Three Library Predictions for 2012

After covering the lessons learned in 2011, I want to look ahead to 2012. In considering current trends and trying to read the library tea leaves, I opted for just a few predictions for the upcoming year. In addition, I’ve rated them in the likelihood they are to occur.

#1: Here Come The Embargoes!

Publishers and other content creators are looking for ways to push people towards their revenue streams (namely, to buy the book or movie). In their estimations, the only way to do this is to have later release dates for books and movies for libraries. Penguin Group has removed its newest content from the digital library shelves (with the idea of adding them back in at a later date) and Warner Brothers is delaying releases to libraries for four weeks. Given the relatively minor ripples of reaction to these moves compared to the HarperCollin’s limited 26 checkouts shitstorm, my hunch is that publishers will move towards holding back digital editions for a few weeks in order to (in their thinking) push people towards buying the book. None of the Big Six publishers have pursued a limited checkouts idea and that move is coming up on its one year anniversary. But, in holding back content for a few weeks, it will skirt the issue. Sure, libraries will get it a little later than everyone else, but they’ll still get it.

(Of course, far be it from me to point out that one of the things that really moves sales is a quality product (when it comes to movies) or getting people to talk about authors and their latest releases (when it comes to books). I guess we can use our free marketing and shelf space for other things.)

Likeihood: 80%

#2: A Shift to Community over Collection

While some of this is based on content being under siege from the previous prediction, I feel that it will be an impetus to revamp the form and function of the library. While it will not be the bookless library of the Cushing Academy, the shift of a physical reference collection to digital combined, the expansion of digital collections (think backlist), and pressures to demonstrate greater value to the community will take the libraries being constructed now and those being renovated to eliminate shelf space in favor of other space use. Digital creation labs, community use rooms, or even just an expansion of seating and reading areas are just a few ways that the library will be finding new uses for their current spaces.

To repeat myself, I don’t think libraries will be eliminating the physical collection. I do believe that the expansion of ereaders (one in six people and growing) compared with already existing space considerations will put less physical objects on our shelves. In doing so, it will means that there will be more space for other activities and purposes.

Likelihood: 50%

#3: Overdrive gets competition

I’m mildly shocked that they didn’t get direct competition last year, but I think this year could see a viable competitor to Overdrive. Although, given the beating Overdrive took with the HarperCollins business and Amazon just about eating their lunch when it came to the Kindle lending program, I’m not too sure how eager anyone would want to be to step into the ring. However, if they can provide greater assurances for content security to the Big Six than Overdrive, than it eat Overdrive alive.

This is, of course, if publishers don’t withdraw into their intellectual property fortresses and stop library lending altogether.

Likelihood: 25%

In looking in my crystal ball this year, I didn’t have anything that really stood out. I think some things will stay the same (library association members running for office will offer platitudes how awesome libraries are and how they’d love to be their president without contrasting themselves with their opponents, people complaining about ALA and lack of jobs, and a whole lot of time will be wasted in committees, workgroups, and task forces while social politics trumps their efforts). It’s this lack of other trends that makes for few predictions when composing a list for this year.

In taking a quick look as to how I did last year, I made seven predictions. I’d say I got one right (there are more paywalls to content. Thanks NYT!) and the rest were just “I’m sure it sounded good at the time, but what the hell was I thinking?” Otherwise, I recall something I read earlier last year about how predictions of pundits tend to be worse than average. It seems their ideology tends to get in the way. In keeping this in mind, I’m going to get out of the way.

Any predictions you’d like to share for 2012?

Librarians Online Poll Results

Back at the end of August, I put together a poll asking librarians about their online activities. I stopped collecting data at the end of September and then completely forgot about it. So, in the category of “better late than never”, I’m going to share to the basic results here and make the resulting data available to anyone who wants it. (And here they are in different formats for download: Excel, Open Office, PDF, and the Original Google Document Spreadsheet.)

Here’s some basic visualizations from Google Documents.

Here are the results of 1,383 replies.

age

duration

 

type

websites

If you do happen to use the data, please let me know so I can see what your analysis yields.

The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about eBooks on the basis of the latest library eBook fiasco with Penguin Publishing. The more I think about it, the larger the enormity and complexity of the eBook issue grows. The word that keeps resonating in my head is ‘disappointment’, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When it comes to eBooks and publishers, I have to be quite frank: I really don’t give a shit whether they lend eBooks to libraries or not. I will come out and say that I prefer that they wouldn’t allow for library eBook lending simply because it will spare the profession the aches and pains of buying, pardon me, licensing content under terms that provide a very limited benefit to the library or the community served. I get it that licensing is the only way publishers feel comfortable with the arrangement since it ensures ultimate control over content. With an industry that is in flux, publishers want to protect their revenue streams and that the current leading strategy is to building a fortress around intellectual property. Even then, that’s not what bothers me about publishers and eBooks.

