Raiders of the Conference ARC

jones-and-the-idol

This librarian related story about conferences and ARCs (Advance Reading Copy, for those not familiar) blew up on the blogosphere and Twitter to the point where it got its own hashtag (#ARCgate). You can read the blog post that started it all on Kelly Jensen’s blog, Stacked. It’s good background material for this post so you may want to take a few minutes to go through it. For the lazy or those in a hurry, I’ll sum it up.

Kelly, a librarian and YA book blogger, attended the most recent ALA annual conference last week. She had multiple commitments to various committees that held meetings there in addition to giving a session presentation. After attempting to navigate the exhibit hall crowd on both Friday evening and Saturday, on Sunday she went back to meet with publicists as well as get some ARCs that publishers give away as part of their book promotion strategy. The majority of the books she was interested in were not there after being given away over the last day and a half. She was able to get the publicist to send her copies of the ones she was interested in. Otherwise, she did leave the conference with 23 books (according to her post conference blog entry detailing the books she got at the conference. I’m not sure how many books are being sent to her by publicists as she did not elaborate so I don’t know how many books in total).

We now fast forward one week. After posting said blog entry, Kelly did a Google search for “ala book haul” and found a 22 minute video in which a book blogger shows off approximately 150 ARCs she got from the same conference. (The blogger’s sister appears in the video as well and got the same books, bringing the total number of books procured to roughly 300.) Needless to say, Kelly is understandably not pleased with this discovery.

In writing her post, she is calling for a different system for ARC distribution at ALA. As she is a due paying member, Kelly feels a bit cheated to have given up time and money to do things that run the organization as well as educate her peers and missed multiple chances at talking with publishing industry folks and getting some advanced copies. As a solution, Kelly is calling for exhibits only passes to be allowed only one day admission at the end of the conference. That way, people like herself can get first shot at the books and face time without as much competition.

Ok, that sums it up.

On its face, I totally understand and get the outrage factor. That $25 pass that the book blogger purchased netted her around $2,250 in books. (I’m using a conservative average value of $15 a book; at $20 a book it goes up to $3,000.) Given what both sisters got, that puts their total score in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, a 9000%+ return on their initial investment. Compared to Kelly’s $345-$460 ARC value after spending money on conference registration ($220) and association memberships (my guess is about $290 in total on the basis of her blog post detailing her memberships), there is a dramatically smaller and even negative rate of return. In pure economic terms, it’s a slam dunk case.

Alas, this is not a simply case of economics. It has turned into apparently another row between book bloggers and librarian book bloggers, an ongoing epic struggle of book lovers fighting over their mutual object of affection. In looking at it from a step back, it’s a set of opposing forces competing for the same limited resource, the coveted ARC. Publishers can only bring so many a conference or trade show, therefore competition for them is inevitable.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: go read Kelly’s post. Some see her post as an excellent way to ensure that a professional conference serves its members first on a perk that matters most to them. Others see her post as an expression of whiny entitlement in the same vein that every government worker will eventually hear, “I pay your salary, therefore you must meet all my demands”. I invite you to draw your own conclusions. I’m not inclined to share mine since I’d rather move on and focus on the meat of the matter that interests me the most.

The first question: is this “book haul” behavior typical or a fringe case? This isn’t limited to book bloggers or librarians, but it means everyone who goes: how common is this sort of greedy behavior? If it is a minority whose actions are impacting the larger whole of interested individuals, then yes, there needs to be a corrective action taken. I can agree that 150 books is pretty excessive and an unreasonable amount for any one person to take away from a conference. If enough people did that, then it would take away from others.

But if it is a fringe set (the proverbial bad apples in the bunch), then why would an organization like ALA have to completely revamp a system on the basis of the actions of a statistically insignificant few? If one person out of ten thousand fell down a flight of stairs and died each year, it would not make sense to mandate that everyone has to live in a one story house. (For the sake of comparison, your chances of dying in an automobile accident are roughly 1 in 23,000, a risk people take everyday.) To create and implement a more complex system on the basis of a tiny minority element is simply not the best use of an organization’s time and resources. Even at 1 in 1,000 incidence rate with 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, that’s only 20 people. Somebody who is better at crunching numbers would have to figure out the point at which is becomes an issue on the basis of the number of available ARCs and the number of ‘greedy’ types.

The second question: how do you quantify or measure such behaviors? I’m guessing that registration statistics are out since they are not a true measurement of those who are interested in ARCs. What’s left is recorded observations of such behavior (like the YouTube video) or reported observations from attendees. While the former is excellent in being able to be easily shared and evaluated, the latter is subject to its own human observation bias. No one taking over 100 books is going to report themselves. Those who do not get all the books they wanted are more likely to report their dissatisfaction as well as the behavior of others. It would require door checkers observing who leaves with how many books and something to measure it over a couple of days. (Consider the fact that the book blogger got her 150+ books over 3 days, not one.)

