Restricted information can mean that it’s only available when purchased, but it’s a broader concept than this. The information could be restricted to members of a particular organization. The information could be held in an obscure book that’s only held in a small numbers of libraries. Although that libraries may be free to use, and although somebody may be able to borrow that book for free, I view that information as restricted because its access is limited to users of these libraries. If an outsider wants that information, it may not be available at all, or if it is, subject to interlibrary loan / document delivery charges and restrictions.
Until the internet, restricted information was the only form of information which we had. Librarians existed because they were the gatekeepers of this information.
Information that is free to access, is not completely free. It is usually subject to usage restrictions, whether through conventional intellectual property laws or creative commons.
The restricted does compete with the free, and vice versa. Restricted information needs a value add over what free information is offering. We see this happening in the legal information marketplace in Australia, where the three commercial publishers sometimes (especially amongst new graduates) have a hard time establishing a value proposition over Austlii and Court and Parliamentary websites.
As librarians, we need to engage and work with both sectors of information - only then can we truly be information professionals.
Right now, we need to avoid the extremes. A lot of librarians have a hierarchical view of information - that restricted information is always superior to free information. This is what leads to us being seen as arrogant, out of touch and not really needed in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, the librarian who only uses free information, and is not aware of what’s available in the world of restricted information, is not adding all much into the world either.
I often jump between the two worlds of information when doing research in my job. For example let’s say that I receive a request to do some industry research in an area I’m not familiar with. I might start in wikipedia, so I can get a basic understanding of key concepts and relevant keywords in the area. Then I’ll search in a restricted database. My database research may identify a key industry association, and so I’ll look that up on the free web. The free website may identify useful sources for further information, which I’ll follow up by looking in both free and restricted sources.
If librarians are seen to be tied to the world of restricted information, and if that information is slowly losing its preeminent position to free information, does that mean that librarians are doomed?
No, I think that the two worlds will coexist for a long time. For one thing, until all the information of the past and present is available online for free, there will always be a need for restricted information sources. We’re still a long way away from that - even now, books are still published in print only - and if they’re available as eBooks, they are locked down, so they are definitely restricted from my point of view. Actually I think that the popularity of the iPad and the Kindle is a reinvigoration of restricted information. With the iPad, there is an attempt to transform information which was once free to access (newspaper websites) into restricted information.
Restricted information versus information that is free to access has nothing to do with online versus print. When doing business research, I received requests for investment reports and industry reports which cost over $1,000 - and these are for reports which have never been published in print at all.
The high-end of the market of the market is not necessarily the best representative of the information market as a whole, but it’s not a zero sum game. The corpus of information that is free to access can be broadened, deepened and improved. At the same time, there will always be people (or institutions, such as large companies, law firms, universities etc) with the means and the desire to pay for something extra. Librarians need to help people with both sorts of information.