding reviews, cover art, tables of contents, excerpts, and any other kind of information useful in a patrons selection decision to the library catalog. He also wants to create catalogs which are more easily browsable and enhance them with the capability to provide personalized suggestions for every patron. Finally, Coffman envisions implementing a forgiving search engine with the capacity to correct spelling errors and to suggest other materials when a patron's search retrieves no hits.
  • Coffman then published a follow-up article the July/August 1999 issue of The Searcher entitled "The Response to 'Building Earths Largest Library.'"5 In this article he responds to over 250 reader reactions to ELL and elaborates on questions raised about the logistics of the project, including the catalog, circulation, collection development, interlibrary loan, and library cooperation.

    Next, librarian and webmaster Mike Dahn of Stetson University College of Law published Earths Largest Library: One Librarians Plan of Action in a special web-only feature in the July/August 1999 issue of The Searcher.6 Dahn identifies four stages of development for implementing ELL. The first stage requires building the catalog and its web interface, and Dahn explores the pros and cons of four possible starting points: OCLC's WorldCat; a similar massive database such as LOC, BIP/BOP, or Baker and Taylor's Title Source; an electronic union catalog of a large regional consortium; or starting from scratch. The second stage would create a system for compiling and organizing the current circulation information of participating libraries, such as the number of copies of a given title, its circulation status, anticipated date of return, holds or reservations, and the library's circulation policies. The third stage focuses on the logistics of interlibrary loan processing and delivery. The fourth stage is partially centralized collection development coordinated on a national scale. Finally, Dahn argues that although ELL would significantly decrease the amount of time needed for processing loans, delivery speed can only be cut by relying an overnight service or digital delivery. To allow individual libraries to budget their expenditures on the new ILL system, Dahn proposes a system of patron credits. Each patron would be issued a given number of credits for ILL that could be used to gain access to remotely stored resources. If a patron desires, these credits could also be sold or donated to other patrons. In addition, Dahn proposes a system of payment for ILL services in which borrowing libraries would pay lending libraries slightly more than the cost of lending an item in order to entice larger institutions to participate in the ELL scheme.

    Contributions to the ELL debate by Walt Crawford, author of Being Analog: Creating Tomorrows Libraries, lead analyst for Eureka on the Web and an expert in end-user search interfaces, appeared on the web at the end of August 1999.7 In "Gutting Americas Local Libraries: Informal Comments on 'Building Earths Largest Library'", Crawford criticizes Coffman for sloppy research, inaccurate comparisons, and unfounded assertions. His main objections to ELL are that it will destroy local libraries, cost more and be less effective than todays public libraries, and widen divide between the information rich and poor in our society. He maintains that the cost of building the system would be much higher than the proponents claim, and argues convincingly that the cost of delivering library materials would break the budgets of the participating institutions if interlibrary loan transactions were to increase from their current 3% to a hypothetical 10%. This would be true even if the costs of delivery could be cut from current levels (about $30) by two-thirds.

    In critiquing Dahn's article, Crawford focuses on some political and social repercussions of ELL. He believes Dahn underplays the fact that ELL might cause political difficulties when local taxpayers want books from their public library which have already requested by remote users. He also notes that extended loan periods reduce item availability, and very much dislikes the possibility of selling library service under Dahn's proposed system of allotting ILL credits to patrons. Finally, Crawford agrees with Dahn that ELL would require a large amount of centralization, which he abhors. He fears the creation of a monolithic bureaucracy which would pose a threat to personal privacy.

    Not all of the debate on ELL has been conducted in writing, however. On October 28, 1999, INCOLSA (Indiana Cooperative Library Services Authority) sponsored a televised panel discussion with Coffman and four panelists: Tom Bacher, Director, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN; Jos Holman, Director, Alexandrian Public Library, Mt. Vernon, IN; Howard Rosenbaum, Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN; and Ed Szynaka, Director, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, Indianapolis, IN.