What irks me is when publishers continue to use language in their publicity and marketing about how they “value” or even “love” libraries. If this is how they treat an institution that they profess to value or love, then I think they need to check their working definitions of those terms. The love here sounds like the tactics of an unstable ex-flame who wants to get us into bed but won’t respect us in the morning. I can’t say that I speak for the majority of librarians, but I’m willing to guess that they don’t feel like a partner in this eBook issue nor do they feel valued or loved by the publishing companies. At best, this arrangement could be called shabby treatment; at worst it is marketing lip service to cover the veneer of contempt for librarian values that utilize the First Sale Doctrine and believe in the sharing version of the common good. I would call upon publishing companies to stop with these platitudes and start putting actions and policies that support these statement of support for the library as an institution.

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

It’s not like we can actually do anything about these policy changes or stances, either. Not because the publishing companies will resist our efforts, but that our own internal professional dysfunction will ensure that any action is mired with doubt and confusion. Suggest a boycott? Bring on the parade of people proclaiming how much it will hurt our communities. This swallow-our-pain-for-the-happiness-of-our-family bunch will bog down any boycott debates with references to the apparently inflexible librarian values such as access and availability (even if it means giving away our future). Those not on the parade will state how ineffective or misdirected a boycott is, as if the idea of showing power through economic embargoes is only for third world countries with crappy dictators. Start a petition? The ineffective/misdirected argument returns with a new spin as to not reaching the right people. In addition, the “I have trouble with the wording” people will arise from their linguistic crypts to suggest how the petition could be better (translation: for them to sign it) if there were a few major minor changes made.

Create a committee, task force, or delegation? We all know that the trouble with groups is that they are full of people and for librarians there will be grand discussions as to who should be on them with proper representation of every library type, variety, and size under the sun. Enter the pundits and blogosphere to provide the commentary as to this process, its results, and its goals. Nothing appears to get done but resume building, organization clout creation, and a reason to write a book on the topic. Walk away completely? Sure, it’s a bad deal but that’s nothing compared to the “bad librarian” guilt that is created whenever a item or service isn’t offered. We want Mrs. Smith to be able to download a book onto their Kindle (a transitional technology platform, by the way) even if it at the potential cost and risk of the library as an institution. Because our instant gratification culture has taught us that the important point in time is now, not ten or twenty years from now when licensing practices will have eroded away our ideals of culture cultivation and preservation. No, we’ll sail for the center of this storm, even if it costs us the ship.

I could go on, but I’m starting to take morbid delight in detailing these things.

In looking ahead, there has to be a number of get-your-shit-together moments. From publishers, it will have to be over how much risk they can accept when it comes to their digital properties. Until then, we will be at the mercy of their whims. For librarians, it will be about the actual cost of access and availability of eBooks. We can’t trade our dollars and principles for materials that do not match our institutional values. There will be some more dustups, more drama, and more blowups between publishers and librarians. I know we’ll get through it, but I’m not optimistic about how that might look in five or ten years from now. In the meantime, I just ready myself to be disappointed. 

Thoughts on the Destruction of the Library Universe (or something like that)

Recently, there were two articles that got my attention and gave me all those warm science geek feelings on the inside that I get when I hear something extraordinary. The first was a report I heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday which raises the possibility that the laws of physics are not the same all over the universe. Specifically, that the strength of electromagnetism (the force that holds molecules together and a mathematical constant here on Earth) is found to be stronger or weaker in different parts of the universe. This means that life as we know it could never happen elsewhere because the bonds would never form or never break. In essence, the constants of the laws of physics may not be constant at all beyond our own tiny corner of the universe.

If the first story I mentioned was about bending the rules of physics, this one would be breaking them. The second article is about a set of experiments in which neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Considering that “[t]he idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity”, this would be some very big news indeed. While this is a long ways from being widely accepted within the scientific community, the mere notion creates wonder at what it means for the technology possibilities of the future. This is an exciting time to be alive.

In reflecting on these discoveries as it relates to the library world, the profession has certainly set forth a variety of constants (or standards or rules, whichever term you prefer). There are prevailing and controlling notions of what a library should offer its communities, how it should organize its materials, and what kinds of skills are required for the next generation of librarians. I can’t help but imagine that similar circumstances to the two scientific findings are present in the library world; that the things we like to think of as constants apply differently depending on the location and context or even go beyond the constraints that we believe exist.

Think about the constants (or some of the new constants) of the library and I want you to think about them in the context of your library. Do you really need a reference desk? Do you need to use AACR2 for cataloging? Can you measure your “output” on more than circulation, computer use, and attendance? Do you actually need a social media presence? Could you divert money away from the collection in favor of programming and services? Do you need more shelves and materials storage or couches, chairs, and benches? 

