Handhelds in School Libraries Conference

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Handhelds in School Libraries unconference sponsored by the New Jersey library cooperative, LibraryLinkNJ. This conference idea originated in the hallway of last year’s New Jersey Library Association conference as an event for school librarians who couldn’t attend the annual conference since it’s in the middle of the week. Sophie Brookover took the idea and ran with it as it morphed into an unconference that would focus on devices as well as e-content. As part of the conference committee (which is the price you pay for having the idea in the first place), I helped out where I could in pulling this event together.

I have to say that this particular conference really blew me away. As a public librarian, I am not very privy to the remarkable barriers and hurdles that school librarians have to pass through as they attempt to carry out their role in the education system. It made me feel like my own journeys through the government created work bureaucracy was set on easy mode; the education version is permanently set on nightmare. Nevermind getting buy-in from your fellow teachers, but try doing it up the school pecking order from the principal to the superintendent to the school board, all of which are subject to the imput of parents and taxpayers. Anywhere along that line an idea, concept, or approach can get taken out. Now, add in different policies (or no policy) when it comes to internet usage and filtering as well as student use of phone and devices on top of that. And that’s not the end of it when you consider the No Child Left Behind factor at the same time when school librarians are being cut from the budget. I really could go on, but I hope you get the gist of it. Our school libraries are more like islands, cut off from the same sorts of supporting entities that other library types enjoy.

For myself, it was a day of remarkable conversations, even if I was just eavesdropping on others. Bad computer infrastructure, overbearing filtering software, uncooperative colleagues and administrators, and budget cuts got their moment in the sun as people spoke plainly about their obstacles. What I found compelling was the moments of collaboration and education that appeared at different times all over the conference. I could see the light bulb moments flash into existence as people found answers or new possible ways to incorporate devices, phones, or e-content in their school libraries. The best moments for me was when it was apparent that a connection had been made; not simply between two people or an idea, but the connection that comes with being able to compare situations and derive new strategies and thinking from it.

Exhausted as I was from Computers in Libraries and getting back on a late train, it was an incredible conference for me. I’d like to thank Sophie, Dee, Alice, Janice, Joanne, and Cheryl for making this event possible. I really look forward to doing this again in the future. And if you’re a library advocate or activist, make it a point to attend conferences outside of your library type. You will learn a ton about how some of our colleagues work and live. It’s well worth it.

My CIL 2012 Presentation

At the urging of one of my co-presenters, I’m posting the script I used for my CIL presentation last week. A few things to note:

  1. I generally don’t use slides unless I absolutely have to. I dislike Powerpoint and am alright with Prezi, but I have a very non-scientific theory called the “Bermuda Triangle of Modern Audiences”. Between staring at you, the slides, and their personal devices, it makes attention spans disappear into thin air. I’d rather have just myself at the visual so I work to make up for it.
  2. Yes, I do write in asides, jokes, and other little seemingly ‘off the cuff’ remarks. Sometimes I use them, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I add things in when I speak. The transcript of the recording will not exactly match the script, but it’s close enough.
  3. This particular talk had been rolling over in my brain for months. I went through a bunch of different starts, different tones, and different messages that I wanted to share. I ended up using the first one I created and, like magic, the words finally flowed for me. Well, sort of. I was pretty insane with rage by the time I finished the script due to the closing deadline as well the difficulty of the presentation birthing process. I read through it and it seemed fine. Thanks to Sarah for reading over it to tell me I was not insane and Julie for letting me practice present it to her. Both of you gave me the confidence to stand up there and let loose.

For those interested, here is the video recording of the presentation with Michael, Sarah, and myself. I have a hard time watching myself, but I felt it went very well. It misses my first few lines so you can read them below in the script.



It took me a few weeks to try to find the right words in order to summarize my perspective on eBooks, but in a sudden late insight it finally yielded to me. And it sounds something like this:

Everything is amazing and no one is happy.

