Aspiring Writers & eBooks

There is a line of thought that’s been on my mind for the last day or so that I need to get some outside perspective on. As I am aware that this blog has some very intelligent and talented readership (it’s not flattery if it is true), I want to run this by my readers for input and feedback. So, without further ado…

One of the biggest and best pieces of advice that aspiring writers are given is that they should read. And not just read, but read everything they can get their hands on. A cursory Google search yields website after website repeating the same sort of advice; while it is not academic proof, I consider it to be excellent anecdotal evidence for the case. It makes sense to me in that the more writing a person experiences the better command of story, character, sentence structure, style, and/or substance they will adapt in their own reading. It is a textbook case of learning through example and then doing.

What really gets me wondering is how this could change due to the rise of eBooks in the market. Here is a format that is readily available for distribution, ships online or over cell data networks as quickly as the connection will allow, and stored in a computer or e-reader device. It is not limited by store hours or being sold out, but by the discretionary funds of the purchaser.

For a voracious reader and aspiring writer, it means that there has never been a better time for instant gratification when it comes to reading. Combined with the generally lower price point, it means that aspiring writers can purchase more books while doing so quickly and conveniently. This works towards the advice they are generally given above.

The overall question I’m driving toward is this: if the price of eBooks came down, information networks expanded (and narrowed the digital divide overall), and the barriers to content and content creation overall are lowered, would this lead to a greater number of writers overall? In my mind, it would lead to a greater number of top tier writers and an even larger number of midlist authors. That, if publishers worked towards these kinds of ideas, they would be creating larger talent pools to draw from.

I fully realize that I have no direct causation evidence; I cannot say for certain that the creation of those conditions would lead to more authors. But I can’t help feeling that I’m on the road to being right. What I’m wondering is if someone out there has something they can add or rebut to my points to make it a bit clearer. Would making eBooks cheap and abundant be the conditions to creating more writers in the future?

I’m waiting to hear your thoughts!

North by Northeastern Pennsylvania

I just want to thank Brian Fulton and my graduate school classmate Sheli McHugh for inviting me to speak to their Spring workshop yesterday. After driving up the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike under weather conditions mimicking the end of the first Ghostbusters movie (lots of lightning, some wind, and a little rain for ninety minutes straight), the weather was gorgeous yesterday at Misericordia University.

The topic of my talk was “Advocacy & You” which was a misnomer from the start; it really should be “Advocacy is You”. It was my first time using Prezi, an excellent alternative to the loathsome PowerPoint platform. Having rehearsed my talk for over a week (the lessons of Pres4Lib are finally paying off!), I felt very confident about how the talk went and at ease in going over everything I wanted to present. I really hope the attendees took away an idea or two from my talk; I’ll be waiting to hear back from the comments sheets to get feedback on what things stay, what things need sharpening up, and what things need to go.

Afterwards, Sheli and Brian took me to the Albright Memorial (Scranton Public) Library fundraiser. I have to say that these people know how to throw a fundraiser. Live music, food, and a band on a blocked off street? It was a great vibe and an excellent way to end the day. The library itself is gorgeous albeit crammed for additional collection space. Stained glass windows, dark stained woodwork, and marble floors and columns made me ask if it had been a church a couple of times (the answer is still no). With a plastic wristband and drinking Yuengling out of a deep plastic cup, we mingled with Sheli’s old coworkers and other people attached to the library. There were hundreds of people in attendance and I could not help but think about how amazing a fundraiser it was. I certainly hope it bulked up their coffers for the rest of the year, especially as the Pennsylvania budget shakes out.

In getting home today, I wanted to thank Brian and Sheli again as well as the Pennsylvania librarians and trustees (yes, this workshop had trustees at it) who attended. It was a great trip and a good start to the Memorial Day weekend.

The Neurological Rebellion

Click to see the migraine art show

The picture above is from an art collection by painters who suffer from migraines. When I first saw this picture, it sent a real chill through my body; it was the same sort of visual auras that I get preceding a migraine headache. It’s all the shimmering jagged lines that slowly make their way from a tiny point in my vision to a full crescent at the edges of my vision. As it advances out of my vision, I know what comes next. You can’t even close your eyes and make it go away; even in the darkness of closed eyelids, it is present, always shimmering as it changes shape.