    The teleconference was basically a reiteration of the ELL idea, but some new information was included. Most notably, Coffman shared the personal story which served as the impetus for ELL. It seems that a friend of his wanted to find a book published in the 1920s called Flaming Arrow and was having difficulty doing so. Coffman decided to take up the search himself, and found that he was hindered by the fact that librarians were reluctant to search OCLC or to suggest interlibrary loan when the title was not in their librarys holdings. Not until Coffman queried his eleventh library, a Canadian one, did he find a librarian willing to search remote access points for the book. Until then, Coffman claims to have been told "Try a used bookstore" and "Good luck!" when the search turned up dry.

    As an extension of the teleconference, a web forum with a link from the INCOLSA home page was constructed for librarians and other interested parties to voice their opinions about ELL. The forum is still active today. Participants post their comments and questions to Steve Coffman, who provides a response. Space is limited to 1,000 words per post. (Although we will refer to some web forum posts below, a thorough analysis of all the posts and their wide-ranging topics is beyond the scope of this essay.)

    The most recent article on ELL was written by Tom Bacher. His piece "What is Local? The Library of the Future?" appeared shortly after the INCOLSA teleconference and is linked to the INCOLSA website.8 Bacher reminds us of an alternative to ELL called NetLibrary.com, a business which is attempting to create the worlds largest library of books. In his opinion, two strengths of NetLibrary.com are that it offers initiative and protection. Initiative is created by the fact that NetLibrary.com will convert books to digital format at no charge, and the publishers will receive royalties for every book sold thereafter. Protection is provided by NetLibrary.com through the controlled circulation model, in which a digital copy of an item is checked out in the same way as a paper book. This means that publishers are assured that pirated versions will not be available on the internet.

    So far, the literature on ELL is limited, and the interests of many of the affected parties are not represented. Though invited, OCLC declined to comment on Coffman's original article, and no one from Amazon.com has commented either. To a small extent, various types of librarians are represented, although no formal surveys have been conducted. A few librarians have been lucky enough to contact Coffman and receive a response to their queries.

    Library patrons and taxpayers themselves are not represented in the ELL debate. Rather than taking a user-centered approach and determining what library users want, Coffman and the other players simply make assumptions based on their experience. Publishers are also not represented in the debate. Their input will become vital if digital delivery is to become an element of the system.

    Analyzing the ELL debate: three technological utopians vs. one anti-utopian Coffman as a technological utopian

    Rob Kling, professor of social informatics at Indiana University Bloomington, proposes the application of genre theory to better understand the way computerization is discussed in our society. In "Analyzing Visions of Electronic Publishing and Digital Libraries," Kling and co-author Roberta Lamb present five genres commonly found in discourse on computerization.9 They are utopianism, anti-utopianism, social realism, social theory, and analytical reduction. Kling and Lamb argue that understanding the conventions of these genres, with their strengths and limitations, is a necessary step in comprehending any discourse on computerization. Because the genres themselves shape the way ideas about computerization are expressed, a familiarity with them and their unique characteristics is a useful tool for interpreting the ELL debate.

    Coffman's articles display the qualities of technological utopianism; he is a firm believer in the power of technology to create an ideal world. It is important to understand this attitude both for what it reveals about ELL and for the details it overlooks.

    The magic of ELL, an empowering, equalizing, and unifying force

    In Coffman's view, ELL will empower patrons because the catalog will be easy to use, attractive, and informative; in his words, it will be "at least as intuitive, convenient, helpful, and easy-to-use as Amazons."10 Furthermore, Coffman explains the foundation of ELL in this way: "The whole concept predicates on giving patrons transparent and unfettered access to the collections of all participating libraries."11 The user interface would provide patrons with more information than is available in traditional card catalogs or OPACs, thus enhancing their selection of library materials. In other words, technology would improve the overall user experience.