Doesn’t that capture the current state of affairs perfectly? I thought so. (I lifted that line from a Louis CK interview on Conan O’Brien. It’s on YouTube and I highly suggest checking it out.)

Everything *is* amazing. Look at what the computing and communication revolutions have created in the last two decades. We can beam text and pictures across the world in a matter of moments. There are online platforms in which average citizens have come together in ways that can change their worlds, in political revolutions like the Arab Spring and the unvolunteered governmental transparency of Wikileaks. Even as I am talking to you right here and right now in Washington DC, my words are being shared (possibly) across Twitter in real time with people around the country and around the globe. In the span of a few generations, we have moved from telephones with party lines and radio relays to hand-held devices that allow us to contact anyone from nearly anywhere while providing a cornucopia of information at our fingertips. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the advances in computing and communication technology that have changed within your lifetime AND to which we now take for granted.

Everything *is* amazing.

And yet, no one is happy when it comes to eBooks. What could possibly be wrong with a product that you don’t have to spend money on to print, gas and transportation for shipping, is the current object of desire for serious bibliophiles and the institutions that serve that demographic, and works on handheld devices that everyone from 4 to 104 can use with arguably relative ease?

Apparently, EVERYTHING.

Let’s start with librarians since, well, that’s the group I know the best in this equation. We (the royal we) want ebooks but we can’t or won’t get them. I say “can’t” because the majority of the remaining major publishers do not allow for library lending of their ebooks. Full stop. There’s not much of a supply and demand to the situation when the supply is being withheld.

I also say “won’t” not simply because either we are too short staffed and underbudgeted (which are pretty legitimate reasons), but I feel there is a high lazy factor at play here. There is an unfortunate prevailing professional tendency to seek a solution that requires the least amount of work and energy in order to implement; I feel that there is an overwhelming and far too common desire to simply accept solutions and services that work right out of the box. We like to throw money at problems. When that doesn’t work, we try to acquire larger stacks of money because that’s easier than practicing our aim or changing the size of the target.

This must be why there is great confusion as to why money won’t solve the eBook dilemma for libraries. We have it, they want it, so what’s the problem here, right?

It’s not that publishers don’t want library money; they certainly are willing to take it through multiple channels and things such as library editions and other upsales of their wares. No, that’s not the issue here.

Publishers just don’t trust our customer base.

While librarians in theory work to uphold the principles of copyright and not engaging in unauthorized copying (otherwise known by the misnomer of ‘pirating’), we can’t extend a guarantee of such upstanding behavior for our community. When that computer readable DVD or CD goes out our doors, we can’t verify that the patron won’t copy it or rip it into iTunes or otherwise post it online. The publishers hold firm in their belief that, for the price of a library card, the average consumer can gorge themselves on digital content without laying a dime on the retail counter.

Scary, right?

Hell, this fear extends into the consumer realm with publishers and authors controlling the ability as to whether an eBook can be lent by a retail customer to another person. Even then, the terms call for a short borrowing period (2 weeks at most) as well as limited ability (one time only, if I recall correctly). Since the consumer only licenses the content, that’s not an overreach but a judicious management of intellectual property… right?

So, what is the common thread here between libraries and the consumer? To me, it looks like the “problem” is sharing.

You know, sharing, right? That thing that is on every status update on Twitter and Facebook and other social media outlets and the widget at the bottom of every online news article and blog post and probably the reason why they created a Forwarding option for email and that marketing through the ages has been encouraging people to do by word of mouth (“tell your friends!”) and not only that it is something practiced as a cultural norm regarding hospitality and continues to exist as an oral tradition (the precursor to print, mind you) and if we concentrate really really hard it is something that probably went ALL THE WAY back to our ancestors sitting around a community fire (or for some of you, the Garden of Eden) sharing ideas, stories, myths, legends, thoughts, and other intellectual and cultural lineages?

Yeah, that’s the sharing I hear about, the truly “dark” underside of the development that comes with being a complex social creature. This is “the horror” that comes from breeding technology and culture together. Ebooks are the resulting child of this union, endowed with all the the traits of this constantly emerging digital world… along with the expectations of the long established and deeply rooted cultural object. 