As a male migraine sufferer with visual distortions, I fall into a double minority of the condition (and, as an aside, I am at a higher risk of stroke in a family that has a history of it). My headaches appeared in groups with years between them; my doctor friend has speculated that, due to their timing, they were appearing when my body was “switching life gears” (as in, beginning of puberty, end of puberty, mid 20’s, late 20’s, and now in my middle 30’s). There have been a few random headaches now and again, and I am hoping that the one I had today is just a blip on the radar.

In the past, I’ve had clusters of attacks to the point where I had to go on medication to prevent them. I traded being my emotional wellbeing for relief, for the drugs were also anti-depressants that numbed me to any large emotional variations. The headaches finally stopped, but it was a long time before I felt safe enough to stop taking the preventative. It only happened once, thankfully, but it lingers at the edge of my thoughts as I think about the headache I had today. The previous episodes were more spread out over months; hopefully that means I won’t be getting another for awhile. [crosses fingers]

This is the second time I’ve gotten a headache while I was at work. When you look at a computer screen and can’t see the words around the cursor, that’s when the trouble sets in. In years past, before the pain medications I have now, that would have been a moment of dread for I knew what would await me: nauseous, uncomfortable, and a magnitude of pain that has been likened to being second only to childbirth. As I will never rise to the top of that chart, it is nice to know that I have risen to the highest ranks of pain possible for a male human being to experience. (Take that, torture!)

So, I took my medication of consisting of a Percocet derivative combined with caffeine and drove home. My visual distortion was minor this time around, so I was able to see the road and my speedometer as I made my way back to a darkened bedroom. Even with the pain meds, I still get the light and noise sensitivity which can make the headache last longer. I got home without incident and hopped into bed to try to sleep away the headache. It’s a day gone, but not one in discomfort or pain.

In my migraine experiences, sleeping away the headache is a better alternative to just resting. Some of my bad headaches have given rise to confusion and the inability to shake a thought out of my head. It’s bad enough to be stuck in bed trying to shut out all the light in the room and not move; it is even worse when your mind can’t let go of something. From horrific to erotic and all the possible things between, it’s like having an earworm in your mind’s eye that just won’t go away. Sleep usually provides relief, although the dreams that come from it can be pretty intense and strange as well.

I know a good number of friends who suffer from migraines to one extent or another. Whether it is the occasional attack or a chronic condition, I really feel for them. Personally, if I was to put myself in the migraine spectrum, it would be on the “Pacific Rim volcano” level. Where it can be dormant for years, there is always a risk of explosion. I don’t know when it will go off, but I do know that it tends to be devastating when it does happen. I hope as I get older that I will have less headaches as my father did, but I can’t count on it.

On the other hand, it has taken all of the stress out of my presentation on Friday at the Northeastern chapter of the Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop. These headaches can sometimes remind me of the importance of now; that is, that worries of the future are nothing compared to living in the moment. I’ve been stressing over the presentation because I’m excited to give the talk and I want it to go well. I’m all set to go, it’s just a matter of doing it. (Ok, I’m not completely set, but everything about the talk is done. Just one last detail with the breakout sessions in the afternoon, but that’s it, I swear!)

In the past, I used to worry about getting headaches in the future and would plan accordingly; now, I’m going to try to press ahead. If it happens, well, nuts. If it doesn’t, then even better. It’s a hard thing, but I am trying my best.

Four Out of Five Librarians Do Not Rock the Vote, Cont.

One of the blog posts I’ve been anticipating for awhile has finally come to pass. Oleg Kagan released the results of his ALA non-voter election survey this week; the purpose of this exercise was to investigate as to why there is a low turnout in ALA elections. It’s a long post but I enjoyed Oleg’s insights and the yeoman’s work he put into arranging the data and writing up an analysis.

One of the bigger discoveries to emerge from the survey is that of the unfamiliarity of the candidates inhibiting people from voting. To be more specific, non-voters felt that it was hard to get an idea of what the candidates stood for, the difference between positions from their statements (which some judged as “worthless”), and that the sheer number of candidates made it hard to figure out who might be the best candidate for people to choose. Or, in my opinion, they got walloped with information overload. (There is some irony to this.)

