(written for LIS 501 at SLIS U of A 1998)
The nature of information has not changed over the past four decades any more than it has over the past four hundred years. Information has always been important. What has changed over time is how information can be disseminated and used in new ways and for new purposes. A number of factors have influenced this change, including technological and economic developments. As information is increasingly handled and packaged as a commodity many questions are raised. Can information be both a commodity and a public good? Questions about access to information loom large, especially as the costs for access increase. A significant problem is how to accurately value information. Is the value in the cost of retrieving the information, the intellectual work of creating it, in the medium or in the information itself? There are many implications for librarians and libraries as a result of the commodification of information. What is the future of librarianship? These are the questions raised by the shift from considering information as a public good to treating it as a commodity. Beginning with the understanding that this topic informs many other issues in librarianship, I undertook a search of literature to find answers to these questions. My intent was to establish a good background to the topic, understand the salient factors, and look for areas not yet well addressed.
I began by examining the bibliography to Frohmann’s “Communication Technologies and the Politics of Postmodern Information Science” (1994). Two useful names resulted from this: Mosco and Schiller. The Pay – Per Society by Mosco was useful in leading me to other names to use while searching the Gate, LISA and Library Literature, the three databases I used when searching. Most of my research was based on the authors and citations found in bibliographies of materials found early in my search. Looking at these sources led me to a number of terms to use when searching. I used the following terms (alone and in combination) for searching: commodification; public good; information retrieval; information storage; information technology; information services; economy and economic policies; communication. In all three databases I did considerable weeding to find useful material. My selection criteria came down to a combination of the title and subject terms. For instance, I found Connection Community Content using “information technology,” but was the complete title that indicated to me that it would be useful. Once I had a book in my hand I would scan the table of contents. While I did not rely on it, I did find some items through sheer serendipity. I would look along the shelf where I found a source, just to see what else was there. This resulted in a number of good sources.
In terms of developing an optimal search strategy, I would recommend the following:
• In Library Literature: commodi (truncated form of commodification); information policy and social aspects; IIA; information brokers; information retrieval and social aspects.
• In LISA (using the index): public good; commodi; information policy.
• In the Gate: information science; information storage and retrieval systems, with social aspects; information technology alone, with social aspects and with Canada; information services, with marketing, management and fees; information society; information sciences and economic aspects; libraries and society.
Many articles I used are in texts, and are not cited in either LISA or Library Literature databases. I have tried to include a means for finding the texts and so indirectly finding the articles.
There are number of themes at work in the literature on this topic. I will first consider the historical perspective of the commodification of information. This leads into the next issue to be addressed: the role of technology. The economics of the issue, including the difficulty of valuing an intangible product such as information is also widely discussed and forms the third theme of the literature review. The public good qualities of information and access to it will be included here as well. The implications for librarians and libraries is closely related to a discussion of who are the key players in the debate. These will therefore be covered together. There are a few works that provide a good discussion of and background to the topic, while at the same time inform one or more of the above themes. These works will be highlighted first and briefly summarized.
There are a number of sources that I found particularly insightful to the topic of the commodification of information. They have informed much of the following literature review. While he does not address the implications for libraries in particular, Mosco’s The Pay – Per Society discusses the social, political and economic ramifications of the commodification of information. His work places the topic into a much larger sociopolitical picture that provides a fitting backdrop to the current environment. Feather’s The Information Society links the commodification of information with the library perspective, indicating how libraries are affected by the changes. Schiller and Schiller do this in a more concise format with “Libraries, Public Access to Information, and Commerce.” Blake and Perlmutter offer a succinct rebuttal to the call to put libraries in the marketplace. Their arguments are still important nearly twenty – five years later. Finally, Schement and Curtis provide a thorough examination of the tensions facing an information dependent society, including the implications for libraries.
The history of how information has come to be treated as a commodity dates back at least to World War 2. The importance of information in centralizing power - making decisions essentially makes information an object of profit, regardless of how it is valued (30). This in itself is not new. What is new is the extent to which it has penetrated throughout society resulting in a “pay – per society” not a “free” society (Mosco 127). Seeing information as a resource is often considered a natural development of the social and economic changes, although Mosco does not necessarily accept this view (26). Feather looks the issue via the history of publishing; he notes that there has always been a commercial relationship in the dissemination of information (37).
