All Carrot, No Stick, Ctd.

In response to my previous post, I was asked as to what kind of consequences could be meted out for publishers that don’t respond to librarian demands or wishes regarding eBooks. While I don’t believe that stopping book purchases is a viable option, there are other ways to express our discontent.

One possible action is to decline their money and materials for author promotion, book publicity, and award and event sponsorship. The first two items address something vital to the reading and sale of books and that is material visibility. There’s no good reason to promote an author or a book when the publisher treats libraries with contempt when it comes to the eBook version of their work.[1] Return or refuse their promotional goods along with a note about the bad deal libraries are getting when it comes to eBook content.

The second set of items are generally on the state and national level. Companies that won’t allow library eBook lending or provide for onerous restrictions should not be permitted to sponsor library or librarian events and awards. If they aren’t working with libraries to provide the next generation of eContent, then we shouldn’t take their money so they can smear it all over event or award publicity and public relation materials. As they are not acting with our interests in mind or towards viable compromises, then they should be denied involvement in our gatherings and professional recognition.

In the same vein, another possible action would be to refuse them as a vendor or exhibitor at a conference. Given the public relations power of being able to present and sell to attendees (upwards of over twenty thousand librarians at ALA Annual), I feel this is a potent consequence.[2] Let Simon & Schuster and MacMillan (aka the two publishers that do not allow for library eBook lending) sit out in the cold while the other Big Four publishers get the conference attendees to themselves. Deny them the conference visibility, the chance to hand out advanced reading copies or other promotional materials, a booth to showcase their current and future releases, and a place for their reps to meet with their clients. Why should those publishers be allowed to sell their wares when part of their business approach marks libraries as eBook content villains? It’s not in our best interests (now or in the future) to allow for such philosophies to remain unchallenged and consequence free.

Finally, I would suggest a consequence of discontinuing unpaid reviews of new books from uncooperative publishers and refusing advanced reading copies. I make the distinction of unpaid reviews because I believe that publishers take advantage of the uncompensated book review arena in order to promote their materials. As busy librarians rely on reviewers for future collection suggestions, this is a potent consequence that librarians can perform as it denies them the word of mouth marketing tool to sell their content. Why should librarians take their own time to review books that will not be licensed on an eBook platform or done so under conditions not conducive to our collection principles? It is truly unwise to continue this kind of pro bono support to these companies when they refuse to consider our needs and position.

I’ll be the first to admit that none of these consequences is perfect. But I feel a failure to mete out any kind of consequence would be far worse and leave libraries in an increasingly vulnerable position in regards to the future availability and access of eBook content. A consensus must come together or librarians will be subject to the whims of publishers when it comes to eBook content.

Now is the time to create and implement consequences.


[1] Some might think that this is unfair to the author and that we would be punishing them for the actions of their publisher. I would argue that the author is also in a position to pressure the publisher to come to better terms with libraries so that their works can flourish.

[2] I know that there is revenue lost in not allowing bigger companies to have vendor space at conferences. I believe this is a case of sticking with our principles over the chance to make a buck for the library organizations.

All Carrot, No Stick

Fundamentally, I think the phrase I used in the title represents the best example for the biggest issue when it comes to a eBook dialogue between publishers and public libraries. Simply put, there are no consequences to a publisher for not responding to our demands or wishes. For all the fuss and muster that goes into reasons why a publisher should allow libraries to lend their books, there are no clearly articulated punishments for non-compliance.

It’s not a logical leap to figure out why there aren’t any. While I’m sure I could get a room full of librarians to agree on the positive reasons publishers should deal with us, any discussion as what consequences to mete out if they don’t would be a complete non-starter (except for a strongly worded statement that re-issues the positive reasons and demands reconsideration on the basis of those reasons). To me it seems like librarians just generally wimp out when it comes to issues on this scale, opting to threaten to become “No more Mrs. Pleasant-to-Be-Around Gal”.

I would surmise that the only real stick that public libraries have going for them is that no one wants to been seen as beating up or picking on them. It’s this kind of shame that possibly prevented Amazon from going after libraries that lent out Kindles. Otherwise, without some sort of coordination or collective action, libraries do not have a stick to use to punish publishers for non-compliance. With the stakes that are involved in being part of eBooks, there is no better time than now to create consequences.

The carrot is simply not enough.

The Hounds of Winter

With the closing of this weekend, I’ve made it past the halfway point of what I can only call “that time of year”. As the trees change over and the days shorten, my thoughts turn towards the family and friends that I’ve lost in the stretch of time between the end of September and New Year’s Day. During this just over three month span over the years, I’ve had all of my grandparents pass away, some great aunts and a great uncle, both of my aunts, and family friends. It’s not quite every week that signals the anniversary of a passing, but enough so that with one date comes the expectation of the next one. The joke in our family is that our calendars switch from September to counting down the days till January.