Since reading Oleg’s analysis (which if you haven’t done yet, you should do now; I’ll wait), I’ve been thinking about how to condense and present the ballot so that people can be able to make judgments on a hierarchy of information points. (Brief aside: I have no idea what the voting interface looks like; I’m just imagining how a sample ballot or election page might look.)

Here’s what I would suggest:



[Priority Issues, numbered #1 through #5]

[One line personal statement which links to personal statement that has both a short ~200 word position paragraph and a longer unlimited word statement]

So it would look like this:

Andy Woodworth

PLA, LITA, RUSA, YALSA, AASL. Chair, Volcano Worshipper’s Roundtable.

Priority issues: Advocacy, Organizational Transparency, eBook/eContent, Small Libraries, MLS accreditation 

“I believe public libraries change people’s lives everyday”

(embedded link to short and longer statements)

My thinking approach in presenting it this way is to put association involvement first and foremost to give people an idea if the person is doing anything in the organization. I would imagine that, in electing counselors, some display of experience or commitment might be seen as a desirable quality.

As to the inclusion of ranking priority issues, this could originate from either a predetermined master list of issues that ALA creates or given over to the candidates to formulate for themselves. It would force the candidates to prioritize their issues in a way in which that people could draw differences between them at a glance. As a voter, if you are looking for someone who make certain issues a priority, this would allow you to cut to the chase in terms of offering support for certain candidates. It’s another way of pulling out differences from the candidates and possibly allow for voters to examine similar groups of candidates on a spreadsheet more easily.

With the one line personal statement linking to the longer ones, it allows voters who want more information to seek it out. By including a 200 word personal statement, it gives a sample of what they stand for and their reasoning. The candidates can use the unlimited statement space to make any and all points, plans, or promises that they are willing to offer voters.

I know there are other ideas zipping around about how to address the non-voting issue so I hope this adds to the conversation. I hope that this suggestion can be put to use by the membership in order to make the voting process a bit more friendly by allowing people to base their decision on an ever increasing amount of information offered.

If you have other ideas for how to make the ballot better, comment away!

Public Libraries & Copyright Enforcement

There has been an ongoing discussion on the PUBLIB listserv for the last week or so. It started off with a short question:

A patron checks out 20 music CDs. Proceeds to rip them to his laptop while in the library. Then returns them.
What should I have done? Is that copyright violation? Should I have told him? Stopped him?

What the thread has evolved into is a strange journey through the psyche of the public librarians around the country. What I thought was pretty simply slam dunk of an answer (“It’s a copyright violation happening right in front of you. You should have stopped it and informed the patron what they were doing was illegal”) has stirred what I can only imagine (and hope) are fringe perspectives. It ranges from the absurd idea that patron privacy is ABSOLUTE even in the face of overt illegal activities to screeds against corporations and their profit making with some excuse making arguments between regarding the value of staff confrontation with patrons (a non-starter) and the milquetoast “We don’t actually KNOW what they are going to do with the CDs after they rip them” shrug-of-the-shoulders (extraordinarily weak looking the other way mentality).

While I’m relieved that there were other librarians on the list who rebutted these suppositions, there was a very dismayed “WTF” moment to the whole thread. The casual manner in which peers were willing to set aside the law in the face of an overt copyright violation is rather disheartening as society moves towards another intellectual property turning point. I’m not suggesting that librarians kick in doors or engage in surveillance of patrons at their homes, but the profession can do its part in educating the public as to the current copyright law and what it means for them.

Lest we forget that these patrons are also voters, represented by their elected officials on both the state and national level. If they really have a problem with the current copyright laws, then they are well positioned to take actions on changing those laws. It would be rightfully cynical to think that one person doesn’t have a shot at changing the overall status quo, especially not in the face the deep pockets of the entertainment industry. But librarians can foster those people at the personal level with a greater eye towards a longer term cultural attitude change. It will not be an instant gratification moment that we have become inclined towards, but something on a longer term over generations.