    Coffman believes ELL will serve as the great equalizer among libraries, giving every library user access (and eventually instant access, with digital delivery) to the collections of all participating institutions. He writes, "...it would make every library that used it, no matter how humble or how small, the equal of the richest and best-known research institutions in the world, just as Amazon has turned every Web terminal into a massive bookstore."12 Similarly, ELL will function as a great unifying force in the world of librarianship, which Coffman describes in an almost religious tone: "Volumes which now lie scattered across the face of the globe in thousands of separate buildings and collections will come together in a single unified catalog accessible to all."13

    Computerization will solve all problems quickly and cheaply

    Typical of technological utopianism, Coffman's prose is littered with examples of the ability of computerization to solve any problems that currently exist or that may be encountered on the road to building ELL. The power of computerization is continually overestimated. Here, for example, the relationship of people to the computers capacity of to "customize" and "reorganize" as well as the present state of many libraries with incomplete online catalogs are ignored:
    With their comparatively bottomless pits of storage capacity, computers can support customizing and reorganizing information to fit individual needs very efficiently. As long as the master catalog can identify each librarys unique holdings, it should be a simple matter to look at local holdings and pull in local catalog notes from a separate database...we just have to design it right.14
    The notion that all we have to do is design the database "right" is roughly equivalent to saying that we can harness fusion power or find a way to get around the relativistic speed limit if we "design it right." The system Coffman envisions is far larger and more complex than any database system yet attempted. Given the fact that huge database companies like Oracle have problems keeping email functional,15 it seems highly unlikely that we could correctly design the requisite system for the ELL proposal in the near future and for a cost that member libraries could bear.
    Another result of Coffman's technological utopian attitude is that he either glosses over potential complications associated with computerization or ignores them completely. Rather than substantive facts, generalizations such as "If the web is good enough for real-time online stock trading, e-Bay auctions, and book selling, it certainly ought to be good enough for us" and "We are dealing with Internet time here, and my sense is that we have to do something big and grand and fast, if we hope to capture the imagination of our customers and our profession"16 abound.

    Furthermore, it is obvious that Coffman's statements about the time and money required to build ELL should not be interpreted as reliable estimates. While he argued in the panel discussion that the ELL catalog could be built in 18 months, most other authorities would probably estimate that it would take years, if not decades--if it could ever be built at all. (As a point of comparison, it took a small Indiana manufacturing company of about 50 employees 18 months to implement a new, centralized database to be used only within that company. And these 18 months elapsed after the decision to adopt the database has been made, a requirements analysis had been completed, and the plan has been approved. The 18 month time frame for a project of that size was considered average.)17

    Issues such as hidden costs, difficulties of cooperation, and lack of digitized materials are ignored

    Coffman is also unable to acknowledge the hidden costs of computerization, another blind spot typical of technological utopianists. He sees a system of automated ILL as a way to decrease costs by reducing ILL library staff to two employees: one to pull books from the shelf, the other to reshelve them--no matter what the size of the library! He also ignores the technical staff (with their higher salaries) that would be required to keep such a system operational. In his view, the situation can be summarized very simply: "All the rest of the operation would be automated with corresponding substantial cost reductions over our current methods of operation."18

    On the subject of library cooperation, Coffman is content to point out that difficulties encountered in past collaborative projects such as OCLC, WorldCat, interlibrary loan, and the creation of bibliographic control tools have been overcome. However, the specific details as to the difficulties encountered and the strategies employed to surmount with them are not addressed.

    Coffman vastly overestimates the amount of information available in digital format, and ignores the fact that some materials do not lend themselves easily to digitization (such as tables and graphs). He states simply that "Already a good deal of current, general-interest periodical literature has been converted to electronic format," and seems to believe very strongly that digitization will surpass all other formats in the future. While it may be true that the most widely-read periodicals such as TIME are available in digital format, most of the harder-to-find items that Coffman claims ELL would make more accessible have not, for the most part, been digitized.

