The Pinterest Grenade

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter about Pinterest from my online friends as of late. I had held off looking at the website until recently. Given all of my writing about terms of service and other agreements, I thought it was fitting to start my examination by taking a gander at their policies. In reading over their terms of use, I thought it was a bit sketchy in its details and assignments.

It turns out I’m not the only one. This piece in The Atlantic Wire notes that the copyright agreement on the website puts the burden (and the monetary expenses) on the end user for any legal actions. Furthermore, the end user is responsible for any legal fees that Cold Brew (the company that owns Pinterest) generates defending itself from the action taken against you. A double financial whammy. This blog post outlines all of the potential copyright pitfalls and their consequences that could be generated from pinning images on the service.

Beyond copyright, there was one line that raised an eyebrow for me when I read. It’s the highlighted portion from the screenshot below.


All I could think of is “By whose standards?” I’ll concede on the defamatory term and throw in the pornographic term as well for good measure. But obscene, vulgar, and offensive? We can dance around the first two as to what they mean, but it’s the last one that really takes the cake for me. Offensive is such a vague word and used in a remarkable cover-our-asses sort of way. Given the nature of our society to remove rather than ignore offensive content, it seems like a magical trump card that could be wielded against anyone at anytime under the guise that they are offended by it.

Given that you could be sued if you stray from your own work or have it taken down on subjective whim, that doesn’t sounds like a fun community to me. Although, given that it is a fast growing community, perhaps it is more of a lesson as to how people feel about copyright in the digital age.

Edit: I just re-read the second term in the screenshotted paragraph. It makes me wonder whose laws are being applied since there are limits on expression in other countries. That sounds like a legal minefield to me.

Want to be a Subversive Librarian? Teach a Class!

For all the onerous topics that face the library, I believe that the best way to confront them is to teach our communities about them. I don’t believe that the public in general is apathetic to the issues that face libraries from publishers, content providers, and web companies; they just don’t know enough of the situation to consider involvement. I was reminded of Dave Meslin’s great (and short) TED talk on the barriers to involvement in politics. How can people know what is going on in the library or library issues if they don’t know how Overdrive operates, the terms under which databases provide access, or how social media generally funds their operations? Show them behind the curtain!

I teach all the computer classes at my library as well as offering help using the Overdrive system and our subscription databases. I tell people about the pro’s and con’s of sharing information on Facebook and Google and how they use any account information. I inform patrons that certain eBooks are not available because some publishers do not allow for library lending. I caution students and researchers that some of the results in a database search may have to be purchased unless it’s from an open access publication. For all the issues that I want the public to be informed of, I try to teach a class that relates to it or make it part of my reference desk repertoire.

For any who might be aghast at this suggestion or feel that I am acting out on behalf of an agenda rather than providing service, I should add a few things. First, teaching the class or skill comes first. When people leave the class or service desk, they know how to use Facebook, download books from Overdrive, or search the database. I’m not running a propaganda laden re-education camp in the computer lab or at the reference desk. Second, I am perfectly frank about the pros and cons of everything that the library offers. I don’t want them to discover something and have them come back with the accusation, “You never told me about this [glaring privacy invasion/hideous legal term of use/hidden huge cost]!”. I label all my personal opinions as such and offer both sides. Third, I emphasize that it is still up to them to make the decision. If I’m asked, I’ll tell them what I would do and why I would do it, but the decision is always theirs. Furthermore, I am still resolved to help them no matter what they choose.

Finally, I feel that the facts speak for themselves. Four of six major publishers do not allow for library eBook lending. As the newly coined saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold” when it comes to internet or social media websites that collect personal information. There is academic research behind paywalls as well as open access resources that are equally credible and citable in papers. It’s a disservice to the community and to the profession to gloss over or dismiss some aspects in order to facilitate a happy-shiny-everything-is-rainbows-and-candy-here-in-the-library façade rather than confront the ugly (and sometimes uncomfortable) realities behind the goods and services people want to use. I am not in the turd polishing business. Quite frankly, given all of the spin that permeates our culture these days, a little candor goes a long way.

I believe there is nothing more subversive than an informed patron. So, go on. Teach a class.


*I will applaud Google and Facebook for simplifying their Privacy policy language, but they are still extremely verbose.