Is that what all this fanfare and turmoil and handwringing and meetings and blog posts and trade articles and “friction” and revenue streams and very serious people making very serious faces *really* about?


And to imagine that I thought there was an actual problem at the heart of the issue of eBooks.

Because here is the undeniable truth of this issue: sharing wins.

Sharing wins.

Sharing will always win.

First of all, it has a major cultural and social headstart of ten’s of thousands of years. Our delightfully intricate monkey brains are built for it. Our organizations of knowledge are constructed with that in mind. And our current aforementioned increasing complex social platforms are built towards it.

Second, sharing is already happening. It happens when people thwart those lending limitations by registering multiple Kindles or Nooks on one account so they can pass around books they buy with impunity. It happens when websites pop up to facilitate ebook loans between complete strangers. People aren’t waiting for libraries to find a solution to ebook lending, they are making their own. And not just hopping onto bit torrents to do it.

Third, people will fight on this principle alone. What a book has given them in terms of feelings, insights, experience, knowledge, and changed their world is something they will want their friends and families to share in as well. The notions of copyright and intellectual property are quaint and adorable, but really, no one will have an epitaph on their headstone that reads, “He lived a fulfilling life within the strict confines of Title 17”. The inclination to share stories, thoughts, ideas, and concepts is more philosophically compelling than the rules around them.

Good day, sir.

So, what can be done?

Invest in the rights of the reader. Grant people a claim on the eBooks that they purchase. Give them a vested interest. Build a community around it. Show the reader that you value them by giving up rights to them. Don’t hold them at arm’s length. Bring them in to you!

People want to share. Enable it. Hell, monetize it with rewards for lenders who end up generating sales. Every book made available to the hands of a reader is taking a space that would otherwise be filled with a competitor’s book or competing interest. And two weeks? Get rid of time limits. Why put a shot clock on reading? Who cares if a book is lent and doesn’t come back for six months? (Aside from librarians, that is.) And one time lends? Why would you make people choose who they can lend a book to only once? I’m sure that has never led to an argument between family or friends. That’s inane, it’s strangely cruel, and it’s miserly.

To bring all these thoughts and words home, I give you my bottom line:

If you treat a book like a book, people will notice and act accordingly. If you treat a book like a computer file, people will rise to those expectations. No aspiring writer will answer the call to write the next Great American Computer File. While I concede that eBooks possess the vulnerabilities of a digital format, I urge all parties (librarians, authors, publishers) to embrace, nurture, and carry forward the cultural associations of the book into the digital realm. The eBook is greater than the sum of its contents and containers.

Act like it and the world will follow.

Thank you.

Schrödinger’s eBook

Last week, I had the privilege of both attending and speaking at the Computers in Libraries conference in Washington DC. As can be expected of a technology oriented conference, eBooks were prominently featured as an entire track for the two of the three days of the conference. There were presentations on the future of the medium, how to market them, how publishing is going to change because of them, what libraries are doing things now, and the challenges they present. Even so, I think a basic fundamental question was punted by the organizers and the participants (myself included). That question is this:

“Is an eBook a book?”

There is a significant problem when people who are employed in the publishing industry or the librarian profession (book experts, you might call both groups) cannot give the same answer as to whether an eBook is a book or not. There was even a presentation that started with a PowerPoint slide entitled “eBooks are not books”, then proceeded to use nearly the exact same book acquisition terms to describe the collection and management of eBooks. After making a starting claim that they are not the same and should be treated differently, the use of the same language felt like it controverted this point. Also, I don’t believe these differing viewpoints break down on publisher-librarian lines; each group has members that hold opposing viewpoints on this question. For myself, this is an example of the greater mounting confusion as to where eBooks fit in to the greater societal and cultural picture.