    Social problems are solved with technology, not created by them

    If Coffman's utopian vision of ELL is noble, his enthusiasm inspiring, and his lack of attention to detail oversightful, his views on the issues of research and privacy is disturbing. In "The Response to Building Earths Largest Library," Coffman 'solves' the problem of library patrons lacking good research skills with the digital delivery of materials. He describes the following scenario:
    ...in my experience I have found that students (including college undergrads) often need immediate access to material (with assignments due tomorrow) and cannot afford to wait even a day or two to have books delivered. So, if we want to make sure students do have access to good food for their minds, we will have to deliver a lot of that food electronically....I think the future looks pretty promising for school kids and for the rest of us who demand instant gratification... 20
    Rather than recognizing the value of a solid program of bibliographic instruction to familiarize students with the resources of the library and to eradicate poor research habits, Coffman sees no problem in indulging a patrons pursuit of "instant gratification" with digital delivery.
    On the issue of privacy, Coffman waxes romantic with a description of ELLs ability to "greet" patrons by name, to "remember" their reading habits, and to "suggest" further reading materials:
    Personalized service. Sounds like an oxymoron on a Web site where you can't even talk with any live human being, to say nothing of a knowledgeable bookseller. But ...Amazon has managed to take advantage of technology to offer personalized customer service that equals and sometimes even exceeds the care you would get at many of the best independent bookstores. The only difference is that Amazon doesn't have to employ thousands of bookish clerks to provide it; Amazon's computers do the job instead. They remember who you are and welcome you to the site when you logon. (How many booksellers do you know that know you by name?) They remember what you have bought and will send you nice little e-mails notifying you when new books have been published in your subject areas or by your favorite authors, or when the next book in the series you are reading has become available.21
    Here the computer is portrayed as more human than real human beings, as better equipped to meet the needs of patrons than a personable and caring bookseller. Dahn and Bacher as technological utopianists
    The contributions of Dahn and Bacher to the ELL debate also fall into the category of utopianist writing. Dahn, for example, believes that although library cooperation will be the most difficult obstacle to achieving ELL, the creation of a "highly functional, super-user-friendly supercatalog" will be enough to overcome this barrier--if, in addition, costs are kept as low as possible and membership is made easy for libraries.22

    To his credit, Dahn's utopian attitude is tempered with occasional bouts of social realism. He does, for example, discuss problems with digital delivery, copyright issues, and potentially costly technical problems. Overall, however, his unwavering faith in the power of the "super-user-friendly supercatalog"23 to motivate libraries to join the project places him firmly in the utopian camp.

    Bacher's utopianism comes through in his discussion of digitizing books, ELL governance, and library cooperation. Bacher claims that "the future digitization of books will create democratization of catalog records" because new standards will allow for the creation of more thorough and easily searchable bibliographic records.24 Thus, patrons with weaker search abilities will no longer be at a disadvantage as compared to more proficient library users in selecting materials they would like to use.

    Bacher is also misguided about the question of governing ELL. Here he draws a parallel, based on a popular myth, that the Internet just developed on its own and never had a single governing body.25 Bacher claims that "...if information providers embrace the earths largest digital library concept, systems will be built, procedures will be implemented and cooperation will come about."26 (Recall the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come!")

    Walt Crawford as an anti-utopianist

    Walt Crawford finds every aspect of the ELL proposal abhorrent, and openly scoffs at Coffman's cost and circulation figures. More importantly, he views the centralized computerization of library records to be tantamount to the establishment of an Orwellian society:
    A single national circulation system would be a goldmine for the FBI, NSA, and miscellaneous hackers around the world....if I was (sic) advising the NSA or the internal security forces of some other country, Id suggest hiring a hacker to make sure that the one single ELL site (emphasis in original) was continuously and unobtrusively copied to a secure server for later examination. 27
    As an anti-utopian critic of ELL, Crawford's zeal in attacking the proposal prevents him from providing a carefully researched and balanced analysis. While Crawford is convincing in his assessment that the cost of building the system would be much higher than Coffman claims, he does his argument a disservice by using Amazon's total costs as a basis for extrapolation, and does not discount the large percentage of Amazon's budget devoted to advertising. Thus, the reader is left thinking the same thing about Crawford that Crawford claims about Coffman: that he is guilty of sloppy research and argumentation.

    The socio-technical perspective

    This section will address (and in some cases, revisit) several aspects which we believe should be key in future discussions of ELL. These are the issues surrounding digital delivery, technical support, copyright, collection development, institutional cooperation, the digital divide, licensing, governance, and privacy.