It’s not impossible to measure, but currently there is no data set for this issue. There is always personal anecdotes that could attempt to gauge the prevalence of the behavior. Corroborating stories build on each other and create a better picture as to the incidence and prevalence of the “book haul” types. Larger number of reports are harder to ignore or otherwise dismiss when you are trying to convince colleagues to take action. I realize this might sound a bit crazy to ask for data (whether in the form of stories of numbers), but it might one of the few times that there is actual ‘science’ in ‘library science’.

The third question: in presuming that there is enough data to support action, what is reasonable and fair? I’d say that Kelly’s proposed solution is a reasonable one to consider in theory, but not in practice.

My solution — and note this is my solution and mine alone — is that bloggers/non-professionals who pay the minimum amount to attend the convention be limited to one day attendance at the end of the convention. That they be allowed to attend but that their attendance is after librarians and other professionals using this convention to develop as such have the opportunity to get what it is they need and what it is they want out of their own convention. If they choose to pay the full conference amount or are themselves members of the organization, then they can have full access just as anyone else does. I don’t think this is hard and I do not think it’s at all unfair on any side of the equation. Those who would find this disagreeable are part of the problem. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s quite the discussion squelching closer. “Here is my solution. You are either with us or against us.” Nevermind how one determines the difference between a blogger or non-professional and a librarian or professional; I presume Kelly’s solution includes checking that people are from the libraries that they say they are from. (It would be logical to presume that if it is restricted to only librarians/professionals for the first few days, people will give fake information so as to continue to grab books.) Or there is some sort of qualification checking mechanism that is developed, implemented, and run by the organization. If it turns out that fellow librarians are part of the problem, then there will be some other system put into place.

I’m not certain what other solutions are being offered given how recent this development is, but I’m guessing they will embody a “members first” mentality. That’s not a bad thing, per se; we grew up hearing the motto of a credit company that told us “membership has its privileges”. Given the time, energy, and efforts of the membership to keep the wheels turning, it can be an added and advertised perk of joining the organization. In game theory terms, solutions like Kelly’s are a move to not only get to cut the cookie in half but to get first pick of the pieces. This is not the conditions for creating a fair solution in terms of the societal concept of fairness but fairness as it relates to proportional contribution. Given the general mood of neutral egalitarianism in the ALA organization, it would be an interesting fit.

Regardless of what happens, my final question is this: what do publishers think of this entire issue? Slipping into their shoes for a moment, this is an issue about who gets access to things they are giving away for free. For free. As corporate members and conference sponsors to varying degrees, they have already paid for the chance to display their wares, flown in their sales and marketing people for face-to-face time, and utilize the books as marketing and public relations tools. How does implementing an ARC giveaway system of any sort benefit the publisher?

If I was in a publishing house, a question I might ask myself is whether or not it is worthwhile to give an ARC to a casually interested librarian (free is still free, right?) versus a very interested book blogger or other non-librarian professional. I can’t imagine anyone from the industry reading anything that has been put on blogs or Twitter and really feeling too terrible about this ‘issue’. Nor can I imagine other vendors who give away swag to bring you to their booth will be ready to shed a tear.

This whole #ARCgate affair just makes the librarian profession look bad when it boils down to an argument about who gets access to free things. Conference fees and membership pay for many things, but they don’t put a dime in a publisher’s pocket when they print out those ARCs. That point cannot be lost in this mess. One could argue that their reviews drive traffic and sales, but I would say that it is a risk that publishers take on. Changing that dynamic is changing that calculated risk for them, not for librarians. It deserves consideration.

For what it’s worth, the book blogger posted about her conference experience. And she had a great time. I was originally going to post a link to her blog post, but I’d rather not have someone go from this page and be shitty to her. It would not be the professional thing to do.

Update: I redacted the name of the book blogger. I debated

on including her name but since I went over and found a couple of unkind comments on her blog I dropped it.

I’m certainly glad at least two people took “professionalism” into their own hands and set her straight. I do hope some other more supportive people would send her a message and be a bit more constructive. For a profession that touts the value of education, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in providing one in this case.

My Conference Ennui

Although I had planned to take a short break from the blog while ALA Annual was going on (competing attention spans and all that), there was a conversation on Twitter today that really resonated with me. The gist of the exchanged tweets was about the general discontent regarding conferences. It’s been something that has been on my mind since March when I attended PLA in Philly and CIL in Washington DC over a span of two weeks. While I really enjoyed seeing people and hanging out with people at these conferences, I was really not into the actual conference itself.

While the speakers at PLA were talking about topics submitted almost two years prior (a major flaw if you want to encourage people to attend to stay current on library issues), I found the majority of speakers at CIL to be telling me things I already knew. I had hoped that I could find out something new or different about the topic that interested me the most (eBooks) or on something related, but I didn’t come away with much. I probably should have known that I was going to have a hard time at the actual conference itself when my social schedule filled up faster (and was more rewarding) than the sessions. Given the expense involved in attending, it makes the cost/benefit analysis look rather slim. In fact, I’d say I was way more interested in the social opportunities than the work ones; where else will I get to see the people in my personal learning network? There is no better way to spend quality face-to-face time with one’s peers than at a conference.

