thoughts on revealed preferences from #il2011

So the thoughts percolating in my head from Internet Librarian are all swirling around ideas from economics: revealed preference, the Turner thesis, the Coase theorem. It would be awesome if my knowledge of economics were grounded in anything more than reading the Marginal Revolution blog and a handful of pop economics books, but it’s not, so bear with me, and tell me if I’m wrong.

Revealed preference. It has to do with the idea that what you actually want is revealed by, not what you say, but by what you choose to buy. If you bought it, you wanted it — at least, more than the alternatives.

I was on this great panel today, with representatives from Ingram and OverDrive, and Michael Porter representing Library Renewal, and Sarah Houghton-Jan representing, full stop. Diverse perspective, lots of audience interest; good times.

The librarians in the room were talking about privacy, and DRM, and having their needs taken seriously in the content distribution chain. And the OverDrive representative was not talking about any of these things; he was talking about creating a model that successfully gets content from publishers to libraries. And the room clearly hated him.

And I don’t feel that’s fair. Because here’s the thing: libraries have lots of great values, like privacy and accessibility and openness and access to information. OverDrive is offering access to information. And libraries buy it. And when you buy it, you are telling OverDrive that that is what you value. If those other values aren’t in the packages, you are telling OverDrive you do not value them, or at least that you will compromise them all before you will compromise access. Is it any wonder that’s what the market gives you more of?

I’m not saying it’s as simple as “well, just don’t buy it”. All those great library values are, in fact, sometimes in conflict, and if you can get, say, DRM-free content (openness, privacy) or nothing (no access to information), that’s a tough choice and no matter what you do there’s a value not being served. But I get the sense many librarians feel like patrons have them over a barrel — our patrons want to read this book/have to have access to this journal! — and what that translates to is access to information being the only value acted upon economically, and again, if that’s what people are saying they value, if that’s the revealed preference, if that’s what they’re rewarding the market for providing, that’s what they’re going to get more of — and the market is working precisely as it’s supposed to.

I heard a lot of passion about these issues at Internet Librarian. But talk is cheap. Passion is cheap. If libraries really value privacy and openness and flexibility and control and having a voice in the process, they need to say that by spending money on those things, and negotiating, or declining, things that do not advance those values.

You get what you pay for. What do you want?