The Illusion of Unity

Over the weekend, I was hanging out with Pete Bromberg who was gracious enough to help me fine tune (read: completely untangle) my forthcoming presentation for CIL 2012. In chitchatting on various things, one of the topics that came up was the lack of unity in libraries and librarians in dealing with some of the challenges of the profession (with eBooks being the latest of these issues). Pete asked a very cogent question that has stuck with me: how much unity can there be in the librarian profession when the issues, communities, politics, and challenges are generally hyperlocal?

As much as I’d like to imagine that there are universal challenges to libraries, this conversation has got me rethinking the prevalence of such a position. The funding matters around my library system are not the same as the local colleges nor the school libraries or even some of the libraries within the county who are not part of the system. The same could be argued for the communities served by each of these respective entities and the governmental and social politics surrounding them. While the terms “budgets” and “funding” played out on the headlines within New Jersey during the state cuts of 2010, I would say that you could plot out a map where fiscally devastated libraries bordered counties or municipalities with ones that were not touched. It’s easy to rally around stopping state budget cuts as a common platform, but an unequal impact is going to skew participation when some people are fighting for their livelihoods and others are not.

Pulling back to the state level, the vicious budget fights in states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and now California are simply not universal in their aspects. Yes, it is about state funding to libraries, but it is also what that state funding actually does. The absolute dependence of rural libraries in Ohio for funding is not the same fight as saving literacy programs in California. I’m sure that given enough time (and alcohol) that certain similarities could be determined, but even then the political reality and demographics of Ohio do not match that of California.

So when it comes to a national level, how much of a unified voice can a national organization like the ALA be? This is not to say that it is completely ineffective; the Washington office provides the lobbying support that is necessary to get legislation tweaked in order to serve broad library interests. However, when it comes to dealing with the Big Six or Elsevier, the effectiveness levels becomes extraordinarily wonky. While the reaction to the HarperCollins eBook limit was overwhelming, it was also extremely nuanced across thousands of public. Some libraries boycotted, some restricted their purchasing, others stayed the course with the idea of monitoring usage, and still others didn’t care because they weren’t buying eBooks anyway. While I was in a chorus of people calling for decisive action against this abomination, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that it was still a individual institutional decision happening at the local level in direct relation to the community, politics, and finances. I know that there were people who agreed with such action philosophically; however, their responsibility was still to their constituency. I would say that the same sort of calculation comes into play whether you are talking about academic access to serials (and possibly why the ‘serials crisis’ lumbers on like a drunk on a pub crawl), funding for school libraries, or any number of issues that entail a widespread librarian consensus. The hyperlocal nature of decision making will always trump the national level, try as we may. It’s just the way it is.

To be clear, I’m not walking back what I said in my Big Tent Librarianship piece. I can still see the similarities in principles and values that I feel are a common thread in the profession. I have experienced it through my participation in groups like the Library Society of the World, the ALA Think Tank, and other cross type groups. There is certainly a sense of community that exists, but I believe it rapidly loses cohesion as it scales up. All politics is local, as the saying goes, and so are the decisions and stances of the library.

If anything, this re-thinking would bring me some sort of peace to where I felt frustration at the apparent inability to effectively organize and take action on anything but the most dire of threats to the profession. There’s just too many variables in play for each library location, too many cogs in the machine to create a consistent front against the less-than-lethal challenges. In coming to a conclusion as such, I find peace in trying not to constantly move the mountains. Perhaps this just means that my writing as well as others who are of a similar mindset is more urgent and important in terms of our tone and content. In reaching out to you the reader, we seek to make the changes on the local level that we cannot on the grand scale.

Unity in principles? We have. Unity in practice? Well, that’s another story.

Fight the Future

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

That quote by the English historian Edward Gibbon was a favorite of my Grandfather. So much so that he printed it out, framed it, and hung it in the family room. It was only years later that we noticed a spelling error (responsibility sans the b, a funny reminder of the man years later) and now it hangs in my apartment above a shorter set of bookcases.

I’ve been thinking about that quote since I read Anthony Molaro’s post, “Libraries Gave Up Control” last week. His self-described rant talks about the lack of control within the public library and his points should give the reader pause whether you agree with this overall premise or not. Personally, I think the issue is twofold: how much control over content, tools, and services do we have and is there a will to reclaim it?

