Last week, North Little Rock's Laman Library unveiled a new service on its website (lamanlibrary.org): Registered cardholders (anyone living in Pulaski County is eligible) may download three DRM-free mp3s from the vast Sony Music Group catalog per week for free. Download, as in keep on your hard drive/iPod/Zune forever, and, because the files lack DRM (Digital Rights Management) code, transfer from device to device, friend to friend.
The launch of the service, called Freegal — as in "free" and "legal" — raises several questions: How does Sony's music catalog fit into the mission of a library? Does a shift from lending material to giving it away represent a fundamental change in the nature of the library? And, at three songs a week, how long will it take me to download all of Miles Davis' 52 albums on Columbia Records?
Library Ideas, a software and content distributor start-up based in Virginia, launched Freegal in April. According to the company's president and co-founder Brian Downing, some 200 libraries across the country have signed up for the service. Laman is the first in Arkansas. The price of the contract for Freegal ranges, Downing said, from "a couple of thousand [dollars] to six figures," depending on the number of cardholders in a library system and how freely the library decides to allow its members to access the site. Laman pays $6,500 annually for the service from its general material budget.
The question of music's relevance in a library is easily answered by anyone who's taken full advantage of his library in the last several decades. Long ago, libraries expanded beyond simply lending books to stocking film and music on their racks, an ever-broadening paradigm shift that's reflected in the way Laman officials describe what it is they do.
"Our primary mission is to provide information resources to the community that are culturally relevant," public relations manager Jamie Walden said last week. "We can't neglect that music is a significant cultural reflection to our society."
Jeff Baskin, who's worked at the library for 25 years and served as executive director for the last year, offered an even more elastic description.
"We do arts here, including the whole range of what constitutes a community cultural center. Our mission is to provide materials not only for research and study, but for cultural use."
To that end, Laman's brick and mortar offerings include a cafe and coffeehouse, art gallery and a robust computer lab. It hosts regular concerts and events and recently opened a 3,000-square-foot teens-only lounge, which includes two video-game equipped flatscreen TVs.
But a service like Freegal means patrons might ignore all of that and only interact with Laman online. And that's fine with Baskin.
"When you come into our website, it's like walking into our library."
As to the loan versus own question, Walden argues that the library's transition from a group lender to a buyer on behalf of a group is less about the nature of the library than it is about the nature of content.
"[Freegal] represents not necessarily a change in the library mission but a fundamental shift in how people absorb information now. The mission is still to provide free public access to information resources. It's just that the wrappings that those pieces of information are coming in now are vastly different than they were 10 or 15 years ago. It's very easy to require the return of book because it's a tangible object. It's not that simple with transferable data."
So far, according to Baskin and Walden, no best option has emerged as far as digital books go. A format battle that Walden likens to Blu-ray vs. HD DVD or Betamax vs. VHS is currently ongoing in the publishing industry. Laman is understandably reluctant to pick sides and make what would be a significant capital investment and end up stuck with an obsolete format.
Next up, possibly, for Laman patrons, according to Baskin: "We're looking into streaming video."
As for Miles' Columbia albums, check back in a year and a half or so. I'll let you know.
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