Five Laws of Library Science (ebook edition)

On the heels of my post about ebooks and the library, I had a thought about the Five Laws of Library Science by Dr. S.R. Ranganathan. If I might be so bold, I’d like to suggest a ebook version to the Five Laws. So, here it goes.

1. Ebooks are for use.

People want to borrow ebooks; libraries want to lend ebooks . Stephen Abram’s latest blog post points out the current prevalence of ebook lending in libraries and their popularity. Ebooks are a viable lending material for libraries and a commodity that libraries should be adding to their collection (barring patron research that indicates otherwise).

2. Every reader his or her ebook.

At present, ebooks are subject to the whims of multiple interested parties. Libraries should be working towards lifting restrictions or limitations on access to content, be they coming from the publisher, author, copyright, or otherwise. In addition, we should be looking to securing ebook versions that are accessible to the hearing and sight impaired.

3. Every book, any ereader.

The ideal would be that any ereader would have the capability of reading any ebook regardless of the origin. While this is true with some devices currently on the market (such as the iPad), at present a person cannot pick up a Kindle can receive content from anywhere but the Amazon store. As libraries move forward, it should be advocating for ebook availability on any ereader device.

4. Save the time of the ereader patron.

At present, the average process for borrowing an ebook is an arduous task. There are many screens to click through, multiple boxes to enter patron information, and then (eventually) the task of downloading material (and possibly transferring it to another device). The platform for borrowing ebooks needs to be more in line with the interface of iTunes or Amazon: enter your library card number, browse the titles, select the titles that you want to borrow, and then an automated checkout.

5. The library is an evolving organism.

With the evolution of the library, there will be some things that work very well; those will be universally adopted. However, like species evolution, there will be a lot of things that don’t work: this is the process of trial-and-error at work. And, like most science experimentation, it will not be a clean process. In fact, I would say it will be fraught with failures, doubts, arguments over intent and theory, and all of the other joys that taking steps into a greater information future will entail. In the end, libraries will get to where they need to be in terms of lending ebooks.

In keeping these revised laws in mind, I hope this captures the spirit of the shared future of ebooks and libraries. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this revision or alternative laws or wordings.


Photo by orangeacid [CC]

A new piece of legislation, the Deleting Online Predators Act (or DOPA), is working its way through Congress right now. This bill would require schools and libraries receiving federal money for internet access to create additional filters to prevent minors from reaching any commercial website that allows for the creation of a public web page or profile and offers a discussion board, chat room, or e-mail service. This would include all free email providers (Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail), a broad range of social websites (Facebook, Myspace, Orkut, Livejournal,, WordPress, Friendfeed), and gaming sites (Yahoo! Games, World of Warcraft, XBox360 live). By the most expansive reading, this act could be extended to cover such sites as the New York Times and CNet (discussion areas under their news stories), (discussion boards), any site using Disqus for comment registration, and Sesame Street. (Yes, Sesame Street.) It will be an expansion of CIPA, adding another layer of filtering to the cat-and-mouse game that librarians already play with minors wanting to access unfiltered content.

The first thought that came to my mind was, “What is the lesson that this will teach our children?” To me, it is that the mere potential for danger is enough proof positive to legislate a complete restriction. It does the upcoming generations no service to neglect teaching them how to avoid online predators in all their forms, from pedophiles to phishers to Nigerian princes looking for your help to move their money out of the country. It is akin to preventing children from ever riding in an automobile due to the potential risk of accident, then expecting them to know how drive responsibly once they reach the legal age. The act is extraordinarily short sighted, advocating the so-called ‘security gains’ over the complete stunting of the beneficial social and educational aspects that can come from exploration and debate.

At its most basic level, it is inserting the government in place of the parent making decisions on behalf of the child. Legislation has never been a good replacement for education. As it makes its way through committees, I’ll be keeping watchful for it (and I encourage you to do the same).

Read the legislation here.

Edit: So, this is a piece of dead legislation that someone tweeted as being current. And while I saw that the bill was dated 2006, my brain thought, “Wow, they’ve been trying to push this through for awhile” instead of “Wait, how old is this post?” So, I made a mistake. Mea culpa! But for the sake of fun, let’s imagine this is the post I would have made four years ago. =P Yes, it’s a hot tub time machine…. post.

How eBooks are making people stupid (and not in the way you are thinking)

ebook_for_dummies__10414[1] To be clear, I’m not talking about the ebooks themselves; they are a perfectly fine media format. But the continuous need for comparison of the two formats (electronic versus physical) is just plain stupid. Perhaps, as both an emerging market and medium, people feel the need to make this examination constantly. However, it’s often a misrepresentation: it is the capabilities of the ereader device being compared to the physical book, not the ebook itself. Ebooks, like physical books, do not have a great range of functionality or features in and of themselves. It’s the hype, the fear, and the uncertainty about how ebooks will change libraries that is leading some pretty smart people to make some pretty dumb statements. Where is this notion of a threat to libraries coming from?

