8 Deadly Words

There is a phrase that I have heard over the last few years, and every time I hear it my brow furrows, and my mouth gapes.  I stand there dumbstruck and incredulous, not believing that someone in my field, who I respect, would say such a thing.

It goes like this:

What does this have to do with libraries?

My God, I think to myself.  Do you really have so little imagination that you can’t envision how this could benefit our customers?  Do you not see where we are going as a profession that this is something that we should be exploring?

What this phrase says to me, every time I hear it, is that this individual has a preconceived notion about what libraries should and should not do.  Where she has drawn that line means that anything that crosses that line needs to be justified within the context of her preconceived notion.

This is the same sort of argument that people use when “working to rule.”  The parameters have been set to a low standard, and only that standard is required.  There is no need or desire to move beyond it, for to do so means you are doing more work then you need to do.  You meet your requirements and you go home.  The service is solely “at par,” nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe I’m just an overachiever by nature, but this smacks me too hard.  When I hear the 8 deadly words I know that someone’s mind has closed off.  That the ability to convince that person of this vision of the future is an uphill struggle.  That the person is living in a vision of the institution that is in the past, and only getting further and further behind.

As part of the information profession we have a duty to stay on top of how innovation is changing the way people interact with information.  How they access it is only a fraction of that.  The bigger piece of the pie is how this change, changes us all.  How does this shift change social structures.  How does it change culture, and how can we adapt to this new environment.

The future isn’t about eBooks.  It’s about how eBooks are created, distributed, and consumed.  It’s about how this will change the entire paradigm of publishing, and what that in turn will mean for Mega Corporations who own everything we read.  What would happen if the big six (now five, I guess, with Random Penguins) were to just crumble and a thousand little online distributors took their place?  How would we cope with that?  How is having access to 3D printers going to change the way we interact with mass produced goods?  How is localized print on demand books going to affect book stores?  How are albums that are being funded through Kickstarter and Indiegogo going to affect standard music distribution channels? What happens when cable companies dissolve and internet only services take off?  What happens when smart phones and tablets are so cheap that everyone can have one for next to nothing?  What about all of these contributions to free online resources like Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, and the countless Open Source Software projects that people are working on every day.

This is a global paradigm shift we are living in.

It is touching every facet of our lives, and all of these things have implications not only in how libraries will operate, but what we will actually be in the 21st century.  If you’re not thinking about how to work through these issues, and how that’s going to change our culture, you’re not going to stay ahead of the game.  When your idea of the library is solely as a place where people read books, then you’ve already been left behind.

What we require going forward is a tremendous force of innovation, to overcome the inertia of “the way we’ve always done this.”  I would highly recommend reading Brian Mathews article “Facing the Future” about how libraries can think more like start-ups.  This isn’t just change for the sake of change. This adaptation for the sake of survival.


The Politics of Copyright

I’ve been wanting to write this all week.  Last Friday, the Republican Study Committee released a phenomenal white paper pushing for some pretty broad reforms in the copyright law. While I myself am not a terribly conservative person, this paper blew me away.  It’s amazing how progressive a statement you can make within the framework of conservative principles, and that’s exactly what they did.  While the RSC rescinded that report within about 24 hours due to “proper review” concerns,* the Electronic Frontier Foundation has the document in full preserved on their website. And you should definitely read it.

I don’t normally write about politics here, but I want to bullet point some of the necessary methods just to illustrate how this document worked.

Strict Constructionism: The first point that they address has to do with the myth of compensating the creator.  Instead the author turns to the language directly in the constitution that copyright is to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  They use that exact language to highlight the fact that the purpose of copyright not solely to compensate the author, but to provide the author a limited time to profit from his creation, so that we, as a nation could promote progress in Science and useful Arts.  Further in the document they talk about how the perpetual extension of copyright hinders innovation.

Laissez Faire Capitalism: The second point has to do with the breadth of the market.  Because copyright is for all intents and purposes indefinite, this creates state sanctioned monopolies on content.  What we see when works go into the public domain is a vast proliferation on that content.  We don’t have to look very far to see that in action.  From The Wizard of Oz we get Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” (and the subsequent musical) the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Tin Man” and innumerable costumes and toys.  From Alice in Wonderland we have dozens of movies, cartoons, miniseries, songs, toys, and reprint after reprint with critical editions and leather bindings and all sorts of things.  If you need a visual then you should look at this chart of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade from the Laissez Faire Blog.  That 1920 line is where Copyright reforms swept in due to Disney trying to protect Steamboat Willey, and it never came back.

