Dichotomy

For the purposes of having dedicated space to library focused content and discussion I have created this WordPress site to host my commentary on libraries, technology, publishing, media and other work related content.

For the stuff on religion, daily life, and goodness knows whatever else you can also check out my LiveJournal.

Romance Novels and DRM

There is a kickass article in this month’s issue of Fast Company on Harlequin eBook impresario Angela James.  There are two things in this article that are awesome (apart from the fact that eBook romance is awesome anyway).  The first was the quote from Harlequin’s Executive Vice-President for digital books Brent Lewis.

It’s not surprising that Harlequin would get there first. After all, the company pioneered mail-order as well as drugstore and supermarket book distribution. “Wherever women are, however women want to read,” is how Brent Lewis, executive vice president for digital, puts it. Online and direct-to-consumer sales (to readers on Harlequin’s website) weren’t major jumps.

Emphasis mine.  This motto broadly applied to all readers is something that Libraries are just finally starting to understand.  With the Contra-Costa County Library and their book vending machines, libraries putting QR codes in the wild on city buses, and just generally making eBook downloads available via mobile apps and eReaders with Wi-Fi or 3-4G connections is just starting to get there.  This also speaks to the value of embedded librarians out in the world outside of the reference desk environment, connecting with users via social media and active chat clients and, being able to provide library service however it is our public needs it.

The second critical point here is regarding the sale of eBooks with DRM and without.

Carina’s biggest departure from other major publishers — including its owner — is that its books are sold without digital rights management, the technology embedded in many electronic media to thwart pirates. Spooked by what happened to the music industry, most book publishers have embraced this set of access controls, but readers chafe at it. On AllRomance.com, DRM titles comprise half of inventory but only 4% of sales in 2010, says chief operating officer Lori James. (All books purchased on the Nook have DRM, no matter the publisher’s policy.)

“Our theory is that it doesn’t prevent piracy because any pirate can strip DRM in about 30 seconds,” says James. “DRM instead inhibits casual sharing, an important part of the reading process — and the purchasing process.”

BAM!

Look at that.  Sales are showing, hands down that people are choosing non-DRM protected titles the vast majority of the time.  96% of sales.  How can you argue with numbers like that?  Seriously.  They also clearly understand how women read and share romance novels.  I can tell you from the days when I watched my mother, aunts and friends in their romance novel reading heydays, that they would get grocery bag loads full of books, swap them back and forth among each other and tell each other which ones were good and which ones were bad, which had steamy scenes and which were sweet.  It is a vigorously social reader behavior that DRM restricted eBooks would change, for the worse.  Also, these women who read Romance novels read them in volume, and the price point and publishing rate needs to support that.  And this woman is making it happen.  Kudos to you Angela James for understanding how romance novel readers read and share, and pushing a business model that supports that rather than hinders it.  Awesome.

TEDxLibrariansTO

I hate throwing the TO on there, but it is in Toronto and they put a TO on literally everything up here.

So, today I attended TEDxLibrariansTO.  It was awesome, and totally worth the money.  Hell the opening speaker alone was worth the money.  If you read my blog post from last night, you’ll know I had some pointed things to say about the profession and where we’re going and what I believe needs to be done, and soon.  Well, Amy Buckland, the first speaker at today’s conference laid out all of the points that I laid out, and said almost the exact same thing.  Only she ended with the whole Faulkner “get in the wagon” bit.  I kind of wish I actually cared enough to read Faulkner.  But I was just sitting there going, “Yes, I came to the right conference.”

Next speaker was Eric Boyd from Sensebridge.  Now, he was very interesting, because at the BoingBoing meetup, I got to hangout with a lady from ThinkGeek who was wearing this heart monitor necklace.  Eric Boyd is the guy who MAKES the heart monitor necklace!  What a bizarre coincidence.  He talked about the value of hackerspaces and how technology can be used to change your perception of not only the world, but of yourself.  It was really very cool.

Then we watched a TED video of David McCandless on Data Visualization.  He talked about some of the data visualizations that he created to help put things into context, and how visualization gives you the opportunity to see patterns and put things into perspective.  It was a wonderful point to bring out because it really spoke to our role as information professionals as people who try to help make sense of knowledge and information.  Great piece.

Our first break in the day was a facilitated conversation related to the topic at hand of librarians as thought leaders.  People had a lot to say about change, resistance, innovation, and a lot of hard driving questions about the conflict surrounding the industry right now.  It was really cool.  Oh, and there was ice cream.  😀

After the break the next speaker was Dr. Sara Grimes who talked about video games a form of narrative.  She gave a bunch of wonderful examples of how video games give children the opportunity to explore a story from an immersive/experiential point of view and how this narrative form is just as valid as any other.  It was really a beautiful piece.  I had a great conversation with Sara at the after party where we talked about my love of puzzle games and cutesy games and the awesomeness of Child of Eden.  Seriously, I will buy a damn Kinect to play that game.