    In the anecdote above in which Coffman searched for Flaming Arrow, difficulty in finding a copy of a particular book as a compelling argument for ELL, Coffman errs by proposing a massive technical re-engineering of the system to solve a problem that is really social in nature: the reluctance of reference librarians to offer ILL services to patrons. This may be because esoteric requests are rare, or it may be because filling ILL requests is very expensive for libraries and more widespread use of ILL privileges would break the library budget. Either way, it is unlikely that the management of local libraries would be eager to spend large amounts of time and money to develop a system that would make ILL, with its associated high delivery costs, the norm rather than the exception. The idea that voters would agree to tax themselves more heavily in order to gain bibliographic access to remote library materials is also questionable.

    Technical support

    Very little has been said about the need for technical support personnel. Given that the US already has a shortage of workers who are capable of administering, programming and servicing computer systems, it is logical to assume that the cost of hiring technical support staff for the new computers at book search stations, and the local database servers would be quite high. The cost of hiring such staff would almost certainly outweigh the salary savings Coffman and Dahn envision gaining from lowering the number of clerks. Furthermore, every library would have to purchase computer equipment on a regular basis in order to remain current with the advances in technology and the ELL system.

    Institutional cooperation

    Mike Dahn notes in "Earths Largest Library: One Librarians Plan of Action" that all of his co-workers agree that ELL is unworkable. Why? Dahn writes:
    It wasn't that we could never build a database so big. It wasn't that the infrastructure would be too expensive. It wasn't the high cost of the infrastructure or the technology. Everyone (except me--I'm a dreamer) agreed that Mr. Coffman's ideas would never work because we could never get enough libraries to cooperate. (emphasis added).28
    Given that cooperation among libraries is central to ELL, it is logical that much more of the discussion should revolve around creating incentives to entice libraries to participate. Dahn makes some attempts at outlining a system to encourage broad participation, but that system is very complicated, not yet refined, unlikely to attract the support of every type of library, and extremely likely to create a constellation of unintended consequences, such as competition or petty fighting among institutions.
    ELL would also require the cooperation of non-librarians. First, both Coffman and Dahn propose using OCLC as a starting point in the development of a larger database, then enhancing its content. There is little mention of whether OCLC would be interested in participating in an endeavor that would eliminate the market for its product, but it seems reasonable that the company would not sign over the rights to its intellectual property for a small sum. As noted previously, no representative of OCLC has yet weighed in on the ELL idea, and as of yet none of the proponents of ELL have solicited an opinion from OCLC. Practically speaking, the financial and legal issues involved in such an agreement could take years to be resolved--provided the parties were willing to negotiate at all.

    Given that publishers would be directly affected by digital delivery of materials and given that digital delivery is the only economically viable means of large-scale use of ILL, because of the high cost of shipping physical books, publishers should have a voice at the table when ELL is discussed. It is certain that if their needs are not adequately addressed that

  • their lobbyists will be at the dinner tables near Capital Hill, sabotaging the project on the political front.
  • their lawyers will be at the complaintants' table in the courtrooms arguing that digital delivery of library materials is in direct violation of copyright law.
  • While Coffman cites a disputed statistic that patrons cannot find what they want at local libraries 50-65% of the time,29 no one engaged in the ELL debate has done significant research on this important point. No systematic survey of library users needs and of the effectiveness of public libraries in meeting those needs has been conducted. Because the stated goal of the ELL is to better serve the public, it seems extremely unwise to proceed without consulting the public that is to both pay for and use the proposed system.

    Technology licensing

    The proponents of ELL gloss over this issue. While Dahn recognizes that OCLC might not be very enthusiastic about signing away its current monopoly power, he seems to think that wishful thinking will cause OCLC to do just that. Here is what Dahn cites as cons to the idea of using OCLC as a foundation for the new system:
    A. Because our freely available supercatalog would obviate the need for anyone to ever access or license the WorldCat database again, the cost of acquiring or licensing it may be staggering and prohibitive. B. If we cannot purchase the database outright, any license from OCLC would probably restrict its usage to library customers -- the supercatalog would not be open and free to anyone. Aside from making use of the catalog inconvenient (library customers would not be able to use the supercatalog from home or work), by limiting our audience, we limit our ad-based revenue generating opportunities. (This will be addressed in detail later.) C. What about records from non-OCLC member libraries? Eventually we will want to include these in the supercatalog. How will we do it? If we start with the WorldCat database, it will probably be too costly to add non-OCLC member library records, considering the small percentage of materials that these libraries would have to offer. 30
    It flies in the face of reason to think that someone could write those words, yet go on to claim that using OCLC is a viable option. But the rest of the article is predicated on the notion that it is.