I’ve had family pass away on the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been twice notified on Christmas Eve about a family member’s short term life expectancy. The only major holiday that is not touched by death is Halloween. Over the years it’s been a series of autumn funerals, some of which featuring snow for those in New England.

In dining with my parents this Thanksgiving, we found ourselves talking about how much we missed those people. As much as the tinge of death attaches itself to these holidays, I feel fortunate to have these close associations between the people and those days. It is a hearty reminder to me of remembrance (like Veteran’s Day), of being thankful for the people in my life (like Thanksgiving), of the joys and happiness of coming together as a family (like Christmas), and the promise of better times ahead (like New Year’s). While I wouldn’t say it is the best way to enhance the emotions of the seasons, it has been something that I’ve come to find as a unexpected boon over time. 

It’s not all doom and gloom; my brother and sister-in-law celebrate a wedding anniversary in November. (Hopefully, it will break the tradition of familial dying during this time period). I do hope everyone has a good holiday season, but pardon me if I don’t truly celebrate it till January 2nd.

Until then, I’ll be missing some people.

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. 

Change a Word, Change the World


While I understand the “yay intellectual freedom” underpinnings of the original quote, I’ve never been a big fan of it. The implication that the measure of greatness is directly related to creating repulsion somewhere in the library collection has never sat well with me. I concede that this is not the ultimate grading system for the value of a library, but as this is an oft repeated phrase I think it earns some scrutiny as to what it seeks to convey to the listener.

Inspire is the word I substituted because I feel the emphasis should be on what a library can do for a person rather than how it could drive one away. What word would you have put there? Are there other library sayings that could use a little modification of their own?

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.

[Unsolicited] Advice to the 2012 ALA Emerging Leaders

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

– Polonius, Hamlet, Act I Scene III

During my vacation last week, the participants of the ALA 2012 Emerging Leaders program were announced. I wanted to offer congratulations to those who were chosen for this year’s class as well as consolations to my friends who applied and were not picked. I’m looking forward to hearing about the projects that will be undertaken by this year’s class; I think those projects are a good general indication for the different schools of thought and direction as to what issues are priorities within the ALA organization. From the number of EL graduates that I’ve met over the years, I certainly hope that it is a program that I could try out for someday. (Although, upon mentioning this interest to a friend, she responded simply, “I think you’ve already emerged, babe.” Point taken.)

As those seventy-seven librarians ready themselves for the Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, I write this in the hope of bending one or more of their ears to some advice from someone in the blogosphere. (Interpret that last statement as you will.) I hope this advice is considered in the spirit in which it is meant; to offer a few additional thoughts and considerations for those involved in the program.

So, without further ado:

Listen. This is not simply limited to the words that people are saying, but to underlying body language and phrasing. If you are doing this to increase your involvement in the ALA organization, then figuring out the relationships between members and member committees is important. Every organization has dysfunction; this is the time to figure out what it is for the chapter, division, or roundtable that you are interested in. In identifying the dysfunction, it should be noted that not all types are fatal to further involvement. Personality conflicts, bureaucratic meandering, ineffective communication, or poor work organization; these are all potential obstacles with potential solutions. An assessment allows you to figure out if you can fix it, circumvent it, or ignore it; what it would take to fix (if anything) in terms of time and energy; and whether it is worth your effort at all. Listen, assess, and analyze what is presented to you.

Question. Or at least do not be afraid to. As you are seen as students of the organization, this is the opportunity to inquire and explore. If anything, question anyone who talks about ‘change’ or ‘leadership’ in libraries without offering some specifics. Those two terms are part of an ongoing meme in library thinking in which people like to use those terms without defining them or what their impact would be. Too often, they are actually code words used to express discontent while masking what the real problem that the speaker wants to get at. While I can’t say that I’m not guilty of doing this myself in the past, I hope you will join with me in working to make certain it does not carry on into the future.

Socialize. As noted elsewhere, there aren’t many times when librarians get together face-to-face. While our relationships through social media can further conversations and friendships, there is nothing that beats time spent physically together. It’s part of our undeniable nature as human beings; we thrive on our senses in order to better experience the world we live in. The networking opportunities presented from the Emerging Leader program have the capability of allowing you to make connections across specialties, library types and sizes. In my estimation, these are the relationships that will foster a greater understanding and perception of the entire library spectrum. It is my belief that these relationships will be valued and necessary as the institution of the library evolves in the different roles it plays within society.