The people who cast aside the profit motive forget that they benefit from it in indirect ways. It can be through sales tax collected locally on purchased works; the companies that employ people in their area to develop, make, manufacture, and sell those items; and let’s not forget those corporate sponsorships for library programs and conferences that the profession likes to have every year. It is the profit motive that facilitates the sale of content to libraries in the first place. If those companies feel that libraries are hurting their bottom line by not defending their intellectual content (and they exist), then they are going to be less motivated to sell content to us or attach an increasing amount of strings (such as DRM) to the product. 

The fact of the matter is that being lax on copyright does not get a chair at the table the next time it becomes a priority to change. It weakens our standing within that conversation to be turning a blind eye or offering up weak rationales for not educating the public or taking action when warranted. It is true that we cannot control what patrons do beyond our front door, but librarians can act on what they see and hear on the inside. The smug arrogance of a ‘sticking it to the man’ now costs the institution in the form of reputation and credibility in the future.

How would you answer this question? What are your thoughts on it?

Freedom of Speech (Just Watch What You Say)

The always excellent In the Library With the Lead Pipe blog had a new post today from Leigh Anne Vrabel by the title, “A Short Distance Correctly: 13 Ways of (Not) Writing (Contrarian) Librarianship”. There was one particular passage that caught my attention.

At present, there is no room in our professional discourse for creative expression beyond a certain number of limited outlets, unless we christen ourselves Library Mofos or adopt an Annoyed pseudonymous posture of detached superiority. Bad satire and anonymous ranting aside, we have no voice for the collective library shadow. We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds. I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.

I thought about it off and on over the course of a couple of hours. Is this true? And if it is, then why is it like this?

To the first question, I’d have to agree. While I don’t read every single librarian blog out there, I have about three hundred librarian blogs in my Google reader feeds. Not all of them are active, but I think they represent enough of a online cross section to be statistically significant to support such a conclusion. How many of them would I consider to be capable of talking about collective library shadow? In looking through the different feeds, I wouldn’t even need to take off my shoes to count the ones that could fall into that category. And even the ones that rise to the occasion to provoke controversy and take on some of the profession’s third rails do so rather infrequently or dilute it with so much satire or wishy-washy language that they might as well not bring up the topic in the first place.

Despite being champions of freedom of expression, the profession too often turns cowardly towards expression by peers in any manner deemed too uncomfortable, controversial, or otherwise unhappy. We will rally and march for the right of expression as a universal human right and yet abandon it at home in trade publications, professional literature, and online discourse. For a profession so deeply aligned with the value of speech, too many of my confederates seem to lose their voice even if it was to save their own skins.

So, why is it like this? I feel like I’m stretching for an explanation if I have to invoke cultural social norms, the desire for acceptance into our social groups, and other psychological and sociological based reasoning. Certainly they are scientifically valid possibilities but they feel woefully inadequate for supplying a satisfactory answer. But from what Leigh is suggesting (and I concur), the explanation is such that librarians feel the need to take on pseudonyms or be anonymous in order to raise such issues. That is a damn shame, a symptom of a professional cultural ailment that may not kill the profession but be a chronic burden.

For myself, I’ll admit that it has taken a long time to arrive at a level of comfort to be perfectly frank when writing in this blog. It was more of a struggle to conquer my own self-doubts and find my voice than feeling professionally obligated to hold back what I really felt. “Blog fearlessly,” I would think to myself every time I hit the publish button as if it was a protective ward against potentially negative reactions to what I had written. I have the standard disclaimer in the “About Me” section that says that my words and opinions do not represent my employer, but I would be a fool to think that it grants some sort of immunity. I have purposefully avoided discussing certain subjects and topics, though I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything either by not writing about them either.

However, it has impressed upon me the importance of bringing my own voice and authenticity to the topics, ideas, and concepts I do write about. As part of that bargain, it means saying or writing things without regard to whether it is polite, correct, or otherwise kosher. I would hope that more of my peers would feel the same and invest themselves unreservedly into the ongoing professional conversations. The dividends of drama are worth far more than the savings of silence.

Bring on the open season. I can’t wait to see what it brings.

Open Thread Thursday: School’s Out Forever

As the education year winds down with the start of summer, there are school librarians across the country who will not be returning in the fall. Whether they have been determined to be “not teachers” by an administrative court, being cut from the budget, or still working to save school libraries, these past two weeks have been wicked evil to this end of the profession. On top of that, the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program was eliminated from the Department of Education. (I presume the innovation that the President spoke about at the State of the Union address will be for student to find new ways to develop research skills.)

