My Catalog Conundrum

Today I helped a person who had called about a book they had placed on hold. They had placed the hold a month ago and were wondering why it was taking so long since (1) it was a title just coming out of popularity and (2) we have a ton of copies in the system. Since she had done it online, this is what the catalog looked like from her perspective:


She had clicked on the first option and made the request on that copy. Unbeknownst to her, since there is only one copy of that edition in the system and it has holds on it, she was placed on the wait list. If she had selected the next one down, she would have hit the checked-in jackpot for her request. I brought up one of the other editions, grabbed it off the shelf for her, and left it where she could come pick it up later.

I can understand why there are multiple entries in the screenshot above; they represent different editions of the book that may have their own unique characteristics and properties. (I’m not talking about the large print or audio book ones; I’m talking about entries 3, 4, 7 and 8.) That makes sense to the librarian part of me. I’m just wondering why the hell we don’t make it easier for our patrons. Something more in lines like Amazon:


It gives you the title and then shows you the format options. Hardback, paperback, mass market, and so forth along with additional options underneath them. It could work as to whether someone wanted just the first book available regardless of the format, a particular kind, or in the case of certain books a particular edition. As the need gets specific, so do the pop-out menus on the item.

I did a little poking around in catalogs from local libraries around me before I wrote this post. From what I can tell, it looks like it depends on the automation software. To me, it begs the question of why anyone would make it harder for people to borrow things from the collection.

To be honest, I’m totally prepared to be told that this is an outdated way of doing things and that the new software handles it better or that it really needs to be addressed. So, please leave a comment and drop me a clue as to where I am in this situation.

Apple Takes A Bite Out of the eBook Market

From Teleread, a message from the non-deceased iFlowReader app:

The crux of the matter is that Apple is now requiring us, as well as all other ebook sellers, to give them 30% of the selling price of any ebook that we sell from our iOS app. Unfortunately, because of the “agency model” that has been adopted by the largest publishers, our gross margin on ebooks after paying the wholesaler is less than 30%, which means that we would have to take a loss on all ebooks sold. This is not a sustainable business model.

For further background and context, Apple changed their policy about selling products through apps. This means that any app that sells a product through it must pay tribute must give Apple a 30% cut of the payment. As such, it reduces the number of competitors in the Apple based eBook market to the major players who are selling through either the iBookstore or the Safari portal or those that can afford that margin. And, if you read the whole message at Teleread, it was done in a rather unsavory way.

In any case, it’s an interesting story in the evolving eBook market. It does beg questions about retailers changing the rules about what eBooks they carry and if they withdrew any from their sites. What do you think?

Bikes, Branding, and Bellyaching

The other day I read this post by Phil Davis on Scholarly Kitchen:

Libraries take scholarship seriously, and its profession ensures it. Most academic libraries in the United States require MLS degrees or some equivalent. Many librarians have second Master’s degrees, and a good number even have doctorates. The institutional culture of librarianship respects scholarly behavior, and most librarians are required to go through tenure or similar academic review process. While they may not have teaching or research responsibilities, librarians view themselves as academics.

But this is not what the patron sees.

Patrons generally are unable to distinguish information assistants (or paraprofessionals) from professional librarians. The person checking out your book, pointing you to the restroom, helping you with a reference question, pulling an espresso, and now checking out your bike lock and helmet is, from the perspective of the patron, a librarian. When you are 18 or 19 years old, anyone with graying temples and bifocals is a librarian. Experience and professional status is only something that colleagues see.

At first glance, it reminded me of the quagmire that was my post “The Master’s Degree Misperception” which elicited a very strong response both for and against the points I was making there. The lesson that I’ve learned from that post is the same one that I’ve learned from teaching basic computer classes: no one gives a damn so long as it works. And when it works, it might just be you and your staff that knows what is actually going on in terms of who has what duty and what title. From the outside, patrons might not know what is going on; from the inside, you know how the organization model shakes down. I’ve come to terms with it by looking at it that way and keeping on eye on the final product: customer service, materials, and a place for people to get help.

Does it really matter if people think that the library assistants are actually librarians? Absolutely not, in my mind. Their mistaken identity doesn’t cheapen what I do.

But I understand that Phil and I are in different library settings. While my overall brand is service to the public, his brand is academic scholarship. He pines for students to gush about the quality of the scholarly assistance they received at the college library rather than the quality of the coffee or gaming program or even bicycle borrowing. (I would surmise he might raise an eyebrow at the lending of a therapy dog as the Yale Law School library is doing.) From Phil’s post, anything that distracts or takes away from that brand is an issue that has be addressed.