Even in limiting the scope of answers to just public libraries, I have a feeling that if you were to plot the answers there wouldn’t be a overarching consensus. Furthermore, I think it would show how absolutely fantastically diverse the public library community is (and I would daresay the same would prove true for other library types.) I contend that the constants we like to teach to the upcoming generation of librarians are actually highly contextual, remarkably situational, and possibly dangerously fixed. A lack of creativity will not kill off the profession as quickly as a lack of acknowledgement of the inherent flexibility within each library. No two libraries are truly the same, yet we try our damnedest to standardize and homogenize them through our approaches to collections, services, and design. Why is that?

I’m certain that I’ll get some pushback on this post in terms of people pointing to examples of libraries bucking or discarding something that is seen as a perfectly acceptable constant. I’m certain they exist and I applaud their efforts, but I still feel that the majority of libraries are woefully fixed to certain professional constants that may not be relevant, useful, or even pertinent. I’m looking forward to a deeper discussion in the comments.

“For the Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man”

In catching up with my Google Reader post vacation, I came across a blog post by David Lankes that caught my attention. To be honest, it’s the title that grabbed my attention first (“A rose by any other name…”) While most people associate this blurb with The Bard right away, for myself it reminds me of my first career in horticulture. Specifically, the enormous pain in the ass that goes into growing roses in six months to get them ready for spring shipping. Between bugs, blackspot, and everything else these fragile plants manage to infect or infest themselves with, it’s a time spent applying all manner of chemicals while ensuring that they are properly watered and warm in the middle of winter. Just imagine getting dressed up to shovel snow and then go gardening instead; it’s not really a close analogy, but it should convey the feeling.

I don’t hate roses based on these experiences; they are still a quite beautiful plant and flower. However, let’s just say that when it comes to giving flowers to someone, I tend to skip over anything with roses in it. (And that’s before the exorbitant markup, but I’ll digress now.)

The gist of the Lankes post is about the use of title “librarian” and how to make library science graduates attractive to businesses. One view from the Syracuse iSchool advisory board was to drop the title completely on the basis that there is an immediate association to the building (specifically the public library building) and that was hurting the marketability of graduates. He goes on to mention the debate within AASL circles within the last few years as to changing the title from ‘school media specialist’ back to ‘school librarian’. It’s a great thoughtful post about what it means to have the librarian title and considers whether it is worthwhile to carry that designation forward.

For myself, I think librarians have the same sort of branding and perception issues that are found with Coca-Cola. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t come up with some idea of what a librarian does; Coca-Cola is one of the most internationally recognized companies in the word. Like Coke, in some areas of the world (ok, basically the American south) it has become a synonym for all types of carbonated beverages; this is similar to how the average library user will refer to anyone who works at a library as a librarian. I’d stretch and say that there are uncommon jobs for both Coca-Cola and librarians (there are lots of things to collect and catalog in this world, my friends), but I think that might be straying.

Personally, I believe keeping the title librarian is important to the profession. It represents a strong basic bond between items that are collected, cataloged, and otherwise managed and a community to which such data and information organization is vital for their continued success and survival. It is about emphasizing these kinds of connections and how the human elements makes the difference. The association with the word ‘library’ is not a liability, but an asset; librarians manage access to the world’s information so imagine what they can do for you and your little corner of the business realm. It’s a bold customizable world where everyone can have their own special library for what matters to them. That’s the sentiment I’d want to tap into.

If that fails, at least we could consider calling ourselves standup philosophers.

Amazon, Overdrive, and Other Reasons to Be Pissed

Amazon and Overdrive are back in the online librarian conversation (again), this time lead off by a video rant by Sarah Houghton along with posts by David Lee King and the Annoyed Librarian. (There was a post by Bobbi Newman on the topic about a month ago when it first came out as well as my own take.) It’s being described by such terms like screwing, sucking, and other terms to make some conservative filtering software blush.

I still don’t understand the outrage completely. Databases for years have diverted users to outside sites where they would have to purchase the article. Where is the outrage for that practice? How is a book talk or a book club or even a story time not a basic endorsement for a particular book? Or an author talk where we invite authors in and allow them to sell their book on the premises? While I will concede the former does not have an overt endorsement to purchase, it’s still a viable option for the patron and something passively encouraged by the latter. In general, presenters are allowed to pass out advertisements or even sell their wares at programs, even some that we are paying for them to do. While we’d like to pretend it is a neutral arrangement, there is no denying that librarians engage in commercial endorsement even if they don’t mean it.

Why are some arrangements considered to be good and others are considered bad?