Then there was Dr. Siobhan Stevenson who talked about the withering of the library workforce, and how policy changes are driving libraries into downsizing and losing skilled professionals.  It was kind of frightening, and the conclusion was a little wibbly, but I got where she was going with it.  The premise is that when looking at strategic planning we have to consider also the impact this will have on quality of service.

Lunch was great.  I had a lovely piece of apple cake and an egg salad sandwich.

When we got back from lunch we had a light TED video by Steven Wernicke about how to make the perfect TED talk. It was really quite funny.

The first live speaker after lunch was Mita Williams who spoke about the library as a place for important conversations, and the value of unplanned spontaneous group sharing activities.  She talked about how she organized a “Jane’s Walk” in partnership with a local blogger, the awesomeness of Pecha Kucha talks and her experience hosting “unconference” events.  I had heard about these types of events in the past, but was left kind of confused about them.  She really explained how simple they are and how awesome it is to get everyone talking about these sorts of things.  I really was inspired by that one.

Then we had Melanie McBride who is another one who extolled the virtue of gaming, though her tack on this was different.  She was adamantly against the concept of “gamification” of things like school and work, because that was violating what she saw as the core principles of gaming: Voluntary participation, when you want it, and a sense of autonomy and validation for your accomplishments.  She’s a big WoW player and she shared the story of a young man of 18 who went to BlizzCon, the big WoW convention and totally stole the show because he caught an enormous flaw in the game based on the stories and the novels that had been written.  And he called the game writers on the error and they didn’t even realize that they had done it.  The video of him pwning the writers hit YouTube and got zillions of hits, everyone in the community loved him for it, and the creators made an NPC character who is the “Fact Checker” based on this kid.  That was the height of how games can provide a sense of accomplishment.  This video has over 4 million hits.  The boy has rolled this fame into raising money for autism support charity, because he has Asperger’s Syndrome himself.  It was just an awesome story.

Then we had a break where we got to have a discussion with all of the people among the speakers about whatever we wanted to talk about.  It got kind of heated there for a while when we were talking about the myths that we create about our profession and ourselves.  It was very interesting.

The final panel speaker who came up was John Miedema, the author of “Slow Reading.” His presentation was about the research evidence on comprehension from people who intentionally read slower so that they could fully engage with a text versus people who skim and speed read.  But also it was really about the pleasure in just taking your time.  The presentation was filled with these beautiful images of people reading.  It was really quite lovely.

The closing statement was from Fiacre O’Duinn who was one of the two TEDxLibrariansTO organizers.  He shared the story of his life growing up in Ireland and how reading the newspaper was illegal, and how librarians were revolutionaries getting news to people secretly.  And he talked about how his neighborhood a lot of the boys didn’t make it out, they got hooked on heroine and many of them died while he was still in school.  But he went to the library and how that saved him from a life like that.  And then about his time in school in England during the IRA bombing campaign and how he had to keep his mouth shut when out in public because everyone would know he was Irish and would think he was a suspect person.  Through all of that madness, the library and the librarians in his life kept him going, and now he is one too.  It made me cry a bit just thinking about it.  But it was a wonderful story of the kind of power that we truly have to make a difference in people’s lives.

After the conference finished we all went out for dinner and drinks at the Fox and Fiddle and we hung out for about another three hours.  I got a lot of compliments for traveling all that way.  They had no idea that so many people were interested in coming and that I would take the bus to go like 900 miles just to be a part of this.  Humble, these Canadians.  But they shared a map that showed the global hits for their website.  They got site visits from people from all over the world, across all of Canada, every state in the US (and DC), tons and tons of hits in Europe, Japan was loving it, China, Australia, and dozens of places in the Middle East and Africa.  They also said that there were complaints that they held it on the same weekend as ALA.  They didn’t even think about it that way.  It’s not like they were trying to compete with ALA, by any stretch of the imagination.

But honestly, I think there is a gem in this idea, and Fiacre and Shelly really nailed it. There is a desire in libraryland to have a more engaging conversation about the profession.  Something that is driven from the ground up, from researchers, from visionaries, from people who are out there in the field working to shape the profession into something new.  We need this conversation as a profession.  I have never felt like I got this level of engagement from ALA.  Never.  I’ve heard that there are groups now that this happens, but I’ve never heard of them or how to get involved.  It feels like a secret cabal.  I know that there is also some kind of ALA unconference as well.