Personally, I don’t see the issue with these extraneous activities and amenities. They will be the first to go with budget cuts as the library will rally around its core mission: providing academic support and materials to faculty and students. If there is a problem with how the provost or dean perceives the library, that’s a failure to inform those individuals about the big picture. Too often it seems (and this goes for all types of libraries) there is a mindset that one can simply prove their value through practice without taking meaningful steps to contact and educate decision makers about everything that the library brings to the table. A bike renting program or coffee bar or gaming program would be a footnote on a report containing statistics, testimonials, and other evidence of value that would show how the library is serving their academic community. It does not carry equal weight to the service and materials of the core mission; it’s a reasonable luxury that makes student life just a bit easier and fun.

My question to Phil would be this: what is it that you are doing now that doesn’t promote the academic and scholarly value of the library? The bike program is just a scapegoat if you’re not articulating these values in the first place. If you are having trouble competing against coffee as a reason to go to the library, it’s not something that getting rid of these kinds of amenities will solve either.

(And, for the record, this might be the first time I’ve read that someone has singled out comfortable seating as an unwelcome trend on the basis of how a minority of students use it. Really? That’s an issue? I’d say it’s a bit draconian, but only because I have Game of Thrones on the brain.) 

Beyond 26 Checkouts

On Monday, I got an email from Carol Scott at telling me that they were happy with how the HarperCollins petition was going and were going to send it out to a larger segment of the website’s membership. Ok, cool!, I thought, closing up my phone and putting it back into my pocket. At the time, I was setting up for the New Jersey Library Association conference and the signature count was around 3,000. Later that afternoon, I got a text message from a friend. 

“What’s going on with your petition?” “Why do you ask?” “It’s jumped from 3,000 to 4,200 in like an hour. I just refreshed it and it went up another couple hundred.”

Then I started checking it from my phone. Over the course of two days, it went from 3,000 to 50,000. Whoa. As of the time I am writing this, it has 63,525. Library Journal wrote an article about it the other day for which I was interviewed. There’s one quote I gave that I’d like to highlight.

"The long term goal is to have authors, publishers, and libraries come together and talk about ebook circulation and lending models that make sense in a digital age."

Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

While the outpouring of support for the petition is incredible and much appreciated, there is still a matter of finding better eBook lending models that work for both authors, publishers, and libraries. I’d rather not have this petition be completely perceived as a finger wagging at HarperCollins, but as a conversation starter for other eBook lending models. I would not want the dialogue to entirely consist of reactions to publisher trial-and-error introductions of new formulas, but a collaboration between a business industry and a public institution with mutual interests.

In earlier statements, HarperCollins has called the 26 eBook checkout limit an experiment. In that case, I would like to propose additional experiments in eBook lending models. This is not limited to just HarperCollins, but a call to every publisher who allows libraries to lend eBooks to try something new.

If I was to advocate for any kind of experimental lending model, it would be around the idea of multiple simultaneous borrowers. I’ll outline my reasoning and rationale as I see it below.

First, and it has been said in many places, eBooks are computer files. They embody the digital notion of abundance. The idea of expiration or artificial scarcity is an affront to the global information network that has been built around computer files. It is a quality of the medium that should be used to its advantage, not as something to be contained. The question should be not be “How can we limit the very thing that makes it extraordinarily flexible and unique?”, but “How can we use this to get it to as many people as possible while making money?”

Second, the ability for lending to multiple simultaneous borrowers should be considered in the light of immediate book release market share. In stealing a sentiment from Seth Godin, the book itself is not as important as the conversation around it. People talk about what the book makes them feel, how they relate to the content within, and the desire to share these aspects with others. With the rise of social networks and acquaintance relations on them, that kind of sharing goes beyond the immediate family and friends. It becomes a crowd experience, one in which people will seek out other find people who have read the same book. 

In other words, what I am suggesting is that by allowing multiple simultaneous borrowers, a book can potentially control social network conversations during those first crucial weeks when it hits the market. It could generate more reviews and buzz on sites like LibraryThing, GoodReads, Shelfari, and Amazon. There will be more check-ins on social sites like GetGlue which feed into bigger sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s the power of numbers idea when a person sees that a large number of their personal network talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, GetGlueing, and reviewing a book at the same time. Certainly some have purchased the book while others have borrowed it, but their combined social media output has marketing value. It’s an advertising campaign that money can’t buy when consumers are the ones talking about their product of their own accord. This word of mouth marketing could and should be nurtured through more permissive lending models.