Until today, I thought it was that I was just “over” conferences. When they were new and different, it was something exciting and fun to do. Given that I stay on top of the issues I care about the most in the library world, the lure of the conference to teach me something new was starting to fade. In establishing connects and staying current, I wasn’t going to get much out of the sessions. Sure, there’s always something I didn’t know but finding that one nugget in a forty five minute presentation is not the best use of my time.

But, like I said above, the sessions almost represent a snapshot as to when they were submitted. Granted, some speakers update their talks to reflect something new that wasn’t in their proposal, but it’s a subject that is static to the moment it is proposed whether it is six months or eighteen months before. Perhaps, I thought, I’m just not the intended audience for these sessions. Perhaps this is for my less fortunate colleagues who don’t have the time like I do to stay up to date. That sounds reasonable, right?

Later this evening, I realized it wasn’t really ‘over’ conferences, I was just doing them wrong. Within that two week time period I mentioned, I also went to a school librarian unconference entitled “Handhelds in School Libraries New Jersey” that was put together by New Jersey’s cooperative, LibraryLink. As part of the conference staff, I had a great time helping out and listening in on what issues face school librarians. While I am aware of school librarian issues in general, this was the nitty-gritty-let-me-tell-you-what-kind-of-crap-I-have-to-deal-with eye opener in how policy, politics, and administration create a competing forces tempest with “let’s make sure our kids are tech savvy for our digital future :)” fights against “OMG we can’t let them go online/use their phone/get on Facebook because it will ruin our lives and Christmas FOREVER”. I learned all kinds of new things; I was able to share what I knew.

It was pretty frikkin’ sweet.

Or maybe it is a little bit of both. I guess I’m over conferences as a means of keeping up with my general topics of interest but it’s pretty useful for learning something new about another area of the library world. But is it worthwhile to pay hundreds of dollars in hotels, travel, and registration to learn about how some of my peers get by? No. The unconference was a bargain but a possibly rarity; it may or may not happen again. If I wanted to get the conference I felt was best for me, I may need to organize the damn thing myself. That’s certainly not the best system either, but at least I would be assured as to the product.

How do you feel about conferences? Best thing, worst thing?

Calling Timeout on Library eBook Integration

Forgive me if I don’t applaud the announcement that Penguin has returned try out a library eBook lending program with the New York Public Library. I know I’m going to eat my own words since I’m someone who really wants publishers and libraries to experiment with different eBook lending models, but I can’t say that the starting point for this experiment is exactly what I had in mind. Six months embargo on new releases and titles that expire after a year? At least the price is projected close to retail for, well, I don’t know what. A Mission: Impossible style file that self destructs after it has fulfilled its purpose? I don’t see anything about the lending portion of it so I’m wondering if it is still the ‘one book one person’ model (which would be my guess) or something new and different. Granted, they are looking to monitor and modify the program every few months so things could change. But this is one of hell of a starting point to work from. To me, this deal still has the look and feel of second class citizenship for eBooks.

The timing of this announcement comes on the heels of Jamie LaRue’s piece on the Digital Shift, “All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late”. It effectively lays out the case for libraries to take command of their eBook collections for their own sake and survival. It’s a great call to action and a blueprint for some steps that are within the control of every librarian and within the boundaries of any library budget. Jamie brings the needs of the library back to the forefront rather than as a footnote on the eBooks models we are currently engaged in. As the ones with the budgets and the money to spend, it is a reminder that we are in firmly in the driver’s seat.

Set against this ALA endorsed Penguin/NYPL announcement, the deal seems to embrace the old mantra of getting eBooks into libraries by any means necessary. If you really wanted to view it as an experiment, it would appear that all the variables being tested are set by the publisher with none from the library side. The NYPL is effectively bankrolling Penguin to try out its hypotheses without taking on any risk or concession of its own to the needs of the library. I will be keen to see the kinds of corrections over time for this program, but my guess is that they will reflect a “publisher first” paradigm.

In the spirit of offering corrections of my own, I think I will modify my position when it comes to eBooks. And it sounds like this:

What’s the hurry?

As much as people breathlessly boast of an era of constant change and the need to stay current in libraries (I consider myself guilty of this as well), the enemy of objective decision making is a time pressure. Studies have shown that people tend to make worse decisions when placed under a time pressure. While these are not life-and-death split second decisions, our professional literature and commentary is rife with constant chants of “INNOVATE!”, the short attention span theater of technology updates and usage surveys, and the pearl clutching considerations of continued relevancy. It can’t help but prime our lovely primate brains to think that what we are currently doing is inadequate and in need of an IMMEDIATE response lest we fall behind, fall out of favor, and just plain fall.

Yes, eBooks are a growing market that has recently overtaken the hardcover sales numbers according to our ‘friends’ at the AAP. (Not a member of the AAP: Amazon. But they’ve already said their eBook sales have surpassed print book sales last year, even if they are referring to units sold and not revenue or providing actual numbers of this event. So who knows what the actual sales numbers look like when one of the world’s largest booksellers doesn’t give out stats.) Pew Internet back in April and Bowker back in March put eBook penetration around 20% of the United States population. (Or, to take some inspiration from Barbara Fister, around 80% of the population have not read an eBook. Other ways of saying this: 4 in 5 Americans have not read an eBook.)