Finally, I’d like to offer one last bit of advice: pace yourself. In reflecting on the last year of professional projects that I’ve been involved with, I realized that I wasn’t giving myself enough down time to recharge. It is not simply a matter of time or effort, but there is a (for lack of a better term) psychic energy cost to these projects. It’s a test of willpower, a use of personal bandwidth, and a trial of endurance to create, implement, and maintain some projects. Be certain to figure out what your projects cost you in these terms. And while I express caution at overloading yourself, I am curious as to what projects or efforts that the Emerging Leaders will undertake after they have completed their projects. What will you do with your Emerging Leader skills after graduation?

Once again, congratulations to the 2012 Emerging Leaders. Knock ‘em dead!

The Amazon Lending Library is NOT the Library Apocalypse

The big news today is this:

Amazon announces a Kindle Owner’s Lending Library

At first glance, it seems like a pretty mind blowing announcement. But when you read between the lines, it doesn’t look quite so epic. Consider this reality based revision of the line above:

Amazon announces that Amazon Prime members ($79/year) who own Kindles ($79 & upwards, depending on which version you have and when you bought it) are entitled to borrow up to one book per calendar month from a predetermined selection of 5,000 titles (out of the estimated 600,000+ titles on the website) of which over 100 (~2%) are current or former New York Times Bestsellers (and who knows where they appeared on the list)

A little perspective can change the whole thing.

The part that really cracked me up is the phrase “You can borrow a new book as frequently as once a month” in their help section. Since the only other number possible is zero times a month, I guess they have to try to sell what they have as best as they can.

I have to imagine that there are a couple things going on behind this. First, Amazon had to get the publishers on board with this idea. Based on their overall shift to agency pricing and desire to build their own eBook platforms, I am guessing that those negotiations were pretty intense. A retailer wanting to lend our book to their website members? That would explain why the list of available titles is relatively small compared to the overall Kindle catalog and the extremely low borrowing frequency. (I guess two books a month would be like giving away the whole store.) I also think it will be the publishers that will reign in any further expansion of this kind of lending program… that is unless Amazon creates a Netflix-esque model for books at a price they are willing to accept.

[insert horror movie music here]

Second, in trying to look at this development from Amazon’s point of view, they know how many books the average Kindle owner buys in a month. The number of times someone can borrow through their service is not a casual number they thought up; there is some statistics behind their choice. Once a month lending is also a good way to both reward Amazon Prime members as well as encourage reading (which has been shown to encourage book purchases). This kind of lending is the best ‘free store sample’ of the ereader age, trumping the Nook’s ‘read in the store for one hour per day’ deal. It’s a good perk at a relatively low price for the member while utilizing the infrastructure in place.

For the people who still want to pick up the “Libraries are Screwed” banner and run with it, take a moment to reflect on this situation. It’s a private sector company that is spending money on a service that the public has become reluctant to fund with their tax money. Amazon has created a subscription library at a cost that is comparative to the average per capita library spending (your mileage may vary based on your state) at a time when library spending and budgets are generally down. To me, it signals that the market for readers (people who read, not devices) is strong enough to sustain a decision like this; that, if the purpose is to sell more ebooks, this move will move to do that. I believe that this is something which is complimentary to one of our own core missions: literacy.

Amazon’s lending program is certainly worth watching, but is it the library apocalypse? No. Why? Because lending books isn’t the only thing the library does anymore. Even if the private sector moved in on the whole material lending business, libraries would still survive on the basis on access and instruction. The only thing that would die is the current state of the library. In my estimation, that’s not a bad thing at all.

The Library Reloaded: Library Cards, Cont.

I saw this story on Slate and immediately thought of libraries:

It’s an app called Card Case, and it’s made by Square, the brilliant payments company founded by Twitter inventor Jack Dorsey. Because Card Case runs on your phone, it may sound at first like the same clunky, phone-and-pay-pad systems being peddled by other firms. But Card Case doesn’t let you pay with your phone; it lets you pay with your name. With this app, you go into a store, choose what you want to buy, and then tell the cashier your name. That’s it—you’ve just paid. You don’t have to pull out your phone, you don’t have to open the app, you don’t have to sign, swipe, or wait for change. As long as your phone is on your person while you’re in the store—in your pocket or your purse—Card Case can authorize your payment without you having to do a thing.

The idea is that you could walk up to the circulation desk with a pile of library materials, tell the circulation person your name, they check out the materials (bonus points for RFID magic), and you walk out. Yes, it only works with a smartphone so not everyone will have it, but I believe integration with virtual wallet programs such as this app or near field communications are a viable future for the library card. Eliminate the hassle of issuing cards and it is one less item to worry about for the library member and staff.

People might not be interested in reading on their phones, but I bet they would be happy to use their phone as their library card.

Here’s my much earlier post about rethinking library cards.