Some perspective is in order concerning the hype: Amazon has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that has artificially held down prices on ebooks and has gotten in fights with publishers over the raising the price on ebooks, has reported that they sell more ebooks than hardcover books. Amazon, the company that has set the price of ebook editions for the Kindle at roughly one third of the price of a hardcover, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that introduced the first popular ereader (and seek to support their portion of the market through reduced prices for ebooks for this device) that continues to dominate the ereader market share, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books last year.

I’m not sure how many other ways I can say it; if you price something drastically cheaper (three ebooks are roughly the cost equivalent of one physical hardcover book) and you have the largest market share, you are going to sell more ebooks no matter what. Shocked, I am not.

As to the fear, there are some misguided basic presumptions being made: that all future ereaders will be completely proprietary and loyal to one provider, DRM will never change (or will only change for the worse, meaning more restrictive), and that libraries will never EVER have a seat at the ebook table. The first assertion has been proven false already by the emergence of applications that allow for the purchasing of content from other ebook sources. It is not too far fetched to predict that as time progresses all ereader devices will be able to access any ebook content provider. The second assertion that DRM will never change or change for the worse is a harder case to make, but the movements of the litigation regarding copyright give me the feeling that it will be addressed in the next few years. The recent action by the Copyright Office leads me to believe that DRM will become more liberal as the United States is a society that places emphasis on personal ownership & property rights and not on the current lease models in use currently. As to the third assertion, libraries as an institution have not demanded from our distributors and publishers that we be provided with ebook copies that are compatible with most popular devices. Libraries are being treated as a junior partner when it comes to ebooks. With more locations in the country than McDonald’s, this is a position that the publishing industry takes at their own peril. Eventually, ebooks will be lent by libraries; it is only a matter of time. There will be two groups: the publishers who got with the program and those who are trying to catch up.

There is very little reason to be fearful regarding about ebooks. It is a medium that is in the midst of birthing a viable business model. It’s not like Gutenberg printed his first book and thought to himself, “I must find a way to create more of these and put them in the hands of the general public.” No, he sold them and thought about what else he could print that people would buy. (For 30 florins each, or the equivalent of three year’s wages for an average clerk.) While ebook sales increase, the main limiting component in this equation is still the ereader device regardless as to whether it is a handheld gadget or desktop computer. You can cut the price of an ebook down to a slim profit margin; only time, innovation, and market demand will reduce the price of the ereader. Once those prices drop down (and they will) to where it gets within sight of the poverty line, then we will may see the rate of adoption that makes ebooks the “must have” item in library collections around the country.

I think the most apt comparison of an emerging technology (ebooks) versus an established technology (books) is that of the automobile to the horse. Automobiles are pretty ubiquitous now, adopted for use on nearly all corners of the Earth, as the main mode of personal transportation. However, there are places that the horse can travel that the automobile cannot. Horses are still used as a mode of travel otherwise, collected and cared for by people from all walks of life, and utilized for other daily purposes. There is still an industry around them ($39 billion yearly, according to the Horse Council.) Not bad for the main form of transportation for the majority of recorded history replaced by a ‘superior’ mechanical invention. There will always be a market for physical books, it’s just going to change over time. Horse riding did not go away with the advent of the automobile or even the plane; and neither will the book with the rise of the ebook.

This is not Armageddon[1]; it is a road map for our own library success. This is what people want: an device or app that can allow for download of library material wirelessly into a device. And this isn’t something on the scale of the moon landing; Overdrive Media has an app for multiple platforms already and the cost of ereaders is going down. As to ebooks, here’s the talk I propose someone who does purchasing to have with their distributors:

Hello, ladies and gentleman. I have a giant bag of money. And from what I hear, you guys like money. This is the money I have to spend on adding materials to my library.

As I am charged with spending this as wisely as possible, here is what I am going to tell you: the first company to get digital rights for all the books we want wins the giant bag of money.

Your time starts now.

Game on.


[1] Be sure to read Heather McCormack’s brilliant post, “An Optimist-Pessimist’s Guide to Avoiding Ebook Armageddon”. I read it while I was writing this post and it encouraged me to finish jotting down all of the notes that came to mind.

After rant:

How can anyone in library services be displeased with a technology that allows a book to travel through the air at lightning and delivered to a receiving device in under a minute? (See also: Louis CK: Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.) Isn’t this part of the dream of information services? This is sort of thing that people in the 1960’s saw on Star Trek and went, “Man, wouldn’t that be cool?” And within a generation, it exists. If there is a reason to be scared, it’s a selfish one: that the days of the traditional library collection are coming to an end and that the public will not need our profession. As if schools, parents, and teachers are doing a top notch job with bibliographic instruction and information vetting education. Based on my own experience, there will be a need for a librarian until they build an artificial intelligence that can answer the questions that I field. Once I see HAL taking reference questions, then I’ll know the time of the library has come to an end.