Yes, these numbers are increasing each year. But I have yet to hear a serious complaint that the library should not be supported because they do not offer eBooks. It’s simply not a standard that the public library is being held to for usefulness by its communities. (I’ll concede to those people in affluent communities with higher rates of eReader ownership, but I still want to see the complaint.) One might try to counter by saying that the library cannot afford the public relations damage of looking antiquated, I would reply that the library cannot afford the larger public relations damage by looking fiscally irresponsible in a time of contested budgets by making dreadful purchases and investments.

First, buying eBooks at outrageous prices or under absurd conditions hurts the return on investment (ROI) argument that libraries have used for a long time to show their community value. Buying the $105 Game of Thrones eBook license (not even ownership, just access) is just a big fat target for budget hawks. Where is the financial responsibility in that?

Second, it is purchasing eBooks under lock-in conditions and onerous terms of service. When a vendor relationship turns sour, the library cannot simply take its investment and move it to a new eBook provider. It’s gone, baby, gone. As Jamie hinted in his writing, the conditions to allow eBook lending make it harder, not easier, for library members to access. It is a step back in a digital age that seeks to build and create faster and short connections.

So, the public library has taken taxpayer money, purchased a exorbitant license to an eBook that it cannot control nor transfer and is a pain in the ass to access for a (still) minority of the community population. This is a shiv to the respectable ROI argument that public libraries have made for years. Give us a dollar and we’ll give four back… unless we decide to buy an eBook for the library. In that case, we may need some more money. 

Getting back to center here, my new view of the library eBook landscape is that time is still on our side. Thoughtfulness of our community needs and tough analysis of financial and ownership (or lack thereof) implications should not be surrendered to the quick fix of current vendor/publisher models and offerings. We are not suffering from a lack of interest or action in looking to make this format addition to our collections, but there is a worn trail of knee jerk reactions under imaginary time pressures for the inflated need of a proven minority. Yes, eBooks are ascending  but libraries are not going out in the format shuffle. The hourglass is still mostly full, not nearly empty, when it comes integrating eBooks into our libraries. Let’s take a moment for a deep breath, gather ourselves once more, and reconsider this issue with an eye towards what it brings to our community in a sustainable manner. We owe it our own future as well as the communities that we serve.

Are We in the Midst of a Lost Generation of Librarians?

I’m working on another post right now, but there’s a question that keeps lingering in the back of my head. I can’t quite seem to resolve it so I’ll share it in the hopes that additional minds can help me out.

Are we in the midst of a lost generation of librarians?

It’s not a single thing that makes me think this, but several. It’s the common story of newly degreed librarians not being able to find positions within a short period of time after graduation. This creates a delay in terms of professional experience if new librarians are taking one to three years to find a job. So, for a profession that is generally a second career (as it was for me), it’s a double late start.

Does this lack of near immediate employment delay entry and involvement into professional organizations? I feel it does. While people are encouraged to join organizations as students, I feel that membership is the first to go if they are struggling through the job market. This generates another delay as it relates to professional involvement. Nevermind the fact that some libraries are cutting back on offsetting professional association dues, funds for conference attendance, or other professional development activities. Even then, in a place that recognizes seniority, those opportunities still may not present themselves.

Combined with the changing role and place of the library (technology! embedded! eBooks and eContent! classroom based!), it becomes a moving target in terms of skill sets. Even though the common complaint is that “my graduate school did not teach me how to do X”, there is an expectation of the skills and knowledge needed for the library at that current moment that the coursework is geared towards. While it is true that certain skills will never go out of vogue, the desire for employers to hire someone who can do the latest and best is not completely unexpected. Are these librarians going to be eventually bypassed on that basis if they can’t find a library job within five years? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

In writing this, I’m hoping to get additional ideas, thoughts, and perspectives on this question. I would be happy to be shown that we are not in the midst of a lost generation, but I don’t have the data to point to an answer in either direction. So help me out here, please.

Barnes & Noble Enters the eBook Price Fixing Fray

In case you blinked and missed it, last week Barnes & Noble filed a document with the court regarding the Department of Justice lawsuits against Apple and several major publishers. Of note:

Barnes & Noble said in its letter that the adoption of agency pricing had lowered Amazon’s share of the e-book market to 60 percent from 90 percent. Barnes & Noble claims to have 27 percent.

The retailer, which operates nearly 700 bookstores, said that before the adoption of agency pricing, it was "losing substantial money in an effort to compete with Amazon’s pricing and was unable to gain significant market share."

As to the first paragraph, this shift in market share started happening around 2010. That year is significant in that it was a few months after the first Nook was introduced and during the time when the iPad came out. Personally, I think it was the introduction of additional devices to the marketplace that brought down Amazon’s market share, not agency pricing.

I don’t know if agency pricing will save the day for publishers, but it looks like they are doubling down on it. With half settling before the case and the other half fighting tooth and nail, this sends out an ambiguous message.