The shift in how information is treated is illustrated by changes in access to government information. Detlefsen considers the arguments surrounding access to government information, putting it into a broader perspective. Andes discusses the impact of legislation under the Reagan administration and recounts how it curtailed access to government documents (452). This phenomenon is represented in Mosco as well. In Canada, the federal government sees its role as being a “model user” of technology (Information Highway Advisory Council (20). The perceived benefits are “lower cost of operation and faster, better services for Canadians” (22). Whether this is the case is uncertain. The importance of information is widely discussed in the literature, and is tied with the gap between the information rich and the information poor. Schement and Curtis highlight this dichotomy in terms of access to information (151). Mosco discusses the unique nature of information as it is central to the economic and sociopolitical institutions in a civil democracy (177). Taken to an extreme, Price calls information a “social need” (389), insisting that it should not be treated wholeheartedly as a commodity.
The impact of technology on the commodification of information is widely addressed. De Gennaro provides a concise history of how technology has affected access to information in the library environment (“Technology”). He moves from the microform to online databases, noting that the technology has helped push the library into the information marketplace. Feather, looking at the publishing industry, points out that technological changes have created a different type of commercial transaction, and has pushed information into an overtly competitive market place (45; 60). There is little question that the development of computers has hastened the process of creating a commodity form of information as indicated by Mosco (26) and Quinn (118). Schiller and Schiller hold that technology is driving the change, creating a dynamic that is difficult to counter (154-155). Kilbirige goes even further calling it a “runaway technology situation” because the technology is changing so quickly (85).
Thus an aura of technological determinism pervades the literature in many respects. Schement and Curtis stand somewhat outside the pack. They place the beginnings of the information age in between the 1920s and 1940s, which they call “crucial decades” for the development of information workers (83). That the rise of the information age began long before the age of computers indicates to Schement and Curtis that the technology has influenced but not created the current situation (140). Noll, represents a slightly different position. He questions whether technology really can deliver improved access to information. Nonetheless, Mosco shows how technology has made possible the infinite repackaging of information, with the transaction being precisely measured and costed out (114). Technological developments have certainly opened doors for information retrieval and storage. At the same time they have not all been beneficial. It is much like a double-edged sword. Schiller and Schiller (148), and Feather (83), represent this idea. They note that technology has the potential for improving access, but because of costs, lack of skill and infrastructure problems access may in fact be restricted as more information is available only in electronic form.
Economic changes have also had significant impact. Estabrook considers economic changes as being significant to the commodification of information. She points to the decline of the profitability of the goods producing sector of the economy as being one reason for the shift to an information economy (5). Schement and Curtis also support this position. They suggest the information boom is a result of industrialization and that it was only a matter of time for information to take precedence (85). The problem is that information is unlike most other commercial products. There are many issues to consider. Bates provides a useful account of many of these difficulties. He notes that there is a tendency to confuse the content with the container and that the value of information cannot be known until the information itself is known; this makes fixing a value for information difficult (81; 77).
Perhaps most at issue are the public good qualities of information. Baumol and Ordover, and Quinn look at this topic. Information is non – depletable, which means that many people can hold it and the value does not decrease (Quinn 119). At the same time it is considered non – excludable in that the benefits of information extend beyond the initial dissemination, and these benefits cannot be costed out (Quinn 119). Baumol and Ordover examine whether information is a pure public good. They consider journal publication and ask whether, as an information source, journals fit public good criteria. While information itself does conform to the non – depletable and non – excludable criteria, they recognize that public good qualities can be “fuzzy” (333). Flowerdew holds that information can be both a commodity and a public good (65). Clearly a range of possibilities exists for how information should be treated.
Whether information is a pure public good is not clear. Bates notes that the non – excludable quality of information creates ancillary value that is often disregarded in economic considerations (85). Ancillary value gives information its social welfare aspects (Bates 85). When the social welfare aspects of information are ignored the importance of access to information is easily neglected. Nonetheless there appears to be significant reasons for treating information as a public good (Bates 86). A clear role for government exists when market forces disregard the social benefits of information, as Malchup strongly emphasizes (258). Braunstein supports this view. He offers some alternative pricing models and discusses some of the problems(13; 20).