    The digital divide

    In order to encourage large libraries to participate in ELL, Dahn correctly notes that they must see some benefit. Since large libraries have the resources to develop very large collections, and can therefore meet most patron requests from within the local collection, the promise of a larger catalog is not a powerful incentive to participate.

    For ELL to work, however, the large libraries must make their resources available to the smaller ones. In effect, the smaller libraries pay for access. Neither Dahn nor Coffman contributes any serious discussion to where the funds will come from. In spite of promises of huge dollar savings from lowered collection development costs (the "just in case" books no longer need be purchased outright, they can be borrowed from larger libraries) and a possible reduction in staffing needs, it is clear that extensive ILL use would be too expensive for the budgets of small libraries. This means that residents of smaller communities either could realize the benefits promised by the system, or they would have to pay extra to gain full access. Until recently, public library use has been free. Without greatly increased tax revenues or fee for service payment, ELL would break the budgets of smaller libraries and actually reduce access to materials, at least for the poor, from their current levels. Access to any "just in case" materials would be slowed for all users of the smaller libraries. The big library vs. small library problem is only half of the digital divide issue. The other half involves individual patrons.

    One of the ideas in ELL is that anyone can access the catalog from anywhere, at any time. This requires access to a computer and a network connection, however. In response to a question posted on the INCOLSA ELL discussion board, Coffman, in addressing the concern that "Not everybody has a computer," writes:

    First place, that is changing pretty quickly, now that they have begun giving them away for free, and my guess that in the very near future, computers and Internet access will be as broadly distributed as television. And until that time, I expect that libraries will continue to provide access both to ELL and to the Internet for patrons without computers.31
    This raises two problems. First, providing rich access requires the purchase of new computer hardware and software. Second, 'free' computers almost always come with a very real price. The recipient must either agree to a longterm, overpriced agreement with an ISP, or give away their privacy by providing all sorts of personal information that will be used to target advertising at them--advertising which robs the user of valuable screen space. Most consumers will find neither option attractive in the long term.

    Impact on cooperative collection development

    To understand the potential pitfalls of the cooperative collection development scheme which would be necessary to make ELL work, we turn to the work of Robert P. Holley, Director of Wayne State University Library. In "Cooperative Collection Development: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," Holley has outlined several reasons why cooperative collection development has been difficult to implement in the past, despite its theoretical advantages. His insights into cooperative collection development endeavors in an academic library context include these points:
    1. Cooperation often requires a high degree of altruism in which participants do not closely monitor the costs and benefits since any agreement has winners and losers.
    2. Most of the time, not all partners will equally contribute to or benefit from the common pool....
    3. Cooperative collection development is a dynamic process that requires continuous attention.
    4. Cooperative collection development requires trust in the continuance of any agreements.
    5. Cooperative collection development has overhead cost.32
    Holley also comments on the difficulties of achieving institutional cooperation, based on his personal experience:
    As representative of the Dean, I often attended meetings of the Council of Library Deans and Directors where the library directors from the fifteen statesupported colleges and universities met to discuss common concerns including cooperative collection development. Even after commissioning a consultant to examine ways to implement closer cooperation, the group never could resolve the issues of resource sharing, a necessary precondition for cooperative collection development.33
    Clearly, achieving cooperative collection development has proven to be extremely difficult in the past, even among similar types of libraries with similar goals (college and university libraries). The social element, with its human egos and inter-institutional jealousy, are formidable obstacles.


    When Coffman was asked about the issue of governance during the panel discussion, his reaction was telling. The viewer was left thinking that Coffman had never heard the word before. When he collected himself enough to answer, it appeared he did not consider it to be an issue of even marginal importance to his proposal. In essence, he seemed to think that governance would take care of itself. Given the sheer numbers of stakeholders involved in planning, developing, implementing, and administering a system of the size envisioned and the number of library users who will ultimately be affected by the system, governance should be the first issue to be considered -- not the last. It is nearly impossible to make any change to a system without creating political fallout. Change to a system brings about both perceived and actual changes to the balance of power among the various individuals and entities involved. Major changes create the potential for enormous power shifts. Politics and governance must be an integral part of the re-design process.