What the fuck is going on here?

While I’m happy that ALA has put an open letter out there for the LA school librarians, it still makes me wonder: how’d things get to this point?

This week’s open thread suggested topic: school librarians. How to help them and how to save them. Why? Because they are part of the library ecosystem.

If you’re a school librarian, share what other librarians should know but maybe don’t and what the rest of us can do to help.

If you’re not a school librarian, share what you think can be done to increase awareness and communication with our school librarian peers. What do you want to know and be kept up to date about?

While this is the suggested topic, this is an open thread. Share what’s on your mind. And anonymous comments are still welcome.

(h/t: Cathy Jo Nelson, since I stole liberated a number of links from her Facebook page.)

Birthday Memento

This is the telephone message that was waiting for my grandfather at the New York City hotel he was staying at the night I was born. His mother (my great grandmother) had called and left the message. After my grandfather died, I found the notice in his Bible. He had kept it for all those years.

And I’m really happy he did.

“Bring Me the Head of Seth Godin!”

Or so it would seem the mood would be in some parts of libraryland upon reading his latest blog post, The future of the library. (Not be confused with the other Seth Godin post by the same name written back in 2010.) In reading some of the other reactions and comments, it seems like another trip on the professional self-esteem merry-go-round. We want non-librarians to talk and write about the library (in any sense of the word) yet completely despair when it is not a full throated praise of the institution. If it invokes any stereotype, it’s considered a step backwards for the entire continuing conversation. (Cue the wail of lamentations and the gnashing of the teeth.) If it challenges current practices or principles, we give the author a dismissive pat on the back while marginalizing their words by telling them essentially “thanks, but you don’t know what you are talking about”. We’d rather accept bland praise over anything of substance that pushes our comfort levels written by people who are friends of the library institution, then quietly mutter to ourselves why more people don’t talk or write about the library.

Another spin on the merry-go-round we go.

This isn’t a pass on what Seth wrote, either, but I’m going to work to avoid stepping into the some pitfalls as listed above. A civil and well reasoned challenge deserves response in kind.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be trying to brainstorm clever ebook lending models. I would prefer to dump a wheelbarrow full of cash on the desks of the six major publishers and say,”My associate Mr. Franklin thinks you should lend to public libraries. Does this cover your intellectual property worries?” It would be convenient to buy our way out of their insecurities, but alas, the current state of budget affairs does not allow for such things. Libraries don’t have that kind of cash so instead we have to be clever. Personally, I think it is the silver lining of this funding catastrophe for it makes people focused, creative, and innovative. But it’s a bit hard pill to swallow since it is coming at a huge cost of libraries, jobs, and the communities once served.

I agree that the prices on eBooks and eReaders will keep coming down; they’ll become like disposable razor and blades as Seth wrote. But that is not the present situation and is predicted to happen further down the timeline (five years is mentioned). While I can plan, work, and hope for that day, I still have to work with what I have right now. Right now I have patrons asking for eBooks. It might be thought a poor excuse, a fool’s errand, and a waste of taxpayer money to collect these eBooks now, but I need to reasonably act on today’s reality more than tomorrow’s speculation. I mean, what’s the alternative? Tell my patrons, “Come back in five years when the publishers and eBook market have their shit together”? That’s not exactly the best customer service practice out there, even if the predictions come to past. I’m looking to the future, but I still need to act on the present.

On top of that, even if they become that cheap, there will still be a digital divide. Those are the people the library seek to serve: the information have-nots. I know these eReader-less people will exist because I know there are care packages and boxes sitting in shelters, churches, and other aid group offices that have a disposable razors and blades sitting in them. They may be cheap, but there will still be people who can’t afford them. Since libraries are in the knowledge business, we’ll be working to serve this small section of the population as well. To that extent, a portion of our collection will always be linked to their fate.

I agree with Seth about the birth of the modern library and how it was created for a different time. In looking at that period of time in the 19th century, there are the values of the Age of Enlightenment (egalitarianism, for one) combined with the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution (machines replacing manpower). On the heels of the recent establishment of public education was the further societal need and desire for self-improvement and self-education (along with some entertainment for the new middle class literate). As Andrew Carnegie steps into the picture, the library as a public institution takes off across the United State (and the world as well). To that end, yes, it was a public institution built for another time in the history of the country.