McCain looks at the economics of information from a slightly different perspective. Looking at information as property yields an entirely new group of questions. When considering issues such as copyright, the need to distinguish between the information and the medium that contains it becomes paramount. (McCain 270). McCain examines the idea of information as property and concedes in the end that the “free distribution of information may be efficient” (279). This despite the fact libraries are not public goods, and information may not be either (McCain 279).
The commodification of information touches on many other issues that impact libraries. Treating information as a commodity makes the fee vs. free debate all the more significant. Van House addresses this issue in Public Library User Fees. She puts user fees into the larger economic picture, including a discussion of the nature of information. She suggests that information is likely a merit good, one that the community provides for individual, not community, benefit (31). While libraries and information may be merit goods, this does not eliminate the possibility of user fees (105-106). The issue of charging fees raises a very significant point for librarians. Feather notes that charging fees essentially turns the library patron into a customer; the relationship becomes one of buying and selling (68). This essential change in the nature of the service provided by librarians is at the heart of many works, including those of Blake and Perlmutter, and De Gennaro. There is a resistance to fees because of this resulting change in the relationship between libraries and their users.
Changes in how information is handled and packaged have a dramatic impact on libraries and librarians. The difficulty is that libraries are a relatively small player. Schiller and Schiller ask: “Can a sector that is ‘driven’ by more powerful external forces still have a special significance for the social polity at large and for the quality of individual life in particular?” (151). The implications for librarians range from the terribly dire to the almost optimistic. The call to political action is strongly made. Quinn asserts that that librarians need to educate users, funding sources and policy makers of their vital role in the flow of information (131). Owens believes librarians must become political, and join forces with other players in the industry (27). The goal of this political action is to encourage funders (i.e. government) to reinvest in public library infrastructure in the interests of supporting education.
A positive view in the literature is that librarians will fill a key role in an information society (Feather 136; Van House 18). Librarians along with other information professionals can hold a significant role “because of their new found status at the core of the information society” (Schement and Curtis 135). Griffiths and King have found that users value services provided by a librarian because these services represent a time – savings for the user (“Libraries” 83; “Special Libraries” 25). Flowerdew also supports this position, noting that while demand may be a function of price, that users will pay to reduce time costs (66).
At the same time doubts linger. Many question the value of libraries and traditional librarianship. Ray outlines many of these positions which are based on visions of a technological society where everyone can find their own information (46). He counters these assertions stating that librarians are in the position to identify the most effective means of information dissemination, recognizing that the technology has its draw backs (47). Martell recounts how the hope raised that librarians would become even more valued in an information society has been dashed (86). It may be wise not to become too optimistic, as Estabrook points out that libraries must still function within a capitalist environment (4).
The commodification of information has contributed to the rise of new professions such as information brokering. This raises issues for librarians. Traditional librarianship is often seen as dichotomous to information for fee services (De Gennaro “Pay Libraries” 363). Blake and Perlmutter provide a revealing summary of how the information industry has set its sights on free libraries (108). The debate is largely about who should be the primary source of information (Kilbirige 97). Libraries are often portrayed to be in competition with the for profit information industry (“IIA” 335; Kilbirige 97). Still, there does seem to be the possibility of coexistence between libraries and fee – based services. Hirsch insists such services are ancillary to the traditional library services (702). Blake concedes this is the case. She turns Hirsch’s idea on somewhat on its head, however. Blake’s position is that public libraries exist to serve the needs of most people, not an already well served elite (91). While pay services exist, there is a vital need for free access for the rest of society. Felicetti considers some misconceptions surrounding fee based service and concludes that information for fee and libraries can form a symbiotic relationship (18).
As a result of the debate over access to information and who should provide it, many of the key players have created position statements. Hernon provides an outline of these as they apply to government information. He summarizes the position statements made by NCLIS, ALA Government Documents Round Table, ARL and the IIA. He also provides a list of principles developed from within government. The principle of access is upheld, although no mention is made about free access.
When information is treated as a commodity all other aspects of library service come into play. Whether some services should have a fee attached to them needs to be decided. This can include patron access to some technologies, including Internet access. The ability of libraries to serve marginalized groups is limited when core services are threatened. How librarians are trained for work in an information based economy raises questions of continuing education for those in the field. I am impressed by the scope of this topic. It seems to epitomize what is going on in society and within the library environment as well.