    One question posed by a librarian from Florida in the INCOLSA web forum focused on the issue of governance. She writes:

    I was always amazed at the number of truly difficult issues that constantly arose from sharing a system and database with 14 other libraries. Moving from system to system was a tremendous amount of work, setting up all of the patron parameters and setting up the *indexing* and display of the MARC records to everyone's satisfaction. We had *numerous* heated discussions over the indexing and display of our MARC records. And this was only 14 other libraries! 34
    Even when the will to cooperate exists, the process of reaching a consensus is very long, difficult and time consuming. Coffman does not understand this, as his reply shows:
    First place, we have already had a lot of experience with governing large systems like this ... OCLC is a great example ... and in fact they are a very likely candidate to pull this off. And of course, the cooperative efforts, standards and agreements that catalogers have established are also a form of governance ... and I'd say we are probably better at working together than most. I would start with the structures we already have in place, and we know work, and I would build upon those.35

    Digital delivery

    One of the major criticisms that has appeared in the discussion of ELL is that the heavy use of ILL would break the budgets of member libraries. The proposed answer to this criticism is that digital delivery of documents is technically possible today, and will become easier in the near future. Because the transmission of bits is essentially free, and because there would be no human labor involved in finding and packaging materials, digital delivery has been proposed as a panacea for rising ILL costs. Since Terabytes of data are zipping across the internet on a daily basis, adding ILL traffic should pose no problems.


    What is largely ignored in the discussion of digital delivery is the issue of copyright. Digital delivery would create a totally new structure to library collections. Currently, a library is physically prevented from circulating more copies of a given work than it owns. If a book is checked out, it is unavailable to any other patron; other patrons must wait for the book to be returned, which can be expedited with a recall. If the library wants to provide wider access to a given work, it can shorten loan periods, purchase additional copies, or place existing copies on reserve.
    With digital delivery, only bits are transferred, and there is no need to return the bits. Certainly, it would be possible to create a royalty system for copyright owners that would award a per-download fee, which would be awarded regardless of the end-user's status, but it would be very difficult to arrive at a fair figure and would require re-writing of the copyright laws. This process would take years, if not decades, and until it is completed, it is unlikely that public libraries will go digital. Only organizations such as the Association for Computing Machinery, which own copyright to their own publications, will be able to offer digital delivery.

    In response to a question on the copyright issue, Coffman writes:

    The copyright issues of ELL--as in so many areas today--remain unresolved. However, based on the recent Appelate(sic) Count decision giving free lance authors electronic rights...it is not difficult for me to imagine authors getting a royality (sic) for every substantive use of a work at some point in the near future ... and by use, I mean sale of a print copy, download of a electronic version, and possibly, the loan of a copy. In the US we have never paid royalities(sic) on circulation, but my understanding is that in the UK, they do...and out of a sense of fairness, if nothing else, it makes sense to me that authors should receive a percentage of all revenues generated by their work...whether those revenues derive from the sale...or from the loan of the item.36
    It is not clear what is meant by revenue from the loan of an item, but it is clear that electronic delivery will be regulated by copyright law, and that the extremely complicated software that drives the system must be built around copyright. Until Congress and the courts have updated the law to address this technology, it would be unwise to attempt to craft a system for digital delivery of public library holdings.

    Furthermore, as Coffman notes, recent copyright laws and court rulings on those laws have been more sympathetic to copyright holders than to users of the material. It would seem that this trend would have to be reversed if public libraries are to engage in widespread digital delivery of their holdings. How would a library even begin to control how many copies of a given work were being used at one time? One method developed by NetLibrary.com attempts to do this by 'lending' only as many copies as it owns. It also tracks users' printing habits, which is a blatant invasion of privacy. Furthermore, because NetLibrary.com revokes the library privileges of those users who print 'too much,' it could cause serious problems for students who are legally allowed to make copies of materials under fair use laws.