Third, in making multiple simultaneous copies available to libraries, I would propose that it could have a curbing effect on piracy. By providing an easier alternate route to published content, it could bring people with certain types of pirating behaviors (e.g. lack of convenience, too high a price point) into a legitimate system. In bringing those people into the legal side of the equation, it strikes a blow against existing pirates at their revenue sources (from pirating works and advertising). Also, it could translate into less money being spent fighting piracy overall (which, as noted in this article, could prove to be a substantial and costly endeavor to the detriment of authors). Furthermore, there are better datasets to be gained from their inclusion in overall usage statistics. That translates into better planning practices for both the publisher and the library (in other words, more money saved through efficiencies).

While some may see this as a type of capitulation to piracy, I completely beg to differ. I think it’s a bargain to expend a little money subsidizing this kind of lending model at the front end rather than chasing down people downloading illegally on the back end. (As the RIAA can tell you, courts aren’t cheap.) There is a public goodwill value to be considered (I don’t know how it could be quantified or calculated), there are benefits to both publisher and library in engaging in this arrangement, and the fact of the matter is that brand new markets like eBooks need a new and radical approach in the new sharing culture. A little work on the front end here could save a lot of headaches later on.

Fourth, this is a very unoriginal thought, but the very nature of eBooks allows for tiered purchasing models. Whether it is ‘per use’ or ‘x simultaneous borrowers’, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right pricing. It can and should be more expensive than a physical book because it does more than a physical book. Tiered models embrace the flexibility and portability of the eBook as a computer file.

The largest and more persistent objection to simultaneous borrowers is the notion that it undermines the eBook market. I call shenanigans on that. The people who come to the library as it is now are the ones who are not purchasing first edition hardcover books. Even if it did attract eReader device owners who regularly purchased content, they’d have to register with their library to do so (not quite the same as click and buy, I assure you). And if there was still concern about the potential impact on sales, there is a relatively simple mechanism can be put into place: limit the number of times it can be borrowed in a calendar year. For example, if someone can borrow an eBook only twice in a calendar year, they get four weeks to read it (on the basis of a two week loan). After that, they either go without or buy it. This should assuage the fear of people permanently borrowing material while making it available to them in the short and immediate term. (Perhaps longer borrowing periods can be determined over time, especially in other settings like high school or college.) The eBook market will continue onwards and library lending does not pose a viable threat to it.

In essence, I believe there is a financial decision here: one could allow for a more permissive library lending system in which, yes, there will be lost sales but less piracy and greater market penetration OR a publisher can continue to limit lending, discourage digital collections that put their eBooks into the hands of readers and drive the social sharing marketplace, and spend money to track down and fight pirates both professional and casual. There is no perfect system for lending eBooks nor will there ever be one, but that fact should not stop experiments towards progress from occurring.

So, let the other experiments begin.

Four in Five Librarians Do Not Rock the Vote

One in five.

That’s how many ALA members voted in this year’s annual elections for positions ranging from President to Council. One in five is also the ratio of voters to non-voters for the previous year’s election. For a profession that likes to reach back and quote individuals going back to the Founders about the importance of information in a democracy, it falls a bit short for its own professional organization.

To get some insight into this phenomena, Oleg Kagan has created a ALA Non-Voter’s Survey for the four in five members to fill out. It offers a range of explanations to choose from as well as providing space for people to type in their own. Participation in the survey is anonymous, so please take a moment to add your explanation if you did not vote.

In looking at the excuses, my own personal guess would be between “forgot” and “I don’t know enough about the candidates to vote for one”. I’d also be curious as to how the number of voters compared to the number of people committees, roundtables, task forces, Council, etc. (aka people who are actively involved in the organization at present.) 

If you voted, how did you make your decision as to who to vote for? If you didn’t vote (and you want to share), why didn’t you vote? And how can the organization get more people to vote?

(h/t: Patrick Sweeney)

Would you pay $100 a month for instant access to every book on any device?

Tim Carmody would.

It’s a short read, but I think the replies he gets from Twitter as well as the comments are worthwhile. It brings up other issues such as being able to copy content, different access models, tiered plans, and pricing. Take the time to read through.

(h/t: Daily Dish)

Library Renewal Guest Post

Michael Porter asked me if I would be interested in making a guest post for the Library Renewal blog awhile back. I had an idea for a post that would take a very objective look at digital collections with an eye towards the future. You can read it here on their blog.

I hope it acts as a conversation starter (or re-starter, for that matter) for examining the breadth and depth of digital collections and what they will actually entail to create, collect, and maintain. Because as much as people want to own digital content, I don’t think everyone has a grasp of the implications of what that statement means. Also, I think there might be good cases for renting or licensing digital content which people should consider.

(In other news, I’m working on a post that talks about the HarperCollins petition which just passed 60,000 signatures. Thanks to everyone who has sent me messages about that!)