As to the former, I can see the nucleus of a culture of complacency (or, for the cynical, laziness) argument. Why work towards the development of a better ILS or better databases presentation platforms or expanding rights over library content when we can pull out a catalog or get a vendor proposal or basically have someone else do it so we can use our time to complain about the lack of choices, services, or bureaucracy? If we can’t get it pre-packaged, ready to go from day one, then I guess it’s not worth having or doing. This is the kind of mindset that sends people to fast food places every night rather than cooking at home. Given the related obesity rates, we can guess how that’s going to work out in the long run. I sometimes wonder how many librarians go to work with the idea of a good day being one in which no one challenges them on how the library is run or the order of things. Not a good thought to contemplate given the current fluid nature of the profession.

In addressing the latter, I’d like to imagine there is a will to reclaim it (mainly because I’m an obnoxious optimist). Barbara Fister’s recent post about taking back librarian professional literature from publishing companies who would be all too happy to sell it back to us certainly warms my heart. Given the course of eBooks, perhaps it is a good thing that the majority of publishers are pulling out. To me, it signals a chance for libraries to assert their terms if publishers want to deal with us again in the future. (First term: no taking your ball home on whims.) In looking to reclaim our content and services, it’s going to be a fight, one which I suspect will be a marathon over the course of decades and generations of library professionals (as is always the case in a change in culture).

In returning to Gibbons, this will mean forgoing the security of packaged solutions and prefabricated services to reclaim the responsibility as cultural curators and information educators. This is not a wholesale rejection of library vendors, but a call to rethink how solutions to library problems are reached. I don’t think there is a better time to be a librarian, given this communication and information digital age that is coming into being. But, to me, I’d like to see less complacency and more agitation when it comes to our current practices.

Our collective future is at stake here.

Circulating Ideas & Upcoming Speaking Engagements

My interview with the Circulating Ideas podcast came out today. I had a wicked good time talking with Steve during the interview and felt like I could have talked for another hour. It was a nice enjoyable interview/conversation and I’m thankful to Steve for asking me to participate. As you can see from the show notes, we hit a wide range of topics. I hope you take a listen to my interview as well as the other great people Steve has talked to in previous episodes.

I’d also like to take a moment to say that I’ll be speaking at Computers in Libraries 2012 next month. I’m part of a group of speakers entitled “Ebook Trends: Info Pro Perspectives” with Sarah Houghton and Michael Porter. Given the latest actions by Penguin books, this should be a jolly ole time for the audience. I’m looking forward to it and I am working hard to hold my own in the company of such excellent speakers. Hope to see you there!

Booze for Books (and Pearlclutching for Pessimists)

If you’re a fan of a good cause (or a person who is drawn to librarian controversy like a moth to a flame), then check out the YALSA’s “Booze for Books” fundraiser on April 12th. It’s raising money in support of the Books for Teens cause which (in their words) seek to “empower the nation’s at-risk teens to achieve more by providing them with free high quality, new, age-appropriate books.” Aside from the use of the word “empower”, it seems like a decent enough concept to support and one worthy of the backing of YALSA.

The pearl clutching starts at the first word of this fundraiser with the term “booze”. Despite the passage clearly stating the nature of the fundraiser is up to the individual (thus actual booze in not a requirement for participation), the mere mention of the Liquid Devil is enough to rile up the people in the comments about how this name is in poor taste, tarnish the image of librarians, or the dangers of alcohol.

I’ll concede on the poor taste aspect since personal taste is subjective, but I have to wonder what sort of commitment that represents to the underlying cause being supported here. If you’re not going to donate or participate because of an objection to a name, then I’m guessing you really weren’t going to help out in the first place; I can’t imagine that the name represents the sum total of the tipping point of this equation. You can hate the name, but don’t let that stop you from helping out a good cause.

As to the tarnishing the image of librarians, I will rue the day when someone cites their librarian as the reason why they drank, smoked, did drugs, committed crimes, or punched a kitten in the face. That story will get linked, retweeted, and shared to the point where it will be the only thing I can find on my various social media outlets. I can understand the need for some librarians to be a role model to teens, but it should not come at the exclusion of carrying out perfectly legal and socially acceptable adult activities. As the profession expounds on the rights of adults to access all kinds of material, it seems odd that people should be slamming another legal activity to which the participants make their own decisions.