    As noted in the discussion of Netlibrary.com and in the discussion of a system to remember user preferences, much of the benefit provided by the proposed system comes at the expense of keeping a permanent record of every users behavior. Privacy is compromised and the system provides attempting target. People who are highly protective of their privacy may choose not to use the system or to hack the system to disable it--further raising the costs of technical support.

    The level of personalized service that Coffman envisions comes at a price, and that price is loss of privacy. One of the cornerstones of public library access has always been that the privacy of the library patron is protected. Records of who reads what are kept only so long as a book is on loan--to facilitate reminding the forgetful patron to return the book and to levy fines for overdue items. These records are highly decentralized and kept strictly confidential. While Coffman and Dahn argue that privacy protection is merely an issue of software design, Crawford, although bordering on paranoia as to the importance of ELL as a target for hackers, marketers and government agents, quite correctly points out that a centralized database provides a much richer and more tempting target for all kinds of data miners than do the small databases currently kept by local libraries. There are a few things one must keep in mind when collecting personal data from library patrons:

  • No database is entirely secure.
  • The only way a computer could offer the kind of personalized service that Amazon.com offers would be to keep a permanent record of users reading habits.
  • Item 2 would fly in the face of the American Library Associations privacy policy.
  • Such a sea change should not be undertaken lightly. Protection of privacy, speech, and thought are at the foundation of our nations constitution.
  • Conclusion

    The bulk of the ELL debate has focused on the technical aspects of the project, which is particularly notable in the arguments set forth by the proponents. Very few individuals have begun to think about some of the social implications. To date there has been little mention of a social element among the problems elaborated above, or even a discussion of a systematic survey of user needs. INCOLSA panelist Howard Rosenbaum has very wisely noted that one must expect consequences that are both unexpected and unforeseeable. Because the ELL proposal is so ambitious and has the potential to affect so many people, it is important to examine the technical and social issues as carefully as possible before embarking on the road to completion.


    1 Roger Chartier, The Order of Books (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994), 62.
    2 Michael Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), 47.
    3 Ibid.
    4 Steve Coffman, "Building Earth's Largest Library: Driving into the Future." 15 Oct. 1999. http://www.infotoday.com/search/mar/coffman.htm. Also published in Searcher 7.3 (1999):
    5. "The Response to Building Earth's Largest Library." 15 Oct. 1999. http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul/coffman.htm.
    6 Mike Dahn, "Earth's Largest Library" One Librarian's Plan of Action." 15 Oct. 1999. http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul/dahn.htm.
    7 Walt Crawford, "Gutting America's Local Libraries: Informal Comments on "Building Earth's Largest Library."" 30 Aug. 1999. http://www.home.att.net/~wcc.libmedx/gutting.htm. 31 Oct. 1999.
    8 Tom Bacher, "What is Local? The Library of the Future?" 28 Oct. 1999. http://www.incolsa.net/HTML/teleconf/bacher.htm. 7 Nov. 1999.
    9 Rob Kling and Roberta Lamb, "Analyzing Visions of Electronic Publishing and Digital Libraries." http://www.slis.indiana.edu/kling/pubs/EPUB6.htm. Also appeared in Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier. Ed. Gregory B. Newby and Robin P. Peek. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
    10 See note 4.
    11 Ibid.
    12 Ibid.
    13 Ibid.
    14 Ibid.
    15 Based on a personal conversation with a fromer Michael Peterson, a former intern at Oracle. --MN

    16 See note 4.

    17 Based on my personal experience at Rightway Fasteners, Columbus, IN. --MN

    18 See note 4.

    19 See note 5.

    20 Ibid.

    21 See note 4.

    22 See note 6.

    23 Ibid.

    24 See note 8.

    25 Ibid.

    26 Ibid.

    27 See note 7.

    28 See note 6.

    29 See note 4.

    30 See note 6.

    31 Building Earth's Largest Library Discussion Forum. 13 Dec. 1999. http://w3.incolsa.net/forum/view.php3.

    32 Robert P. Holley, "Cooperative Collection Development: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow." Collection Management 23 (1998): 25-27.

    33 Ibid, p. 20-21.

    34 See note 31.

    35 Ibid.

    36 Ibid.