Digital Music in Public Libraries

E-books in libraries are certainly attracting a lot of attention these days. The public seems both fascinated and horrified by the idea of “bookless libraries”, while the library profession itself grapples with the manifold challenges raised by e-books. Access versus ownership, digital rights management, and ever-changing file formats and technologies are key issues at library conferences around the world. In Nashville, Tennessee, they’ve already introduced the system:

Meanwhile, a similar revolution is taking place on the library’s CD shelves. MP3 players and streaming audio are a constant presence in our daily lives, and digital formats are finding their way into the library’s music collection. Just as for e-books, the introduction of digital music to libraries presents certain challenges and opportunities.

For academic libraries, especially those focusing on classical, jazz, and traditional music, Naxos Music Library and Alexander Street Press provide excellent services. With popular music, however, things become more thorny.

Can the library really compete with Last.fm, Spotify, Deezer, and YouTube? And should it, anyway? Librarians passionate about public access, and who value the place of music in their patrons’ lives, would be inclined to say yes. If music is to retain a place in the public library of the future—and most readers of this blog would agree that it should—then new frontiers need to be explored.

Libraries are currently in a state of experimentation, and various options are being trialed. This post provides a summary of some recent developments.

Freegal is a popular option in many larger public libraries. A library subscription to Freegal allows patrons to download a limited number of tracks from the Sony catalog per week, via the library’s website. Proponents of Freegal point out that the library only has to pay for what it uses (since the library is charged per download), and the patrons have the benefit of offline use—and get to keep the tracks. Patrons like the free downloads and one library even reported patrons paying off fines in order to use Freegal!

However, Freegal has also been controversial among some librarians. Nedda Pourahmady also pointed out that because libraries are charged per download, the library may well end up paying more over time than for a CD, the more the resources are used. She posited that in this model, the library becomes a vendor—or subsidiser—of music downloads, rather than a “public source for lending”. Meanwhile, the library eliminates its own permanent collection. Is this too far from the library’s original mission?

While many libraries are opting to wait with connecting music and books to new scientific technologies, others have found their own creative solutions. Ann Arbor District Library, after investigating Freegal, decided instead to make a deal with the company Mangatune. The library pays a flat annual fee, and in return can put Mangatune’s music on the library catalog. Patrons can use the music free of DRM, and have the option of downloading or streaming. When the license expires, the library will delete the content from its servers, although patrons will be able to keep the tracks.

Iowa City Public Library’s Local Music Project is perhaps the most interesting use of digital music in libraries yet. The library has negotiated directly with local bands to give library patrons “the right to download and own local music”. This benefits the bands, who can grow their audiences, and the library patrons, who have a new way to explore local musicians and bands. It also allows the library to fulfill its roles of preservation and collection development, focusing on the local community, and attract new patrons who might otherwise not visit the library.

These are all primarily download, rather than streaming, services. On the other hand, BibZoom in Denmark offers streaming services. This video (in Danish) gives an idea of what is on offer. Sarah Houghton points out that BibZoom and similar European projects benefit from the combination of tech infrastructure and copyright and digital content laws that are quite different from the English-speaking world.

So, what is the future? One thing is sure: digital music is in a state of constant evolution, and it may be several years before we see a stable solution. Those who are interested in exploring this further may like to join the Google Group for Digital Music in Public Libraries. As librarians-in-training, we are often not privy to the commercial negotiations behind the provision of these services, but it is worthwhile to begin thinking about these issues now. And as frequent users of digital music in its various forms, we know what works, and what we like. What are your thoughts?