The ALA/FCC/Digital Corps Debacle

In the FCC/ALA/Digital Corps debacle unfolds before my very eyes, allow me to sum up as quickly as I can before I make my points.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times wrote an article called Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era. The quote that caused a thousand tweets to sail:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

This was seen as an affront to Fran Bullington who wrote a blog post entitled, “Calling School Librarians to Action! Another Attempt to Undermine Our Jobs”. Pull quotes:

Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted in the article.  He recognizes the importance of digital literacy, but he is ill-informed. He does not know that there are already trained professionals in many schools who work, against great odds at times, to train our students and who volunteer to teach parents these skills.

[…]

Although I applaud the intent of teaching digital literacy skills to our students, I question the expenditure of these funds.  Why not instead funnel these funds into school library programs to allow trained, certified professionals to teach the skills?

Joyce Valenza reposted Fran’s post to her blog on School Library Journal. The outrage expands and people are encouraged to contact the FCC about this issue. Fran updates her blog with these developments, noting that the ALA put out a short District Dispatch reacting to the article. The dispatch outlines the ALA’s involvement with the National Broadband Plan.

Yesterday, The Digital Shift covered the article and the fallout as well as a publishing a reaction from the FCC regarding the outrage. (“Proposed ‘Digital Literacy Corps’ will not Usurp School Librarians’ Role, Explains FCC”)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a message for school librarians angered over a recent New York Times story that mentions the creation of a “digital literacy corps”: no one is trying to usurp their jobs.

“It’s not targeted at teaching kids in schools,” says Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, about the proposed $200 million federal plan for the creation of a digital literacy program. “It’s really about families and others in the community. We’re not trying to duplicate but to close the gap for others.”

Buffy Hamilton write a reaction piece to that article and posts it on her blog. (“Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?”) Two of her points revolve around why the FCC is considering the creating digital literacy trainers when there is infrastructure in place right now that could benefit from additional funding.

    • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapples with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
    • Our public librarians are also an existing [corps] of digital literacy experts. Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?

A friend on Twitter pointed out this comment to Buffy’s post:

Ann Ewbank

June 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hi Buffy,
I serve on Molly Raphael’s School Library Task Force. Last week, the task force had a discussion about this issue. Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA Washington, assured the Task Force that the office has been working on this issue for several years. She also explained that the tactics that some bloggers seem to be advocating might be damaging and unravel years of ALA’s advocacy work. In this situation I think it is wise to trust the staff at ALA Washington. (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

The plot, as they say, thickens. Bobbi Newman, a member of the ALA Digital Literacy Task Force, writes a response to Buffy as well as others in her blog post, “Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This” She takes great pains to show how the ALA has been engaged with the FCC throughout the process, that the digital literacy corps is an currently unfunded program, and that advocacy doesn’t always equal victory in the realm of politics and policy.

Ok, I think that’s everything.

***

Before I offer my comments, that same Twitter friend also pointed me towards Chapter 9.3 “Adoption and Utilization” of the National Broadband Plan. This is the section that maps out the creation of a Digital Literacy Corps as well as where libraries fit into the equation. It makes five recommendations:

  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to create a Digital Literacy Corps to conduct training and outreach in non-adopting communities.
  • Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should commit to increase the capacity of institutions that act as partners in building the digital literacy skills of people within local communities.
  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to IMLS to improve connectivity, enhance hardware and train personnel of libraries and other community-based organizations (CBOs).
  • OMB consulting with IMLS should develop guidelines to ensure that librarians and CBOs have the training they need to help patrons use next-generation e-government applications.
  • Congress should consider funding an Online Digital Literacy Portal.

(Emphasis mine.)

You really should read through it, but for the lazy, I’ll get to a few key points. First, the Digital Literacy Corps has a very open and flexible mandate; they are Americorps for digital literacy. They want to reach the poorest of the poor, the most rural, and the most isolated with the possibility of using schools as bases of operation, not as a replacement for school librarians. Hell, even the model example at the end of their passage talks about a volunteer group that works with the Chicago Public Library. There is an imagined partnership in place and it involves supplementing current library computer instruction.

Second, there is an emphasis on utilizing libraries because of their outreach to underserved communities, computer availability, and trained staff. However, they make note about the inadequacies and shortages of computers in a significant number of libraries around the country. The report goes on to discuss providing funding to bolster these technology gaps.

What is seen as a single prong effort is actually two: the creation of a digital literacy corps to go into communities that lack computer instruction classes (because there are some libraries that do not offer it) and supporting digital literacy partners (read: public libraries) with additional funding to update/purchase computers as well as provide training for staff.

With this last bit of information in mind, I have a few comments.

I feel that the omission of this part of the National Broadband Plan in the New York Times article put this whole thing into motion. It focused on the creation of the volunteer corps and left out the part about supporting libraries as part of the digital literacy initiative. I don’t think this issue would have evolved the way it did without that important piece of information. However, it painted an image of sending volunteers to schools to teach digital literacy during a time when school librarians are being cut. It is hardly a wonder why school librarians wouldn’t be upset and looking to rattle some cages.