But the TED format is something else entirely.  It’s not a comittee, it’s not even a conversation.  It’s just awesome content.  We need to be exposed to that awesome content.  It can’t just be hidden away in the rabbit hole of some round table in a random room in a conference the size of two city blocks.  That’s just completely unwieldy.  The conference catalog is the size of a damn phone book.  I would pay $200 to go to three days of TEDxLibrarians in a heartbeat, because I am walking away with a goldmine of resources to draw upon now.

I have one more day in Toronto.  I’m thinking of going to see Niagara Falls.  They tell me it’s kitsch heaven and I can’t wait.

The Library’s Future

Note: This was originally published on my LiveJournal and in the blitz of cross posting content over to WordPress I neglected to bring this over.  So I have backdated it to precede the post entitled TEDxLibrariansTO, because the content from this article is referenced in there. –ESR

The Library in America is in a state of evolution, and has been for decades, but more so now than ever.  The role of the library is the same as it has always been, to provide access to information and entertainment resources to the public.  But how that happens has been evolving and rapidly as a result of the internet.  Right now libraries across the country are in this very bizarre situation of having massive increases in usage and dwindling budgets.  That increase in usage stems from the volume of digital media that our society is pumping out, and people’s ability to access the online world.  This is not only changing the way we do our jobs at the library, but the services that we need to provide to the public.  In order to meet that challenge Libraries need to have the foresight to adapt or be considered superfluous to a municipality’s budget.  It’s that serious.

The American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy released a policy brief for libraries entitled Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the public library.  It identifies four spectra that every library needs to consider when in the process of strategic planning.  They are as follows:

Physical Libraries – Virtual Libraries
Individual Libraries – Community Libraries
Collection Libraries – Creation Libraries
Portal Libraries – Archive Libraries

All of these are a continuum between two extremes.  I can’t imagine a single library in the country, or any other country, that is wholly one side or the other on any of these continua.  We all fall somewhere in the middle to one side or the other.  But I think the trend lines for each of these has serious consequences in terms of what we do as a profession.  And the implication of this policy briefing, whether they explicitly stated it or not, is that most all libraries are moving to some degree from the left to the right of these spectra.  It’s a slow process, but this is really the vision of the future.  Take it as you will.

I believe that much of the work that I’m doing in the library is in keeping with this vision of the future.  So here’s a chunk of what I believe needs to be done.  These are kind of a list of ultimatums, but I think that they are critical issues that need speedier resolution than more people would imagine.  This is what’s happening NOW, and needs to be done NOW.

We need to train or fire tech-deficient librarians.  Period.

I hate to be harsh, but you cannot be useful to anyone if you cannot operate a computer at a level to help someone do the basic things that we need to do every day.  Everyone from the lowest paid cashier at the grocery store to the upper level management of the federal government require to post their resumes and job applications online.  If you can’t sit down and walk someone through a web form, and be able to on the spot diagnose problems with the computer hardware and software, then you are not serving our patrons.  But we’re not just talking about simple users; we’re also talking about complex user situations: using various forms of hardware (phones, game consoles, ebook readers, music players) in conjunction with a computer.  You’ve got to be able to explain all of that, and walk someone through the complex issues surrounding creating and modifying content for use online.  The folks who developed the 23 things are awesome, and I praise them for the work that they did.  But it is no longer just fun, or optional.  This is our world, and to not know these things is to be functionally illiterate.  I would go so far as to say that librarians should be required to have continuing education credits in order to maintain their professional standing.  Numerous other professions require it, and we should too.

The Digital Divide is Getting Worse, We Can’t Forget That

We’ve nearly stopped using the phrase “digital divide” in our daily conversations, but the reality is that it is even more problematic than ever.  As libraries make crucial budget decisions between purchasing physical and digital copies of books we are making decisions about which class of people can access this content.  This means that we are making class decisions about who can read something and who can’t.  Unless the library begins purchasing eReaders for people then there is no way that we can make this an equitable situation.  This is why we can’t move to a wholly virtual library any time soon.  Even if we were to give people the opportunity to load this content on public computers, the time spent on them is limited because computers themselves are limited resources that are valuable pieces of real estate.  Yes, more people have access to computers than before, but not necessarily high speed internet access.  So their ability to interact with the online world is limited even more.  Perhaps if we were able to combine this with print on demand then we could bridge the divide a little more concretely, but under current copyright law we’d be going to jail for that.  But don’t get me started on DMCA.