Number of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade

From the Laissez Faire blog. We have a huge blindspot, and it’s copyright’s fault.


Tort Reform: On Page 7 when the author starts into the potential policy solutions one of the first things that he looked at was statutory damages reform.  Right now damage for copyright violations and infringement are orders of magnitude beyond the value of the original work.  This disconnect between penalty and reality is what gives us the ludicrous world of the 8 Billion Dollar iPod.  From the paper:

Further, this system creates a serious clogging of the ourts, because copyright holders now recognize that they can accuse anyone of infringemen, and include the threat of $150,000 awards per violation. But in reality, most people then settle for less than that sum, say $3,000.  Scaring a large number of potentially innocent people into settling should not be an effect of copyright law.

Limited Government: As stated above,the perpetual extension of copyright secures the rights of one individual or one company to be the sole entity to profit from a work.  This means that the government is determining who is allowed to profit, and who not, and the resources of government (i.e. the court system) can be used to enforce this regime.  By limiting copyright we limit the government’s role in enforcing copyright.

While the arguments that lead to these conclusions and proposals are definitely conservative base targets, the conclusions and solutions were really the best part.  And Libraries were not left out. Though they reference Project Gutenberg as a digital library initiative, and it is, with the expansion of the public domain there are entire universes of activities that could spring up among public libraries both on their own, through vendors like Overdrive, or coordinated efforts like the Hathi Trust or the Digital Public Library of America.  Expanding the potential for eBook development on a grand coordinated scale can lead the entire world into a new era of research, development, and entertainment.

As we start to look at the future, we’re going to see more disruption in content, and how people engage with it.  It started with music, moved to video, and surprisingly text has been slow to crack.  But with the growing ubiquity of eReading devices, and some fairly well settled ePub standards based on HTML5 this is going to be blowing up, and fast.  And copyright law will either adapt, or be thrown to the wolves on the internet.  Adaptation, and innovation in the sources of funding for limited times will do everyone a service.  The music industry is finally starting to find out how to make this work and it’s taken some pretty bold experimentation among established musicians to do this.  But today the Future of Music group released a pretty amazing checklist of 42 ways you can gain revenue from your work.  This is the kind of exploratory thinking that needs to be happening in the Big Content world, because maintaining perpetual copyright is only going to last so long as you can’t rip the content from a book the way you can rip a CD.  Oh wait, you can now.


*Secretly in my heart of hearts I’m kind of hoping that Derek Khanna, the RSC Staff Contact and Paul Teller posted the document for just long enough, and rescinded it fast enough for the Streisand Effect to take hold and drive the conversation forward. A little too Machiavellian?  Maybe.  But it has certainly been the topic of conversation across the entirety of the tech sector.

Distributed Structures in Libraries

Anarchist Librarian tee shirt from TopatoCo.

My brain has been kind of reeling with stuff since last week.  I’ve been on a kind of personal philosophical rampage about the future of library science and it’s been bubbling inside of me until I get to the point of trying to push this into something that at least sounds coherent.  Compound this with the fact that I’ve been spending the last several weeks writing original music, reconnecting with friends, traveling the country, and going through end of the year performance evaluations and well, needless to say, blogging just took a backseat.

So, what I want to talk about today is about library anarchy.  Please don’t panic.

One of the things that I try to keep a pulse on is how business and government are changing.  I take a lot of cues from the tech sector where I see the most innovation especially in terms of redesigning the work model.  Google goes a hell of a long way to redefining work with their 20% time model.  This allows an employee time to pursue other ideas and things that intrigue and interest them, keeping them motivated within the work space by giving them an entire work day to explore and play.  I thought that was pretty radical.  And then I saw the Valve employee manual.  This is a radically different workplace, one that has zero boundaries between an employee and the CEO.  Let’s add to this picture Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory of Anti-Fragile economies as being part of a distributed system.

Libraries by their nature as government service agencies are inevitably bound up in bureaucratic muckety muck.  We are built on hierarchies and structures and layers of protocols, policies, procedures, and rules.

But what if we explored doing things entirely differently?  And I’m not talking just about dropping Dewey and using BISAC categories or roving librarianship.  But I mean, what about a radical overhaul of public library work and meaning for our staff?  I’m going to throw out some insane and probably dangerous library ideas now.