The next misstep in this debacle comes from the ALA in failing to point out this little tidbit (the whole 9.3 section references ALA submitted material throughout, you would have thought they might have noticed their works being cited) as well as failure to effectively communicate with its members. The District Dispatch tells a fabulous story about how the ALA is working with the FCC and all the things they’ve done, but doesn’t set out why school librarians are not having their jobs usurped. To be cruel but honest, they could have pointed out that the focus of the Digital Literacy Corps is not aimed at school aged children, but adults who lack computer skills. Schools are just mentioned in passing as a possible base of operations for these volunteers to use. School libraries, the ALA could have said, are part of another advocacy agenda. In any event, there is no statement about the continued importance of school libraries and what ALA is doing for those kinds of libraries in the broad view.

Instead, there are reports of ALA reaching out to bloggers as well as statements coming from within ALA that the efforts of outraged school libraries might hurt the FCC/ALA relationship. As to the former, I’m not sure what that means nor what they are telling those people to ‘quell concerns’. The silence from both the organization and the bloggers in question has me wondering what transpired. As to the latter, I can only speculate that there wouldn’t be an outrage like this if the ALA had done a better job of reassurance to the school librarian membership as to where they fit in the organization’s advocacy agenda. Surely this would have been a better move than the “stop talking to the FCC and trust us” line that school librarians felt like they were fed.

In the end, as the movie lines goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Within this cacophony of tweets and blog posts, there is a fundamental breakdown of communication between the ALA and its membership. In emphasizing their role with the FCC, the ALA did not address the basic worries of the school librarian membership and assure them of their place in the overall advocacy agenda. No one wants to hear how awesome the organization is when they aren’t sure where they stand in it. A statement of clarification is sorely needed here to bring things back into focus.

To be fair, I think some school librarians jumped the gun by emailing the head of the FCC over their comments. It’s a knee jerk reaction to an unfortunate article over an issue that is important enough to warrant some further research or inquiries to state associations and/or the ALA. It was the “’Get her!’ That was your whole plan, huh, ‘get her.’” play when you really need to line up something a bit more substantial when going after a federal regulatory body. This is not to say that school librarians should step aside and let the ALA handle it; they should be pressuring the association for results under the scrutiny level of “HURRY UP” and “NOW”.  It’s when you feel that the larger organization with the lobbyists and Washington presence didn’t do enough; that’s when you charge once more into the breech and take the campaign to the people.

I have a feeling this should make for an interesting annual conference coming up. I will be interested to see how the situation proceeds from here.

UPDATE: One other point I forgot to mention in writing this in the wee hours of last night is that the librarian unemployment glut could be eased or solved by hiring those unemployed librarians as part of the Digital Literacy Corps. If ALA wanted to push any angle with the FCC, it should be that one.

2012 Salem Press Librarian Blog Awards: Rock the Vote

On Friday, I found out that this blog was named as a finalist for Best “Independent Blog: Public” in the 2012 Salem Press Library Blog Awards. If you nominated this blog for an award, I’m flattered and grateful for your show of support; I’m also honored and pleasantly surprised to be named as a finalist. As should be noted, this is not my first brush with these awards. I was awarded first place in the Public Library category in their inaugural year (2010) and was one of the judges last year. Looking at the other finalists in “Independent Blog: Public” category, I’m in the running with excellent bloggers and some of whom I’m lucky enough to call friend. I look forward to the results!

I’d like to ask you the reader to do me a favor: take a moment and vote. While I would certainly love to have your vote (and kindly thank you if I do), I want to make a brief case for the benefit of voting for these awards. There really isn’t anything else like it in the library world; neither the ALA nor most of our state associations nor other professional librarian associations provide awards on this scale for librarian bloggers. (The closest is the Edublog awards, but libraries and librarians are not the primary focus of the awards. The Texas Association of School Librarians has an award for blogging.) It sends a message of confidence into the librarian blogging community that what these individuals are doing is worthy of praise and attention. At the same time, the blog awards and directory introduces people to blogs that they might not have heard of or considered as part of the personal professional development network. These awards might not be of the stature of the accolades that are more broadly associated with the librarian field, but in a profession where moments of recognition can be few and far between (and sometimes looked down upon) I think it’s a “job well done” statement that doesn’t always happen in the comments or feedback.

In a final appeal as to why voting matters in this case, I’ll say this:

Vote to reward good writing on library topics and the issues that matter to librarians. Vote to support bloggers that make you think or ignite your passion or imagination. Vote to encourage people who seek out, aggregate, organize, and share the library news, stories, links, and opinion. Vote to bolster the people who do this as a labor of love for their profession and its lovely yet complicated principles and ideals. Vote and send a message that the people whose blogs you read on the finalists lists are ones worthy of your time and consideration.

The polls close on Sunday June 17th. Thanks for taking the time to vote!

