As part of the sandwich generation, I’m going to help my parents navigate changes to their internet and phone plans. Just like a library, an individual’s consumption of information changes over time. At first, my answers to their questions tend to be around finding a better version (read=price) of what they already had. Better equaling cheaper or broader coverage or some other feature. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized we were missing opportunities to look at different formats. I had defaulted to the vendor’s viewpoint, and needed to come at it from the consumer’s.

We do this in law libraries as well. The easiest route is to license a database or purchase a publication and then renew. The renewal tends to be even more optimal if a license is involved that require contract review. It is easier to get sign off on a license the internal lawyers have already vetted than to get a new one reviewed.

I’ve posted about the renewal time as an option to rethink content and to change vendors. It’s a time to reset assumptions about what you are licensing and why. If you don’t, then the only negotiating point is the amount. Price-as-negotiating-item is perhaps the weakest position to be in.

License terms obviously make this more difficult: a three year license is a three year license. Same if your library has an LMA – library management agreement – that limits collection deselection. I’ve wondered, though, if those agreements can be tied to the source rather than a continued purchase of a format.

Which is why I kicked myself a bit as I dug into my parent’s information access habits. This is not a post about cord cutting, although I think it’s adjacent to that. More fundamentally, can we look at our information without defaulting to the format or container immediately?

What is “TV”?

We sometimes keep labels around long past their usefulness. TV is a good one. What is TV? If someone asks me, “have you seen Succession (or Veep or Top Gear)”, what do I answer? Until the internet, the information known as video was conflated with the device used to view it. People still buy TVs but they are often just large screens now, with connectors to enable over-the-air antennas, cable, ethernet, and other information access inputs.

Our house has 2 devices called TVs. But we have no TV information source. When we moved to Canada, we found that our reliance on radio – another device name conflated with the information – meant we rarely watched video programs on the TV. We cancelled the cable subscription and have been without video ever since.

The TV is the device or format. It’s interesting that, even though it maintains its position as video output for a variety of information sources, we don’t rename it. Why is there an e-book for a different book format, but not e-tv?

In fact, it was thinking about radio that made me wonder about whether my parents had alternatives. They had some very specific channels they watched – information sources – but only 4. It was well short of the number of channels in a typical video package from a cable, DSL, or other “TV” provider.

One question they asked: what is “streaming”? It’s a good question, particularly when they already had access to Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hulu apps. We sometimes don’t realize that we have something, if we don’t know the terms used to describe it. Brand name becomes source name. It can be easy to see how TV-as-device makes it confusing when the person is accustomed to thinking of TV-as-information-source.

Step Back to the Information Source

I was surprised at how rich the options were when you stepped back a bit and focused on the information source. If you immediately think of a TV when I say “CNN” or “BBC” or “Fox News”, then you did what I did. It’s normal to think of those sources as visual publishers.

But all three of them have their own web sites too. So in many cases, while you can’t watch CNN at in the same way you can on a TV, you can still find the same information. The information is, more or less, separate from the device on which it is transmitted.

We have always listened to National Public Radio, no matter where we lived. Originally, we listened on the device-known-as-a-radio but after the internet, that became more fluid. When we moved to Canada, we listened to NPR over the internet and no longer on a radio. The information source became unglued from the device.

I was still surprised when I came across Instead of watching CNN or Fox or even your local station, you can listen to a stream of the audio from that program. The BBC and other visual publishers have their own feeds. They involve neither a TV nor a radio, of course. But it means that if you are focused on the information source, you may have more options than you thought.

How you consume the information – active watching, listening, browsing text – impacts format selection. It can also impact any revisiting of content that you don’t want to weed but may want to get in a different manner.

Match the Source and Format

If you have always licensed a resource, have you ever checked to make sure it is the best format for your researchers? Do you keep a book because you’ve always had it when a database or an ebook might be better for your researchers or your budget? Have you reverted to a physical book after a digital equivalent doesn’t get used? Is the format driving your decision-making rather than the source?