And now we are in the digital age.

So far, this digital age has been an uneven balance between proprietary and open source paradigms. While the President talked in this year’s State of the Union address about winning the future through innovation, Congress has introduced a heavy handed bill in favor of copyright holders. Apple has taken steps to keep you from poking around the devices you own with special screws to secure their hardware. The Kindle and iTunes outline clearly how limited your rights are to the content that you own lease. Pharmaceutical companies work to reformulate the same drugs so that they can re-patent them and extend exclusive protections along with the higher asking prices. DRM puts a giant lock on literature and prose, the worries of the piracy outweighing the greater conversations and influences that could await them. For all the mentions about the overabundance of data out there, there is a mad scramble to lock up as much as possible and as fast as possible. The visible web is the proverbial tip of the iceberg compared to the deep web, where bits of information are locked away under passwords, firewalls, and IP authentications. Seth mentions The Mesh, but according to some of the most popular content companies, the future of business is sharing only when they will let us share. And that does not move any conversation forward.

Librarians are working to change that.

We are in tune with an emerging sharing culture. We strive for information access for our constituent communities. Despite moments of inanity with our funny little rules at times, the profession works to give information away as much as humanly possible. We work to put books in hand, answers at fingertips, and ideas in minds. And we’ll dance with The Devil to make it possible. It’s not a noble profession, intellectual and aloof; it’s a wholly maddening, sometimes frustrating, fraught with uncertainty, second guessing working-on-your-own-time profession to which the practitioners love deeply. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either drunk or nuts.

In coming up with the blog post title, I thought it might grab’s people attention (nothing quite like a little cheap ‘Gotcha!’ advertising ploy, right?) but also serve two functions. First, librarians can’t keep trying to kill the messenger when it comes from outside libraryland. Putting Seth’s head on a proverbial pike does nothing but tell people that librarians (oddly enough being the strangely open minded intellectual freedomniks that we are in defending divergent viewpoints) are not interested in outside opinions. That does not serve us well going into the future for those looking to lend a hand and offer an outside viewpoint.

Second, to paraphrase a line from Braveheart, the trouble with libraries is that they are full of librarians. There were libraries before I was born and there will be libraries long after I turn to dust. It is static in purpose and principle and mutable in practice and presentation. Don’t let the former blind you to the latter; let the library loose to evolve into the digital age. We are still honoring the past while ensuring its continuation and future librarians will thank us for it acting responsibly at the birth of the new information age.

And if we are really going to headhunt, Seth Godin should be waaaaaay down on the list of scalps to attempt to claim right now. Think about it.

The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

Tuesday will be my birthday. Saturday will be Judgment Day.

Since The Rapture will take place on a Saturday, I’m a bit concerned for staffing on Sunday (although from my own experiences at conferences I believe it is safe to say that the reference desk will still be fully manned). And, unless I’m picked up in that Rapture as well, it looks like I’ll still be presenting at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop on May 27th since the world won’t actually end till later that year. This wouldn’t be the first time around for such absolute certainty about the end of the word. October 22, 1844 is called The Great Disappointment since it did not actually mark the Second Coming of Jesus. Heck, you can’t swing a Google cat without hitting results about other end-of-the-world predictions that date back hundreds of years. And let’s not forget what awaits us in 2012 (note: the website features a countdown clock!)

I would guess that the majority of my readership would think that these kinds of events are completely unfounded and/or silly speculation, but I’m wondering why some of those same people get all riled up by people who write the same sort of dire pieces about the demise of the public library. I have yet to read a strong argument for closing public libraries; most revolve around “everyone” having Kindles, Google, and the internet. That sort of reasoning doesn’t even make me get up from my seat anymore. It’s usually a cover for the real argument of “I don’t want my tax money being spent on things that I don’t personally benefit from” which is a whole different ballgame.

So, why do librarians give such credence to any person who writes about the end of the public library? Is the profession really that insecure? Or do librarians have our own irrational fear of an impending public library apocalypse?