  • Dissolve and distribute central libraries into local collections that have unique and deep research pockets around a city.
  • Expand staff categories to cover emerging literacies in areas like engineering, ecology, biology, and design.  The MLIS is awesome, but it’s not the same as being able to show someone how to fabricate their own shoes and coathangers on local equipment.
  • Eradicate hierarchical barriers between staff members on all levels.  You will always discover unknown talents in everyone that adds to the overall value of the system, and they should all have a voice.
  • Move from centralized activities to networked activities designed at a local level.  There is value in centralized organization and development of activities in that it certainly saves time, but the fewer voices in the mix, the more homogenous the product.
  • Actively invest in distributed public educational and productive endeavors

Why?  Why am I advocating at this exact moment for a total overhaul in the way we do things?

Because this is the way the world is changing right now.  There is now an entire generation of people who have grown up in the internet age who have an entirely different worldview, an entirely different perspective on work, and we are quickly moving into a place in the future where society and culture are radically redefined.

We have already begun the process of transforming the library from a place of media consumption and engagement to a place of media creation and interaction.  But media is expanding beyond the printed word, the recorded sound and video.  We are slowly becoming a culture of shared, distributed manufacture, locally grown products, and crowdsourced brainpower.

Where libraries have been in the past, as a repository for those who could not on their own access information, we are going to be serving as the place for those who on their own cannot access this new world.  For those who can’t print their own book, or to replicate their new shoes, or upload their new locally produced television show, let us be that place.  In order for us to be flexible enough to do these things let us explore how we can appeal to generation who can make it happen.  Let’s look at how we can change the work environment to accommodate the kinds of radical new thinking needed to transform us into the true 21st century library.

We are what we have always been.  Let us look to being that and so much more.

Signal to Noise

Far From Home by user Robert82 on sxc.hu

One of these days, we'll figure out where we're going.

I’m just going to free associate on some ideas that have been bumping around in my head lately.

I had a conversation with my husband the other day about the increasing irrelevance of the Recording Industry to the lives of artists*.  It used to be that the big labels were the ones who had access to the incredibly expensive recording equipment that made the manufacture of albums, then casettes, then CDs.  Studio time was expensive and the labels could afford to front the costs for studios to lay down hours and hours of tracks to produce an album.

However, over time, that recording equipment became less expensive and professionals and hobbyists alike would be able to acquire multi-channel mixers and multi-track recording equipment.  My dad had a four-track tape recording system in the barn where his band practiced. It was one of the most awesome things I had seen with four tapes rolling in sync with each other.  Nowadays, with a few thousand dollars you could have a studio rig to rival the semi-professional studio spaces you can find in droves in every major city.

Pressing records is another thing that has also turned into a boutique niche for record companies.  In 2008 digital downloads surpassed record sales, and it never turned back.  And I’m using “record” here loosely to mean a physical object that you put into a listening device.  More people download their music through iTunes or AmazonMP3 than go to record stores.

But now we have people who through the use of their home recording studios and the ubiquity of digital download services are increasing the volume of music that’s being produced and the volume of music that end user sees just increases and increases.

So, the one valuable thing that the Recording Industry has a hold of is the Filter that says “This is hot. This is not.”  But even that is changing.  Spotify this week announced that they were opening their API to allow for app development.  Now, some people, like myself, said “an app for your app?”  But think about this for a moment.  By opening their API to outside development, individual users, like you and I, could create our own filter for the music that we appreciate and like and want to share with our friends, and the world.

And that’s a valuable development, that kind of mirrors where the internet is taking society, moving content curation out of the hands of “experts” and people who have a financial interest in the product, and putting it in the hands of users who enjoy that content.

But what does this mean for the library?

As an institution we have always been a place that has had a certain level of cache that we have maintained for centuries: the place to find what you’re looking for.  While the library has never been a place that has been able to hold the entire spectrum of human knowledge, it has always been a place that one could expect a level of expertise in selecting works that would be of value to a community.  Whether that be a community of scholars or a village of farmers.  Out of all of the mass of human literature, the library has selected, cataloged and made available a particular collection.  Every library is unique, and their collection policies help develop that vision of each unique place.

So, as we move into a digital future, where printed books become luxury items (like vinyl is for music afficionados today), and eBooks explode into stratospheric proportions (which we’re already seeing via Amazon and Barnes & Noble circumventing traditional publishing models), the question of what becomes of the library still stands.  And I believe that content curation is going to remain extremely valuable.  However, as we see with Spotify, user driven filters to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio will also start to arise.