While that question simmers in the back of your mind, I think there is a better question to be asking about the Overdrive-Amazon arrangement. According to Sarah’s video, Amazon sends people an email reminder three days before a book is due to be returned and the due date. In order to send this notice, they would need to know what library material the person is borrowing (the Kindle book), that the person is a library patron at a library which has purchased material (authentication through Overdrive), and the due date of the library material in question. To me, this raises a significant question:

Could the information that Amazon possesses about a library patron who borrows books on their Kindle from the library through Overdrive meet the legal definition of a library record?

In New Jersey, Title 18A:73-43 defines and provides for the confidentiality of library records. (Your state may have different definitions and statutes regarding this topic. I’m not a lawyer so treat my interpretations as a layman.)

18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined 
    For the purposes of this act:
   a.   "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
   b.   "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 1, eff. May 31, 1985.

18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions 
    Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
   a.   The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
   b.   Disclosure is requested by the user; or
   c.   Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.

(Emphasis mine)

At first glance, I think there is a good argument that the information that Amazon has is in fact a library record and therefore subject to statutory confidentiality requirements (at least within the state of New Jersey). It is a record maintained for the control of circulation of library materials; in this case, the license of an eBook for use on the Kindle. While the counterargument is that invokes the first exception regarding disclosing a record as necessary for the proper operation of the library (that there needs to be authentication that a patron is a member of a library that has purchased eBook licenses for Kindle books from Overdrive), I would answer that the proper operation of a library does not include an overt offer to allow a patron to purchase library materials upon the approach and arrival of their due dates. That the very commercial nature of the solicitation (in the disguise of a library notice, no less) represents a misuse of library records and the personally identifying details contained within. I’m not sure of the extent that this would remedy to current practices, but I’d say it would knock off the “would you like to buy the book?” announcements in short order.

There is a better counterargument is that the eBook license does not allow for the establishment of the material in question to be library material in any form; basically, it is and never will be library material. I’m not familiar with the terms of the eBook licensing to guess at the strength of this argument, only to guess that it exists. If that is the case, then what are libraries buying anyway? This position only reinforces the impermanence of eBooks as part of the collection and further erodes the future collection and cultivation value of eBook materials. And as I have said before, if you really don’t like the deal, don’t buy it. (Kindle books through Overdrive, eBooks in general, or whatever it is that doesn’t look like a good deal.)

Personally, I think this is a question that should be subject to further examination by those law talking folks known as lawyers. Your next move shouldn’t be to call Overdrive or Amazon to express your outrage; it should be to your State Librarian or State Library to have your state Attorney Generals check into the possibility of library records being breached. While we can only warn people about the ramifications of their actions when it comes to privacy and let them make their own choices, we can maintain our end of the bargain when it comes to their library records.

I certainly hope someone looks into this.

Retire the Phrase “Doing More With Less”

I know there have been other previous takedowns of the oft repeated phrase “doing more with less” within library circles, but I think I’ve finally hit my own limit. The tipping point came while I was reading this wonderful little blog post “The Hidden Suffering of ‘Good Librarian Syndrome’” when I actually started thinking about the phrase. It’s been a mantra that has been mindlessly and mistakenly uttered in talking about library and budget cuts, but I don’t think anyone has considered the actual implications of what it actually means.

Let’s consider for a moment an hypothetical example of ‘doing more with less’. Imagine you had a pizza (an excellent food choice stand-in for money and budgets) that was cut into eight equal slices in order to feed eight people. Now, because belt tightening, four of those slices were taken away. So, what are your options? You could feed four of the eight people (“doing less with less”); cut those four slices in half so as to feed all eight (“doing the same with less”); or you could cut those remaining pieces twice into twelve sliver pieces so as to feed eight plus another four people (“doing more with less”). In my mind, that last option is the simplest example I can think of in which the end result adheres with the conditions contained within the phrase “doing more with less”. In that situation, it really begs the question as to what those remaining slices look like and if anyone eating them actually feels like they are getting a proper meal.

At one glance, it sounds like our own feeding the multitude moment where librarians are able to provide more (more what? more of everything!) with the resources that we have been allotted. It’s like being MacGyver, except instead of turning a tent into a hang glider we say we can make it into a jet. Budgets are down, but programs and services (and whatever you can think of) are up! All because the community needs us and, as our respective deities/the universe as our witness, we are going to be there to provide.

Provide what? More! With what? Less. Makes sense, right?

From this arises a series of questions that is generates: if you can do more with less, how much less do you need to maintain what you have now? And what were you doing with the “more” you had before? What would a budget restoration mean under this “doing more with less” concept?

Unless someone can unequivocally demonstrate how “doing more with less” is a good thing (which I doubt highly), I think librarians should drop the phrase from their lexicon forever. It does nothing but cover up the real hurt of what budget cuts mean for our communities; because less is less and spinning it into some kind of positive helps no one.

Let’s not kid ourselves anymore on this one.

(h/t: Laura Botts for sharing the blog post on FriendFeed)