How Oprah Might Help Out Libraries When It Comes To eBooks (Maybe)

Back on June 1st, Oprah Winfrey announced the resumption of her book club as a video on her Facebook page. Like many of my fellow librarians that day, I watched the video with an eye out towards the possible impact on public libraries; specifically, what the first title would be and what Oprah would tell people on how to get the book. Partial transcript:

So here’s how to get Wild. Now, of course, I still believe in books. And you can go to any bookstore and you can buy the book like always. Or you can buy one of the special digital editions of Wild that have been created just for us. […] And best of all, you can buy one for any eReader: for Nook, for Kindle, for iPad.  Any reader you got. […]

So get Wild in whatever form makes your heart happy. I actually have the book and the eReader. The actual book or digital edition, whatever suits you, and let’s start talking about it.

The obvious omission to the librarian crowd is there is no mention of borrowing the book from the public library. If Oprah is going to list all the ways to get the book, why not just throw in a line about heading over to the library, right? Given the track record for libraries purchasing Oprah’s previous selections, I don’t think there is a public library in North America that doesn’t have a book with that seal on it. It is inevitable that with this new incarnation of the book club we will see demand for these titles go up; it’s fair to say that public libraries will have them regardless of whether or not Oprah mentions borrowing them.

To me, the lack of acknowledgement is an unfortunate oversight; it’s not like there is anyone who is unaware that libraries lend books. My faith lies with the belief that people will make this kind of connection in their head and then come on by without prompting.

In looking through the Book Club 2.0 website, I was browsing through the different sections when I came across a particular question in their FAQ. It’s what got me thinking:

Q: Where can I find Wild: Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 Digital Edition?
A: You can find the Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 special digital edition of Wild everywhere ebooks are available—whether you download from Amazon or Sony, your neighborhood bookseller, BN.com, the iBookstore, Kobo or even your local library. (Emphasis mine.)

As the physical edition of the book is not in dispute between libraries and publishers, I had been wondering about how the digital edition was going to be handled. It is certain that someone would ask for the special digital edition and it is nice to know that this is being made available to libraries. (I can only presume that this is true since I don’t have access to eBook vendor catalogs; I’ll leave it to others to tell me if this is correct or not.) I’m sure there be some light consternation about people getting the “regular” eBook versus the “special” eBook for both librarians and members alike, but that sounds like par for the course when it comes to titles with different editions.

I also wonder about the special edition eBook price and if there will be a difference between the “regular” and “special” versions. I looked up Wild’s publisher and saw that it was Random House Digital (the 300%-price-increase- to-library-eBooks people, not the limited-26-library-checkouts-then-buy-a-new-one people, for those just tuning in to the library eBook debacle). I certainly hope not but it remains to be seen whether the “added value” of Oprah’s notes will add on to the bottom line of the price.

However, it was the discovery of Wild’s publisher that brought up a much more pertinent question in this whole deal as it relates to libraries: what happens when Oprah picks a book that is from one of the Big Six publishers but is not from Random House or HarperCollins? In the case of a book choice from Hachette, MacMillan, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster (all of the publishers that do not allow library eBook lending), what happens to libraries and the digital edition? Without a doubt, these publishers would love to get their book onto the Book Club 2.0 list. It’s a powerful Oprah-style publicity ride for their author and the book, capable of pushing books up the sales list as well as cementing an author onto the scene. It’s a prize to be won, for certain, since the rewards are quite lavish. It’s a no-brainer to say that the Oprah special digital edition will not be available for libraries if it is one of the four publishers mentioned.

When it comes to pass (and I will bet dollars to donuts that it will) that Oprah picks a book from a publisher that won’t allow library eBook lending, what will we do? We will have an excellent teachable moment and we can’t squander it.

From organizations like Library Renewal to the ALA down to the every single public library service desk, this will be a spotlight moment to educate the public as to what is going on with libraries, eBooks, and publishers. This will be a moment to highlight that library lending leads to retail sales. This will be a moment to outline the issues around eBook licensing, ownership, DRM, copyright, the statements that publishers have made about library eBook lending, and what it means to the end user. This could very well be a fruitful moment as the eyes of a very large reading group (the members of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0) are on a particular title with a desire to borrow it in a digital format. Librarians can’t afford to miss out on this chance!

Get your handouts and elevator speeches ready, your eBook information updated, and be patient. Oprah may in fact give public libraries an excellent opportunity to reach out further into our communities and bring the library eBook issue to the people. We can’t miss it.

Enjoy the $ilence

I just read Francine Fialkoff’s editorial “NYPL Secrecy Must Go” which is a reaction piece to the New York Times article, “Former Employees Feel Silenced on Library Project”. The whole thing reads like a muddied mess for it seems like anyone it touches gets a little dirty. It originates from the NYPL including a nondisparagement clause in their separation agreements; the library offers additional money in return for the person agreeing not to criticize the library. Or, from the copy quoted in the New York Time piece,

The clause in question prohibits employees from commenting to the news media or other entities with which the library does business in a way that could “adversely affect in any manner the conduct of the business of any of the library entities (including, without limitation, any business plans or prospects)” or “the business reputation of the library entities,” according to a copy of the separation agreement obtained by The New York Times.