I’m not sure if there is anyone younger than forty who is unaware of the dangers of alcohol. The risks and dangers of consumption were part of health classes as far back as I can remember. I come from a family where alcoholism and addiction issues run on both sides. I’ve never had to battle with that demon, but I’ve had family members who have. I’ve seen what it does. But for that to be a reason to stop a fundraiser like this is foolish. We’d have to stop any at-risk activity simply because someone had a history with it. What would be left? For every activity I can think of, I’m sure there is someone out there who can think of a horrible accident or tragedy that could with it. (“Sorry, the fundraiser ‘Knitting for Novels’ has been cancelled. Someone’s relative was killed an attacker wielding a pair of knitting needles.”)

Whether this is your cup of tea or not, please do consider giving to Books for Teens. It’s a worthy cause that needs your support. And if you really, really hate the whole “Booze for Books” idea, here’s my suggestion: come up with your own fundraising idea and outraise the YALSA one. If you are going to demand alternatives, you should be willing to offer to do one. In any case, I’ll be looking to raise a pint on April 12th either by myself or in the company of my peers. So I hope you’ll join me, either in spirit or in person.

The Friction Fiction


In this whole Penguin books quagmire, the aspect that has been furrowing my brow and aggravating my mind has been the use of the term, “friction”. This was from Molly Raphael’s report that I quoted in my blog post yesterday:

A key issue that arose in each meeting is the degree to which “friction” may decline in the ebook lending transaction as compared to lending print books. From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work that often involves two trips—one to pick up the book and one to return it. The online availability of ebooks alters this friction calculation, and publishers are concerned that the ready download-ability of library ebooks could have an adverse effect on sales.

This is a quotation by Alison Lazarus, president of sales for Macmillan, from the Digital Shift’s article today:

“We want to insure that customers who have typically been book buyers do not migrate their purchasing into borrowing as accessibility to our books becomes frictionless,” as Alison Lazarus, the president of sales for Macmillan, previously told LJ. “This would imperil our retailers, wholesalers, authors and ourselves and would ultimately be detrimental to libraries,” she said.

Here’s the kicker from that same article:

Some publishers like the idea of in-library lending of ebooks as a way to recreate the “friction” of a print transaction: The patron has to physically go to the library.

So, for those playing the library eBook home game, let’s recap:

  • eBooks are treated the same way as physical books under the “1 copy, 1 person” rule, despite the fact that they are computer files;
  • eBooks are licensed, not owned (unless you’re lucky enough to be in Kansas), therefore First Sale Doctrine rights do not apply and content can be pulled at any time for any reason… just like it was in the last few months;
  • The idea of recreating the friction of print books for eBooks is a good idea.

Everyone up on the same page here now? Excellent.

When publishers talk about recreating friction, I just want to say ‘no thanks’. Libraries are moving towards a frictionless or seamless world of information and content access, not recreating the inconveniences of the past. Progress on this particular material does not move through clinging to the models of the past. I’m sorry if this makes our so-called publishing partners uncomfortable, but honestly, get over it. Or at least have the decency to produce a study or a survey or some sort of hard evidence as to why such friction is necessary aside from imaginative executive speculation. If we are going to tell our library members something that sounds stupid when we say it, give us something to justify your rationales.

(By the way, publisher hand wringing about the future ain’t got nothing on librarian hand wringing about the future. Your version of this fretting activity is our dinner theater.)

So I ask this most basic of questions: are these the people we really want to partner with as we move forward? To clarify what I mean by “moving forward”, I mean it in the plain sense of “the future”. Because, as I see it, this library future is going to be heavily based on digital platforms and outlets. It will be about information access from anywhere at anytime by any (authorized) user. How will this future mesh with a partner who wants their digital content to be treated as if it was print? While we move forward, we have a partner trying to drag us backwards.

I might add that these rules are the publishing companies attempt at having their cake and eating it: treating the digital as if it was print while usurping any First Sale Doctrine rights. They will have achieved the total control they have sought for years over their content. Keep in mind that these are the companies that have supported legislation like SOPA. They aren’t interested in our mission, they are interested in our budgets and what we can do for them. Don’t let their statements of support fool you; this is still a money game since love doesn’t pay the bills.

Perhaps when publishers join the 21st century and start acting like true partners, then we’ll be able to work out this eBook issue together. Until then, we are subject to their uninformed whims and unfounded speculations.