People Want to Connect and Play

People still crave company, and in today’s socially networked world, there is still a desire to see people face to face.  Lots of people talk about the “third place” that is neither home nor work where people can connect or disconnect as they wish.  The Library is one of those places.  However, what people are looking for is changing as well.  Sure there are people who are interested in learning how to use computers, but that’s not the heart of what people are looking for.  Entertainment outside of the mainstream is where it’s at, and probably where it’s going to stay. There are plenty of places that people can go and read, but there are fewer places where people can go and learn how to salsa dance, or knit, or write a novel, or learn about local history.  People are increasingly interested in niche things, and the library has always been a place to explore obscure ideas.  It is also becoming a place to explore those things with other people.  They need a place to experiment and play with things socially.

People Want to Contribute, and We Should Let Them

If Wikipedia has taught us anything it’s that people love to contribute to things.  There are 14.8 million Wikipedia users and 3.6 million articles.  It is the largest encyclopedia that has ever been created in history.  Wikipedia proves that people love sharing their information and their wisdom with other people, and they will do it for free, without hesitation.  Hell, they may even donate millions of dollars to support it!  People are posting millions of tweets a day.  People are sharing articles and photos on Facebook by the billions.  I don’t understand why so many libraries are resistant to the simplest things like allowing people to comment on their blogs or contribute reviews to the catalog.  By allowing users to add content to the library’s site and catalog gives them a sense of belonging more than ever.  They are a part of various online communities already. This increases the library’s value to the community and guarantees that when the choice for funding comes up that they will say absolutely yes.  We also need to realize that we don’t know everything.  There is a body of knowledge out there that is only available via crowdsourcing and to ignore it keeps us in the dark.

Libraries Need to Provide Value Added Content

There are zillions of content providers out there, but none of them have the kinds of resources that we have to provide perspective on the world we live in.  Our staff are content experts of various stripes, and we all know it.  Every library has a website, and that website needs to push content out to the world.  Through our own value added content we can promote the materials in the collection, shed light on little known resources, dredge up amazing bits of history and all without the burden of being beholden to advertisers, corporations, or political partisanship.  The New York Public Library is going so far as to creating interactive apps showcasing library resources from archival collections that people can play with on the iPad.  This is only the beginning of what we can do with what we have at our disposal and the experts that we have on staff.


Libraries Need to Lead the Fight against EULAs and DRM on eBooks

Anyone who has ever worked in purchasing academic journals knows that publishing companies are ruthless, money grubbing bastards.  Academic journal companies continue to jack up prices, making journals unaffordable in volume, which limits access to information to only those institutions who can afford to pay the blood money required to keep them.  And then we have to turn around and pay for the content again in database form! Why are we still perpetuating this bullshit?  And now, on the brink of the eBook revolution we’re getting into these questions about how much we can control the use of eBooks with our patrons, thus limiting the “damage” to the publishers bottom line.  Harper-Collins decided to pull a slick move and limit their DRM on their eBooks to have them self-destruct after 26 uses.  Not to mention that during contract renewals prices are going up. Well, the Kansas State Librarian called bullshit on that and pulled their contract with Overdrive entirely.  We need more people who are willing to stand up against this kind of poor business behavior, and flip the script.  She’s now looking to get the eBooks onto a new service of her own.  The more that we allow other companies to control the content that we’re providing our users, the more they will extort us for money that we don’t have, and then we have to start cutting content.  We’ve been down that road before.  We need to control our own eBooks, just as we control our own physical books.

I’m sure that after tomorrow I’m going to walk away with about a dozen more things that we need to be doing.  I’ll make sure and let you know.

The Value of Content

The other day Faster Times posted an article from Oliver Miller about his time at AOL writing bullshit articles for their bullshit news, and the maddening pace at which they pump out crap.  I see nothing different between this and the crazy shit happening on Kindle with eBooks being used to spam people.  The content is itself useless, except as some vain attempt to drive traffic through advertising. Seth Godin shared his thoughts a few days ago about starving bullshit news people by not paying for crap content.

I don’t understand why people are playing at a losing game like that at all.  As content becomes less and less valued it just drives down the quality of the product and nobody will trust the content producer any more, thus perpetuating a downward spiral of their product.  I’m not an economist and I can tell you that.

As I was writing a few weeks ago, content value is being recalibrated these days.  The disconnect is between the vast overhead of the older content production systems and the new distribution model via the internet.  Older fatter companies are hemorrhaging money and don’t know how to staunch the flow.  The Atlantic had a great article about why Netflix is cleaning house and movie production companies are failing.  The simple factor is that Netflix understands how to capitalize on internet distribution, has an order of magnitude lower overhead than movie production and provides content at a price point that is damn near impossible to pass up.