While I found Mosco to be insightful I must disagree with him on some points. I believe the commodification of information is a natural result of socioeconomic changes. This relates to how Schement and Curtis represent the shift: the information dependence of today is an outflow of industrialization. What they mean is that industry itself needed to create and manage information to control economies of scale and product development (85). Economic forces pushed information collection and management to the fore. Along with Schement and Curtis I see this as the nucleus of an information dependent economy.
Since the library’s role has historically been one of organizing and providing access to information (Griffiths and King “Special Libraries” 5; Schement and Curtis, 90), I found it interesting that libraries did not figure more prominently in the literature. Feather notes that as a symbol of civilized society libraries fulfill an important cultural and social function (65), a point with which I thought few would argue. Nonetheless the literature was rife with examples to the contrary. The IIA has effectively lobbied to actually shift public policy toward commercial ventures (Schiller and Schiller 159). Content Community Connection also leans heavily toward private industry and gives only cursory treatment to how libraries fit into an information society. It seems that libraries have been put on the chopping block, with industry insisting that “user based charges must inevitably prevail” (Blake and Perlmutter 108). The presumption behind such statements is that libraries and private industry are in competition. I looked for clear evidence supporting such a claim and found none. The argument from industry that because they can provide information they should be the ones to do so just does not hold up (“IIA” 335).
Related to this attack on libraries is the notion that if libraries would only behave more like for profit enterprises that they would not face such financial difficulty (Kilbirige 51). Fees are inevitable; the only question is how to set the prices. I find this position odious. Like arguments from industry representatives, it completely disregards the role libraries fill in society. Bates’ arguments for the inclusion of ancillary value when considering the economics of information must apply. The case for access to information being considered a public good is strongly made in the literature. Even so, information is a commodity. What the literature shows is that both conditions can and should apply. Fee based services and libraries both fulfill an important niche in society.
The implications for librarians are nonetheless significant. Martell says it so well when he laments “As far as information as a commodity, I ask ‘Must it be?’” (86). Librarians have not become the center of the information economy. This is not to suggest they are outside it either. While Owens may be a bit optimistic when he suggests that librarians unite with other players (publishers, vendors) in the industry, the call for action needs to be heeded. Quinn is right when she talks of the need to educate those who make funding decisions about the value of library services. Of course, librarians already have a lot to do in a day. However, such action seems necessary for librarians and libraries to maintain their status in an information society. Librarians do have special skills and can function as guides or intermediaries, as is suggested in much of the literature.
A number of questions guided my research. One I have not yet mentioned is whether information seeking behaviours in general change when information is treated as a commodity. The works by Griffiths and King certainly indicates that users value the commercial uses of information in a corporate setting. Whether this is the case in general is unclear. I believe both Bates and Malchup inform this issue indirectly. They discuss the difficulty of fixing a value for information, since the information itself must be known before its value can be determined (Bates 77; Malchup 249). Is information valued more highly when the individual must pay for it? What is the mechanism for choosing information when costs may be incurred? Does the urgency of the need influence the decision? These questions seem to be unanswered at this time.
Another question is peripheral to the topic, yet I found myself thinking about it as I did my research. It surrounds the question of whether one can absolutely control access to information in an electronic world. May the technology eventually make protection of copyright impossible? I did not directly search for information pertaining to this, but it has become an area of interest to me over the process of writing this paper.
I believe I was able to satisfactorily address most of the questions raised by the shift in how information is handled in our society. My examination of the literature is by no means exhaustive. There were articles to which I found citations but could not get. Nonetheless I believe I have covered the breadth of the topic. Any given factor discussed in this paper can be treated as a topic in its own right. As well, there are areas where further study is possible, as I noted above. In all, the commodification of information has far reaching implications not only for librarianship but also for society in general.
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Baumol, William J. and Janusz A. Ordover. “Private Financing of Information Transfer: On the Theory and Execution.” Key Papers in the Economics of Information. Ed. Donald W. King, Nancy K. Roderer and Harold A. Olsen. White Plains: Knowledge Industry Publications, 1983. 319-347.
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