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t order that book for you.”

Edit: Changed the term “physical” to “hardcover” in the Amazon paragraph. Thought one thing and wrote another. Oops! Thanks to the LISNews commenter for pointing that out.

Twain Had It Right

If you haven’t seen this excerpt from recently assembled autobiography of Mark Twain, I implore you to read it now. It’s worth the click.

The restriction or removal of material does in fact present a slippery slope of what is “moral” (to use the example from the Twain anecdote) and that which is not. Moral relativism is the actor in that story in which the portrayal of the virtue of truth (and the vice of dishonesty) are unequally applied as criteria to the inclusion of materials in that library of the last century. Once you banish a book on the grounds that it features a liar, you need to banish all of the books that feature the same.

But I’m going to guess that this is nothing new, nothing surprising to the readers who find their way here. The ideals of librarianship, portrayed throughout the graduate school experience as well as to society at large, is that the library contains materials for all interests, for all ages, and for all curiosities. The reality is that we (the royal ‘we’ as a profession) are biased. We do it everyday with the resources we recommend, the search engines we use, the databases we go to, the books that we order, and the websites we read. These biases serve a very practical purpose: they prevent us from becoming frozen into inaction from attempting to be as neutral and unbiased as possible.

If a patron asked me to look something up online, I could run a search on Bing, Google, Ask, and Yahoo to find the greatest variety of answers. Instead, I just use one search engine (for myself, mainly Google). I could be missing results from another search engine, but that kind of reasoning greatly overcomplicates the situation and stymies the reference process. Of course, if I don’t like the results I get from Google, I can go to the other search engines. The truth is that the ideal (looking to provide the largest range of correct results by being ) does not meet up with the reality.

Likewise, with material selections, all librarians are limited by their budgets. They cannot possibly hope to get all of the materials on every viewpoint with their subject or collection scope. With this, they must pick and choose which materials join the collection and which do not. There will always be something left out; the goal is to be as inclusive as possible by hitting all of the major works or vantages. That’s why we have “go to” resources, material recommendations, and our own judgments when it comes to the library collection. Each of these represents a viewpoint of “the essentials” of a collection, something that raises certain materials above the others of its type. This is a bias, no matter how you frame it.

The critical thing here is to recognize our own personal biases and see them for what they are. It’s what Twain did with that librarian over a hundred years ago; he showed how the same set of criteria could disallow for another book (using the Bible, no less). There is no humanly way for us to reach our ideal of being completely unbiased and neutral; but we should never stop trying to do so.

I think it would make ole Samuel Clemens proud.

Summer Job

(The NPR radio program All Things Considered has been asking people to submit their stories about summer jobs that they have held. This is my submission.)

For two days one summer in college, I had a job that parents warn their children never to buy from.

I sold stuff out the back of a van to complete strangers.

Exactly like these, but oppositeStereo speakers, to be exact. The kind that you plug into home sound system, full sized and with unknown craftsmanship. Selling these home entertainment enhancements was the only part of the employment ad that was accurate. The full ad advertised the position as being “sales, delivery, and installation”. It also listed a name and a number to which, after a short series of questions, I was given driving directions and an address.

The next morning, I scrutinized my hand scribbled notations as I drove into a very nondescript office park in the next town over. I eventually found the business, tucked between other unrelated enterprises, parked out front, and walked through the front business door.

Anything resembling an office stopped at this point. In front of me was a large open unfinished area with bare cinder block walls. There were half a dozen white windowless vans, all haphazardly arranged near a large rear parking on the back wall. There were rows of cardboard speaker boxes neatly arranged along the walls near some broken couches and a ping pong table.

The manager, whose name eludes, came out of little office that had been constructed within the space. A medium height balding man with a saggy build, what he lacked in stereotypical oiliness in hair he made up for in oiliness of personality. He took me back into his diversely furnished office; an ugly desk, a couple of mismatched chairs, and a sore and worn faux leather sofa across from a out of place state of the art (at the time) wide screen rear projection television.

As I sat in one of the chairs, we talked about the job. Is there delivery? "If you can get people to pay you for it.” Is there installation? “Sure, if you can convince them to pay.” Is this just sales? He simply smiled, a knowing smile, one in which he knew how deep the water was while I’m standing on the edge of the pool. He promised me a training fee, half at the end of the day and half if I came back in the morning, till I made my first sale. Being both curious and dumb, I agreed to try out a day.