Even within that little blurb, there is enough language to suggest that it has been crafted as broadly as possible in lawyer talk to cover a multitude of situations, real or imagined. Not that I blame the NYPL for trying telling their lawyers to draw up something that could be wielded against dissenters at a moment’s notice; they certainly are working to protect their own interests, not the interests of the departing employee. The article goes on to contain a clarification from the library:

The library said in a statement: “The clause is in place to protect library employees and library management. It is not intended to stop a former employee from exercising his or her right to free speech by discussing matters of public interest, such as expressing an opinion on the advantages and/or disadvantages of the Central Library Plan.”

Several former employees and employment lawyers, though, said the nuance was lost on them.

Nor is the nuance lost on anyone else who read that aforementioned clause. Written as generously as it appears to be, it is the kind of legalese that the library lawyers can shape into breach of contract suits with those who displease the library management by “commenting”. The former employees would be at risk to lose more than their severance payments in legal fees and penalties, even with a successful defense. The implication of that outcome is enough to keep people sitting on the sidelines and I can’t blame them for doing so.

To be honest, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for those who chose to sign the agreements. They are, in effect, being paid for their silence. Their opinions have a defined monetary value and the library has chosen to purchase it. Now, at a juncture when the library is touting a controversial project, that purchase is paying off in limiting critical analysis from former employees who have insider perspectives. No one was compelled to sign it and take the money. As much as people can say that is “hush money” or used to squash dissent, there is a willing accomplice to this act in the employee who will sign the agreement. I’m curious as to why none of the scrutiny has been on the employees for taking the money rather than solely on the library for offering it. I’m also curious as to why the taxpayers of New York City seem to be alright with spending money on such things in the midst of the annual city budget fight. The expense of paying departing employees for their silence when that money could be used for, oh, a couple hundred other things that library members actually use seems wasteful and narcissistic.

The part that bothers me the most in this whole debacle is a comment from the ALA president-elect Maureen Sullivan.

Maureen Sullivan, the president-elect of the American Library Association, a national organization, said she had no problem with the New York library’s use of nondisparagement agreements. “It is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries to respect intellectual freedom,” Ms. Sullivan said, “but this is a different situation.” Such agreements, she said, typically do not seek to restrict a departing worker’s ability to comment generally about a former employer but are “an agreement about what will be said about the end of that employment.”

Ms. Sullivan said that organizations commonly use them, though at least two large library systems — those of Los Angeles County and Boston — said they did not.

First off, the clause as reported above does not limit itself to end-of-employment commentary. Perhaps typically they do not restrict speech so broadly, but in this specific case, they really do curb the departing worker’s ability to comment on their former employer. Granted, as I said before, the departing employees are getting money in exchange for agreeing to do so. But Maureen’s comment does not line up with the reality of the situation which makes me wonder why she agreed to comment at all without actual knowledge of the nondisparagement clause. It just really sounds bad.

Second, I can’t get past the underlying implications of the Maureen’s quote: “It is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries to respect intellectual freedom but this is a different situation.” Translation: intellectual freedom is important, but it is also a viable commodity for sale (even if Maureen mistakenly believes that is it just about the end-of-employment). No one’s intellectual freedom is being oppressed, it’s just being contractually exchanged for a severance payout. That’s totally different! So, in applying that logic, if the freedom to read is an important librarian value and I just happen to pay each man, woman, and child in a particular library service area to agree not to read a book that I don’t like, have I really abridged their freedom to read whatever they want since I have monetarily compensated them for it in regard to one book? When asked for comment by the media, I could simply say, “The freedom to read is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries respect the freedom to read, but this is a different situation.” I’m not oppressing anyone, I’m just purchasing a tiny bit of their freedom to read. Sure, I’m being hyperbolic here, but it really does beg the question as to what conditions (especially contractual ones) make it acceptable to give up our core values of librarianship. Does everything have a price?

The ALA adopted Universal Right to Free Expression says that freedom of opinion and expression “cannot be surrendered, nor can it be denied”, but bartered or bought seem to be alright. I don’t know how Maureen’s comment in this story matches up with other ALA adopted positions such as the Resolution on Workplace Speech or Questions and Answers on Speech in the Workplace from the Intellectual Freedom Manual which opens up with this little humdinger:

Since librarians have a special responsibility to protect intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, do librarians have a special responsibility to create a workplace that tolerates employee expression more than other professions?

Yes. Libraries play a special role in ensuring the free flow of information in a democratic society. Librarians are often called on to fight censorship and resist efforts to restrict individuals from receiving information and expressing ideas.

(Emphasis mine.)

Unless, of course, it is a different situation. Here, the efforts to restrict individuals from expressing ideas are alright because there is a quid pro quo. And now the president-elect of the ALA has come along and endorsed it. All we need now is a Council resolution that says that the Library Bill of Rights are not so much rules as they are guidelines (like the Pirate Code). Then, the undermining of core librarian values (which apply universally except at times when they don’t) will be complete. Did I miss anything?

I look forward to your comments. Don’t worry, there is no disparagement agreement in place for whatever you have to say.

That would be just plain wrong.