One reason I like the idea of pulling back from the format is that it gives you a new negotiation point. If price and term are your only points of discussion, you may not have much alternative to accepting or rejecting a contract. The broader the license under discussion, the additional opportunity there is to discuss content. If you can add in source – particularly if the source is available from multiple publishers – as a factor, you can start to think about it differently.

Law libraries are already doing this with case law and legislation. It’s fungible. One publisher’s case law isn’t better or worse than another’s case law, primarily because they aren’t creating it, they’re just reselling it. You (or your researchers) may prefer an interface or a suite of add-on tools, but the information is fundamentally the same.

But do we always step back and say, “can I make a change?”

I’ve been thinking about this particularly in relation to open educational resources (OER) and open access (OA) publishing. Secondary sources are the nut we haven’t cracked as far as having truly competitive source options. So what are our options there? Can we drop a text on our shelves that we’ve acquired from a publisher in favor of one written by law professors and available for free from CALI’s eLangdell, or from an OER repository like OER Commons?

Collection decisions depend on how they are used. One reason I like the idea of my parents using streaming audio (f/k/a radio) is that one or the other of them is likely to doze off during the broadcast. Or be doing something else, like a craft or using a second device. If the video aspect of the information source isn’t actually necessary, then licensing a video source becomes unnecessary too.

What About Function?

Telephones are information devices. They’ve become just another way to receive information. As such, their utility as telephones can be questioned. If I have a phone in order to make phone calls, do I need to pay for more than that?

No, you don’t.

Like other information sources, if we step back from the phone-as-a-device to what it is supposed to be doing, it really doesn’t do anything that can’t be done on a normal computer. Yes, even Candy Crush. The shift in thinking around phones is that telecoms have created a perceived need for data.

If the telephone call becomes the information source and we can disconnect it from the device, there are more options. Do you need a phone if you’re retired and always have internet and a PC at hand? If you are based in a single location (business office, home office, home, whatever), do you really need a portable communication tool? Does it need to be a pocket-sized PC with internet access? We have become accustomed to always being available but we haven’t always been, and don’t really need to be now either.

For what it’s worth, I keep my ability to take a phone call or text (f/k/a a phone) off most of the time. It’s a great music player and I’ll turn it on when I’m traveling alone in a car in the dark and during a storm. But I don’t find the need to always be available to be a reality so much as either FOMO or FOBO.

Once you start stepping back from the default of a monthly phone contract and a phone that you’re paying off, and focus on the call-as-information-source, you might cancel the phone. Or go to a pre-paid account that provides the minimal cost for emergency coverage. Or use something like Magic Jack. You might use Google Voice or another VOIP phone system.

But it requires you to think less about licensing a phone and more about licensing phone calls.

The Bottom Line

At heart, like so many decisions in law libraries, price will drive my parents’ choices. It’s the catalyst for why they are reviewing their information sources in the first place. Originally, the math looked like this:

internet + video media + telephones = monthly cost

Video media included a variety of options but it boiled down to:

  • video streamed over an internet provider (f/k/a cable TV)
  • video streamed over the internet from a publisher (streaming)

Both require internet, so that’s a deal breaker. When we look at the internet, we’ll be looking at apples-to-apples comparisons between the three internet providers: price point and speed.

Video, though, is more complicated. The normal video plans include far more than my parents would ever watch. They are more likely to put a DVD in a player than to watch a streamed video. We’ll be looking at whether streamed audio (f/k/a radio) versions of their video media (f/k/a TV or Cable) are acceptable alternatives.

At the very least, cancelling the video would give them an opportunity to reset their expectations about why they are paying for a resource. The same for telephones. Are we licensing information because we are accustomed to doing so – and everyone else is accustomed to doing it so we are conforming to market expectations – or because we really need it?

There is no question that price drives a lot of our format choices. A law library – just like a family – needs to cut its clothes according to its cloth. But revisiting choices I’ve made about information sources (TV, internet, phone) on behalf of someone else and thinking about how their use is different, means making different choices. When we run a law library or make collection decisions, we don’t always get out of our rut to think about how else we could be solving that problem.