Then the primary concern becomes one of access to resources.  If the eBook market still prices works at an inaccessible rate for the average consumer, and especially the poor consumer, then providing access to users via a shared system, such as the library is the only way to make that happen.

Among the people on the Digital Public Library of America initiative there has been a lot of back and forth about being able to acquire current works and make them available via DPLA.  In our current state of publishing, this is extremely challenging.  Publishers barely want to provide access to their works to libraries at all.  Many of the major publishers have been pulling out of consortium vendors like Overdrive, even though there are very rigid DRM practices in place.  However, if through a service like DPLA, libraries would be able to provide access to a very broad body of freely available contemporary works, or at least eBook editions of works that are available via their physical collections, then we’re talking about a future for digital libraries.  By participating in a national level consortium effort for eBooks libraries could reap an extremely high benefit. The library then becomes an API, enhancing user experiences in navigating the world’s aggregated content.  The Library as a space becomes useful in other ways, as a collaboration zone, content creation space, a place to explore new technologies in a hands-on way, and a place to read when you don’t have access to read on your own, or get a physical copy on demand if you need one.

I guess the road that I’ve been walking down here is one that we cover as librarians all the time, i.e. what is the difference between a collection and an aggregation.  If you think about The Internet, all of it, it’s incomprehensible to imagine that anyone would ever be able to cull out of its vastness an island of reliable sources and valuable sites.  But search engines have developed massive algorithms to analyze this major body of work and help items float to the top.  The Internet is an aggregation of content.  The top 10 hits you get from a search engine (provided you phrased your query well) are the collection that the algorithm has selected for you.  Out of all of the body of literature in the world, the aggregate body of human works, a Library makes a careful selection based on a number of factors, to craft a collection.  The recording industry is in the business of boosting the signal against the noise, promoting those artists who they believed to be a cut above the rest to give them national or global exposure.  The Library is also in the business of boosting signal against the noise, promoting those books that they believe to be more relevant to a community than others.  As we think about the future of the library we’re going to have to ask bigger questions about content curation, participation across cities, states and national boundaries, and about what libraries as physical spaces mean to local communities in the context of these much bigger endeavors.

Edited to Add:

I’m just going to go ahead and update this as I woke up thinking about it.  Nearly the entirety of the piece above ignores the entire lesson learned from the Recording Industry.  That innovations that respect the consumers and the creators will continue to flatten out the hierarchical systems that we’ve built over time.  If we’ve learned anything from Wikipedia it’s that with a few simple rules everyone in the world can create an up-to-date, encyclopedia.  Though experts participate, this product is one that is curated by everyone collectively.  Different people, with different bodies of knowledge contribute collectively and it all gets sorted out by everyone together.

I’ve been drinking my own Kool-Aid.

In continuing this exploration though I want to consider the possibility that not everyone is as web savvy as everyone else.  That children who grow up in poverty, may not be versed in the ways of the Internet.  That educators and intercessors to help people will always be necessary.  Innovations keep coming rapidly and we should be able to respond to them in the moment of need.  Adults, who are no longer in school, may need a venue to explore and learn new things from other human beings.  Exploration space, as I mentioned in the preceding article, is more than likely what we’ll need to be.  Attempting to boost signal against noise is a noble goal, but may not be our primary selling point.  Service and human interaction may be the rule of tomorrow.



* Yes, this is the kind of conversation that I have with my husband.  We didn’t get married for nothing!  Okay, it was the insurance, but excellent conversations are really high up there in the reasons.

World Wide Mind

I’ve only just begun reading Michael Chorost’s new book World Wide Mind: The coming integration of humanity, machines and the Internet, but I’m already struck by something wonderful that gave me chills.  From page 27:

A brain-to-brain communications technology would change all that. It would reveal some of a person’s “interior” to the collective…And if one saw groups moving in perfect synchrony to accomplish an object, unrehearsed, without orders, one might begin to believe that they have a consciousness independent of each individual’s objectives. If you knew where your friends were by using the same parts of your brain that track where your arms and legs are, and if you could coordinate your motion with them when needed, then your friends would feel like a part of your body.  You would remain an individual, but you would have a new status as an integral part of a group.

I had to put the book down right there and think for a minute because it was giving me chills, in a good way.