Penguin Unfriends Libraries

In joining the other publishing benchwarmers today, Penguin pulled the rest of its catalog from Overdrive. Enjoy the Penguin press release on this occasion:

In these ever changing times, it is vital that we forge relationships with libraries and build a future together.  We care about preserving the value of our authors’ work as well as helping libraries continue to serve their communities.  Our ongoing partnership with the [American Library Association] is more important than ever, and our recent talks with ALA leadership helped bring everything into focus.
Looking ahead, we are continuing to talk about our future plans for eBook and digital audiobook availability for library lending with a number of partners providing these services. Because of these discussions, as of February 10, 2012, Penguin will no longer offer additional copies of eBooks and audiobooks for purchase via Overdrive.
Physical editions of Penguin’s new and backlist titles will continue to be available in libraries everywhere.

This sort of sentiment begs the old saying that starts out “With friends like these…” They could have at least thrown us a bone as to whether it was Overdrive or libraries that were making them nervous about their bottom line. In looking back at Molly Raphael’s report from meeting with publishers last week, I’m guessing that it is us.

“A key issue that arose in each meeting is the degree to which “friction” may decline in the ebook lending transaction as compared to lending print books. From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work that often involves two trips—one to pick up the book and one to return it. The online availability of e-books alters this friction calculation, and publishers are concerned that the ready download-ability of library ebooks could have an adverse effect on sales.”

(Emphasis mine.)

That last sentence gave me the twitchy eye. Perhaps it could be explained as Molly’s interpretation, but there is something about that “could have” phrase. It suggests a line of thinking for which there is no supporting empirical evidence. Has there been any research, a study, or other inquiry that shows a correlation between an increase in library eBook lending and a drop in sales? There is raw data that exists showing how many eBook checkouts in a library region and there are sales figures showing the sales for that area. Has anyone analyzed these numbers? Who is doing the market research for these people?

Can their presumption be proven? Has it already been proven?

All I know is that limiting your market is not always the best way to expand it. If you want people to read, then you make it as widely available as you can. The placement of obstacles just stymies the average modern consumer, a person whose demand for instant gratification will just have them move on to the next thing.

This is just a nice reminder that publishers have shifted to selling a product, not a culture. I guess the latter is up to us to provide.

(h/t: Librarian in Black)

If Libraries are More than Just Books, Then Where are All the Damn Technology Awards?

The first draft title for this post was “If Libraries are More than Just Books, then Why Are There So Many Damn Book Awards?” but I figured that some humorless literal folks would see it as a challenge to giving out book awards. I don’t have any qualms about recognizing authors and illustrators for their fine efforts and I’d rather not get bogged down sidetracked with the elaborate interworkings of the book awards world. However, if the case is being made that libraries are more than just books and then the largest and most visible library association in the United States (the ALA) hands out awards mainly to people who create books, then there is some sort of dissonance afoot.

In looking through the Awards and Grants page on the ALA website, the first section entitled “Books, Print, & Media awards” has thirty eight awards of which only three are for non-book accomplishments (ABC-CLIO Online History Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video, and the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production). Two of these are duplicated “Youth Media Awards” which lists seventeen awards. None of these are for the creation, development, and/or use of technology in the library (although there could be a very muddled argument for the ABC-CLIO one).

To be fair, there are probably technology based awards in the Professional Recognition section; I only scanned the list for any that sounded promisingly and didn’t click on all of them. I will concede that there are probably some technology awards hidden in there that I just didn’t discover. But my counterargument would be that those professional awards don’t share the same stature as a Newbery or Caldecott or Printz accolades. They aren’t public facing nor further a idea that the library is collaborative learning space or internet and information access location.  

I will also concede that the awards I have mentioned specifically predate the digital age and are the product of years of reputation building. There is a lot to be said about the continued tradition of recognition in this aspect and I fully support the continuation of such awards. However, given the movement towards digital and technology integration into the modern library, shouldn’t there be national library association awards to reflect the innovations and efforts of individuals and industries that exemplify that?

Somebody call Bill Gates. He’s a fan of libraries and seems to know a thing or two about the digital age. He might just like the sound of the “Bill Gates Library Technology Award” complete with his face in a bronze medallion. Traditions start somewhere and this one should begin with recognizing the people who make library technology and information retrieval possible at a national level. If libraries are more than just books, then this would be a start to acknowledging it as part of our own professional culture.