Creative Commons is for closers! When we emerged from his hovel/office, I met my new coworkers. It was like meeting the jocks of Glengarry Glenn Ross high school. Muscle shirts, tank tops, wife beaters, and shorts; t-shirts with sayings that were less than acceptable in polite company. Their language was equally as salty, routinely exchanging profanity for where punctuation should be. I was introduced in passing as the manager gave a quick pep talk, then left in the hands of the van crews.

I helped them load the van and off we went through the bright opening of the parking door, a hot sunny summer day. The premise, as the husky guy riding shotgun explained to me over his shoulder was simple: sell the speakers however you can. To whom? “Anyone!” For how much? “However much you can get over $200 each; the first $200 goes to the manager for inventory, van insurance, and other [crap] and his cut.” Won’t people think these speakers are stolen? “No,” he said, his eyes starting to twinkle like an evil genius as he started to explain. Every morning, each crew makes up a new fake delivery sheet that purports to show that the van was loaded with too many speakers than were scheduled to be delivered. The people are told that they can buy the excess speakers for a fraction of the cost (as shown on the sheet). If anyone decides to report the crew, the telephone number goes to the manager who listens to their story, thanks them for their help, and promises to ‘deal’ with the crew. So, how do you sell these speakers?


For a job that I held for only two days, I was more personally influenced by this job than many I have held since then. The major lesson from this experience is that everyone is approachable. Parking lots, stores, businesses, streets, sidewalks, even (and this is absolutely true) driving up the New Jersey Turnpike at 80 miles Like this, only minus the sleeves and add 80 mph.per hour in moderate traffic screaming out the window at other cars, “Hey, you want to buy some speakers? For your house?” (Two different times, people pulled over with us to see what the van had.) Long after I left this fleeting job behind me, I took with me the knowledge that, not only are people more open to social contact than they appear, it can lead to positive experiences. Even if there was not a sale made, they left with a smile on their faces and a good story to tell.

For those two days, it was a roller coaster ride. As the new guy, I wasn’t given a chance to sell the speakers but I did get a front row seat to something strange and memorable. These guys worked hard for their sales (every one of them had a girlfriend or wife or kids to support), telling tales of big commission scores and tough sale droughts. They drove hundreds of miles a day over the New Jersey-Delaware-Pennsylvania area while approaching hundreds if not thousands of people engaged in the midst of their regular lives. We met all kinds and types of people as we briefly passed through theirs with a simple sales pitch. (Including an unmistakable ‘urban entrepreneur’ who had us follow him up the New Jersey Parkway at over 90 miles per hour to the shadiest pizza joint I’ve ever seen in my life.)

Truth be told, I knew after the first day that his job was not for me. I went back for the second day because it was so strange, so enthralling, and so very exciting to see how these guys operated. It was a human safari of sorts, roaming through the urban and suburban, and here I was sitting in the van with the consumer hunters. They sized people up within moments, parlayed their sales pitch, and either went in for the kill or moved on to the next. It was a spectacle to behold, a wonder on four wheel hauling ass down the street, looking for the next sale. It was the summer job that I remember the most, and the one that has stayed with me.

And, honestly, who else can say that they’ve done something like that?

Food for Thought: Decisions of the Primate Mind

Originally, I had turned on this TED talk to play in the background while I was doing some gathering in World of Warcraft. But as the talk went on, I stopped what I was doing to order to give the video my full attention. Ever since I read Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory for Everyday Life, I have been keen to learn more about the decision making and risk evaluation processes that people engage to determine the choices that they make. Laurie Santos explains how they conducted a series of experiments to see whether our primitive relatives exhibit the same irrational behaviors when it comes to making decisions.

[I highly recommend taking the time to watch the clip. It is the context upon which the rest of this post is based.]

It’s a great piece about how different decisions are arrived at when considered in absolute versus relative terms. I had not known that a simple shift in perception (whether in dealing with a gain or a loss) can radically change the way in which situations are evaluated and determinations are made. It really got me to thinking as to how people look at trying new or different ideas within the library field: is it being evaluated as a potential gain or loss?

Would it be a gain to create a Facebook page for the library in terms of outreach to patrons on the service, or is it a loss for being another job for staff with an inconsistent rate of return for the time investment?

Would it be a gain to reorganize the collection like a bookstore, something patrons are more familiar with than Dewey, or a loss because the library loses its traditional classification scheme?

Would it be a gain for libraries to offer e-book checkouts as sales of e-readers continue to climb, or a loss because it shifts the library into a world of unsettled copyright, proprietary platforms, and nervous publishers?

My guess is that the initial answers to these questions were determined by how you feel about the subjects involved. Perhaps not the logical evaluation and reasoning functions that our evolved brains have arrived at, but enough to recognize the difference between judging on the absolute and the relative. And that is certainly something to think about.