Being ‘Better Than Free’
The role of libraries in an increasingly digitized culture is a hot topic among librarians, educational institutions and industry groups. A mention in LibraryBytes piqued my interest about a ChangeThis manifesto by Kevin Kelly.
Better Than Free describes 8 hidden values for companies to bring forward in a digital marketplace filled with free products. Kelly writes “In a real sense, these are eight things that are better than free. Eight uncopyable values.” These values “must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured” they “cannot be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced.” Further, they are “generated uniquely, in place, over time.”
Kelly believes that “in the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.” There is resonance for library advocacy here.
*Original coffee cup image by Caribou Coffee
Immediacy & Personalization
As a sellable quality, immediacy has many levels. [It] has to fit with the product and the audience.
Personalization requires an ongoing conversation between the creator and consumer, artist and fan, producer and user. It is deeply generative because it is iterative and time consuming. You can’t copy the personalization that a relationship represents.
The internet has made it easy to receive immediate updates on world and national news, sports scores and stock prices, weather forecasts and even the daily activities of our favorite entertainers. What’s harder to obtain is timely information about what’s happening in our own backyards.
Each day, our public librarians are exposed to a dynamic flow of information that reflects our individual preferences and community characteristics. They circulate newspapers and town documents, interact with town departments and local businesses, work with school kids, observe the community’s content consumption and talk with folks around town.
Wouldn’t it be great if they could take the lead in creating an effective online town commons to help make this rich experience available to the rest of us?
Interpretation & Authenticity
Interpretation: The copy of code, being mere bits, is free—and becomes valuable to you only through the support and guidance.
Authenticity: You might be able to grab a key software application for free, but even if you don’t need a manual, you might like to be sure it is bug free, reliable, and warranted.
Libraries already have the values Kelly describes in abundance, and so what’s left to do is forge an online presence to carry them into a new era while reinforcing their relevance and value in the physical world. The availability of feature-rich open source publishing and collaboration platforms makes this possible.
Constructing virtual reference desks won’t suffice—commercial firms like Amazon and Google will always execute better on services for finding and referring information. With digital natives spending more time in online community spaces than physical ones, it makes sense for libraries to leverage the qualities that make them better than free, in areas commercial firms overlook or cannot effectively monetize.
I suggest public librarians take the lead in creating online town commons that make the rich, dynamic flow of local information they intermediate available to town residents. Librarians already know what we want and are uniquely qualified to deliver it.
We want info and interaction that meets our immediate needs close at hand, with easy access to more. We want a safe online place that is well-organized and well-marked with serendipitous spaces as zones outside the mundane. We want equal access. We want coaches nearby whose raison d’etre is to help us get the most out of these new spaces and who will continually improve them based upon our feedback.
Trusted interpretive assistance is something commercial firms will never be able to provide to local communities; there’s no money in it. And corporate claims about the public good are dubious in light of reports on seeing corporate fingerprints in wikipedia edits and Facebook’s continued problems with security and privacy. For hundreds of years, reliability and trust have been hallmarks of our public library system and we need these values more than ever in this brave new world.
* Original graphic by Flatbread Pizza Assn.
Accessibility & Embodiment
Accessibility: ownership often [stinks]. You have to keep your things tidy, up-to-date, and in the case of digital material, backed up. Many people, me included, will be happy to have others tend our “possessions”.
Embodiment: The music is free—the bodily performance expensive.
With so much stuff available online, it’s challenging to tend it all. Who better to help us than librarians? With their training and experience organizing our shared possessions, they’re just the right people to organize our online digital assets. They’ll also do a great job of preserving them for future use.
Enriching our embodied experience is what the online town commons needs to be about. It needs to help us connect with others in our community, support our schools and local businesses, engage in local government, and take good care of our environment—and each other.
* Community graphic by NIEHS.
Findability & Patronage
Findability: … a work has no value unless it is seen; unfound masterpieces are worthless. When there are millions of books, millions of songs, millions of films, millions of applications, millions of everything requesting our attention—and most of it free—being found is valuable.
Patronage: Fans like to reward artists, musicians, authors and the like with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect. But they will only pay if it is very easy to do, a reasonable amount, and they feel certain the money will directly benefit the creators.
Yup, curation is really important. Many people don’t realize how much data their boadband supplier, Google, and a range of other apomediators collect about them. This is done by firms competing for our attention and our money. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an online place where the curators’ focus is our interests and the public good?
I’m convinced citizens would show more support for their public libraries and other civic organizations if we made it easier for them. So in addition to the other good things my proposed online town commons would provide, it must be a place where people can securely order tickets to town events, purchase goods to support local organizations, volunteer and donate money.
Kevin Kelly observes that “money in this networked economy follows the path of attention, and attention has its own circuit.” The same is true for support, which will follow bold initiatives that add daily value for a broader constituency.
* Download Better than Free by Kevin Kelly.