A lot of people have been discussing the differences between left and right brain lately, but most all of it in a very superficial way, i.e. left brain people are methodical, right brain people are artistic, etc.  But the real distinction between left and right brain functionality is how the different hemispheres either create boundaries between individual objects, or dissolve boundaries into a sea of existence.  In Jill Bolte Taylor’s incredibly famous speech at TED, she discusses the experiences that she has since she experience a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.  Near the end of that video she delves into the immersive experience of the right brain, becoming one with everything.  Though, the Symphony of Science version of her speech has been stuck in my head for days, particularly when Jill says “and it explodes into this enormous collage.”

If this process of developing a technologically induced group mind does come to fruition, I see the potential for having massive amounts of reconnection with the right brain.  In our current state of mind, we are all individuals, we are all separate.  This is a product of our left brain putting everything and everyone into their own little boxes, with their own little labels.  The right brain puts all those labels and divisions aside, and unifies everything.

This could be wonderful, or absolutely horrifying.  It’ll probably be somewhere in between.  Though most science fiction tends to lean on the side of horrifying.  I could easily name several examples, though the most glaring one is from the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Throughout the course of the series about giant robots powered by children who fight angels, you start to discover that there is a deeper purpose to these fights.  NERV was created to further the Human Instrumentality Project, which ultimately sought to break down the Absolute Terror field that keeps all life separate from each other.  (Trust me, I’m not really giving anything away here).  The incredibly surreal finale End of Evangelion shows everyone’s individual physical bodies bursting into a golden primordial ooze, and flowing out across the world.  While this would not be the physical experience, it could be the mental experience.  Especially if this neurological tech has a deepening effect on the right brain experience of life.

Eric Riley, Librarian Of Mars

Space Marine Librarian

Space Marine Librarian from Games Workshop. I intend to look like this as I conquer the universe.

I will admit right now that I have an obsession with space.  I have had it for years.  I mean, come on, every little kid dreams of being an astronaut at least once.  Fueled by movies like Close Encounters, ET and Explorers, I was ready to fly off to space and see some aliens.  Maybe not the Aliens aliens, but something cool.  In my college years I read Parable of the Sower and listened to The Martian ChroniclesStar Trek, Farscape

This is a huge part of my mental landscape.

So, why am I thinking about Starship Libraries?

Duh, So I can be a Starship Librarian!

I mean, surely there are going to be information control needs relevant to interplanetary travel.  Especially long term journeys like going to Mars.  Going to Mars is going to be a trip of years at a stretch, and that’s going to require all sorts of skills.  I think I may be able to help provide something useful to a mission.

Plus, I’ve been thinking about how I could get myself in shape, and having a big goal is a great way to do that.  I know, that’s shallow and kind of insane.  But seriously.  People can just apply to become an astronaut on USA Jobs like any government job.  I never imagined it could be so close.  Having useful skills, being intelligent, and having the physical conditioning are surely all part of the package.

So, that’s my dream.  Being a librarian in space.

Let’s see if I can make that happen.

Steve Jobs & Bardo

Lots of people have been pondering Steve Jobs final words, which are reported to be “Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.”  I have a theory, and it relates directly to two very important elements that have not really been combined as far as I’ve seen.

1) In the Steve Jobs biography it’s revealed that he dropped acid and that he believed it made him more creative.

2) He was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism.

There is a very powerful combination of things working here.  Let’s start with the science.  Upon death the brain releases a flood of Dimethyltriptamine, which is a very powerful hallucinogen.  Amazonian shamans ingest it through a drink called Ayahuasca, and they experience things like alternate lives, time distortion and most importantly light.  It’s supposed that “the light” that people see is part of the DMT experience that hits the brain at the time of death.

The second part of this is the Buddhist component.  Surely someone who has been deeply influenced by Buddhism knows about the Bardo Thodol, known in English as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  This book describes the elements surrounding the different liminal states that one experiences in life and death, particularly in death.  There are three phases of the bardo of dying, the moment of death, the space of visions, and then the moment of rebirth.  This process is best understood if you watch the absolutely amazing film by Gaspar Noe called Enter the Void.

It’s my hypothesis that Steve, who had a passing familiarity with drug experiences, and more than likely understood the experiences described in the Bardo Thodol was able to put two and two together in his final moments and find a place of understanding and beauty.  His “Oh Wow” moment was confirmation, reverence and joy.

Oh to have a moment like that.