News providers have been playing this game of advertising, sales price, and content for a long time.  We’ve also pushed ourselves beyond the realm of necessity for news as well.  We have multiple channels running 24 hours full of talking heads, there are thousands upon thousands of websites providing all sorts of news at the drop of a hat, many of them doing it because they feel passionately about it.  And that’s changing the news game.  There are people who are providing more valuable content than traditional news sources, and they’re providing it for free or next to free via targeted advertising.

The best story about embracing internet culture and making a successful go of it is The Atlantic.  Like most magazines that have been around for a while The Atlantic was losing money and losing subscribers.  But they turned it around and started to turn a profit for the first time in a LONG time.  And they have some of the best articles online.  They are high quality writing, not cranking out filler, and getting more and more people to read all the time.

Sure there is a tension between content development and sales.  But there are ways to make it work without being a spammer or a vapid click-through link wasteland.

The Stories We Tell

People love telling stories.  We’ve built a centuries old industry on it.  But this week I’ve been struck by the stories I’ve heard where things are unclear, someone puts a spin on it, and that becomes the story that everyone runs with.

The biggest one that’s been running around the last few days was the photograph of “The Kissing Couple.”  For those unfamiliar, Vancouver, British Columbia, broke out in riots a few days ago after the loss of the Stanley Cup.  People were burning, looting, pillaging and just basically going batshit crazy. This kind of blows my mind because Vancouver is like ultra-laid back. But hockey can make people lose their minds.  So among the rioting, the police came out, as did the news crews and one intrepid photographer took a picture that has been blowing up the internet.

The Vancouver Kissing Couple, from Getty Images

In the picture you see a riot cop with his baton and shield, a line of other folks in the far background, and smack in the middle is a man on the ground, holding a woman lying there.  The photographer didn’t realize what all was transpiring around him.  He just shot everything he could find and took the pics back to the paper to look at them with for the following morning’s print run.  It was there in the editing room that the photographer and the editor talked about what they both were looking at in the picture.  The photographer at first thought that the woman had been injured, but the editor said that they were kissing.

“I just saw these two people and I thought they were hurt … I didn’t really know what I got until the editor pointed it out,” he said.

And that’s where everything went haywire.  See, news editors know that everyone loves a good story.  That’s their job.  So they spun a story of the “kissing couple” photograph and it hit the internet.  And then EVERYONE saw it. Including other people who were there, and eventually the couple themselves.  As it turns out there may have actually been a kiss, but the woman was in fact on the ground because she was injured in the riot.

I love Kat Hannaford’s take on it at Gizmodo entitled “How Photos Lie.” But the problem with that title is that it’s not the photo that’s lying, it’s the story that was told based on the interpretation of the evidence second or third hand.  And is it a lie, per se?  I believe that this editor truly believed that he had some weird gem and that the story he was telling about the picture made sense to him.  He probably totally believed that this couple was just making out right there among the shields and the tear gas.

We tell ourselves these sorts of stories all the time when we don’t understand things objectively.  The story fills a need to explain the unexplainable. To wrap a narrative into something devoid of narrative brings it to life.  And we have told ourselves these sorts of stories for as long as stories have been told.  Constellations are stars that have nothing more in common with each other than their brightness and visual proximity to each other.  But we crafted shapes in the stars and told stories about these shapes as heroes and demigods.  When we first had a telescope powerful enough to see to Mars the observers noted lines on the surface of the planet.  So a narrative was crafted of “canals”, which to some signified that civilization existed on Mars.  This led to all sorts of speculative fiction of what race of creatures may live on Mars and would they militantly try to destroy us?

I don’t think that telling stories is a bad thing.  Stories are an inextricable part of us.  We need them to put things into perspective.  Objective data can only go so far, and sometimes we need to feel the data in a way that resonates with us as humans.  The problem comes when we need to reconcile objective reality with the story we have created.  As the photographer and his editor are finding out, reality is harsh for story tellers. Especially now when the story and the data hit the entire world at once, and can be disputed, contemplated, juxtaposed and verified in less than 24 hours.

And in honor of some delicious story telling, though in this case some total bald-faced lies, I leave you with a link to one of the most hilarious trademark dispute trials I have ever read about (though admittedly I have read probably only a few).  Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (a video game blog) they have the story of trademark litigant Tim Langdell who has been working this tired old dog of a case through the courts in England claiming that he owns the patent trademark on the use of the word “Edge” in video games forever.  The story of his pile of lies and manufactured evidence is so egregious that it deserves being read.