Seriously, this should be the only question being discussed at this time because it is the most fundamentally important one. How can the other questions as posed by the presentations mentioned above be answered if we (the book expert people of all stripes) cannot come to a united conclusion as to whether an eBook is actually a book or a computer file or something else. It must be settled because each possible answer takes us (publishers, libraries, authors, readers) down very different paths. Nevermind that there are inherent implications and associations that are held regarding books and computer files, many of which are not shared (no pun intended). This question absolutely needs to be resolved before we can truly move forward with eBooks.

For those who wish to hold the middle ground and declare that eBooks are both books and computer files, it is here that I feel that best comparison of such a belief resembles the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. In declaring that it exists in both mediums simultaneously, it places the eBook in a virtual quantum state in which the observer determines what they want the eBook to based on the situation. Rather than relying on a random event as to whether the cat is alive or dead (as Schrödinger’s experiment stated)), the eBook either becomes a computer file or a book when it is convenient to do so.

When it comes to appealing to readers, publicity, and the sales pitch as to why to read a particular book, the eBook invokes all of the tried-and-true lines and clichés that invoke the way books make us feel and the thrill of the printed word. When it comes to ownership or reigning in sharing capabilities or other traditionally associated values of a book, it magically morphs into a computer file subject to the terms, limitations, and end user agreements that are pressed upon the buyer at the time of purchase. This slight of hand behavior suggests that an eBook is a book except when it isn’t; this is a poisonous paradox that will inhibit the future of this medium if it not resolved one way or another.

Personally, I believe eBooks are books in the same way that water is still water whether it is in a solid form (ice), liquid, or a gas (steam). The different phases of matter still have the same molecular structure; the conversion process does not change this fundamental core. Likewise, in converting the print to digital (or even audio for that matter), it does not subvert the fundamental nature of the literature and prose contained within the medium. In other words, the content of an eBook conforms with the expectations of literature, not computer science. Therefore, it is a book.

I concede that this is not a perfect reasoning nor that this conclusion is not open to some good counterarguments. However, I believe that in making this ultimate determination, it will assist in all decisions made downstream from it from how eBooks are handled, collected, and curated; security measures to promote acceptable forms of sharing while preventing unauthorized copying; and the establishment of clear rights to authors, publishers, libraries, and consumers. What counts is that a starting basis is established from which we as a literate and reading society can move forward.

So, how would you answer the question: is an eBook a book?

This is Your Brain on eBooks

In prepping for my CIL talk on Thursday, I came across these two eBook related articles that I wanted to share. The first is written by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi discussing the lack of spatial navigation cues for our brains to latch onto. Pull quote:

The web, from its text-shifting sites to its entire large-scale structure, is navigated with little or no actual navigation, and a lot of teleportation.

In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods.

And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable.


The web and e-books have upsides physical libraries do not, of course, but they are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential. We should embrace the new technologies, but utilize them in novel ways that take seriously the topography of the information.

The second article comes from Time magazine health writer Maia Szalavitz and builds on Changizi’s argument. Pull quote:

This seems irrelevant at first, but spatial context may be particularly important because evolution may have shaped the mind to easily recall location cues so we can find our way around. That’s why great memorizers since antiquity have used a trick called the “method of loci” to associate facts they want to remember with places in spaces they already know, like rooms in their childhood home. They then visualize themselves wandering sequentially through the rooms, recalling the items as they go. […]

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print, especially pared-down versions like the early Kindles, which simply scroll through text and don’t even show page numbers, just the percentage already read. In a sense, the page is infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. Printed books on the other hand, give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.

Combined with a TED talk by neuroscientist Neil Burgress talking about how our brains tell us where we are, it gave me a moment of pause. While there is a real push to use eBooks in the education setting, I’m wondering if and how our brains will adapt to this kind of container change. I don’t believe that it is a complete wash, but it sounds like the difference between flying with good visibility versus flying by instruments only. Without outside points of reference, it changes the operation of the aircraft completely.

I’m looking forward to hearing more studies on the subject, but I have a feeling that eBooks might be somewhat at odds with the way our brains evolved. The next decade should be fascinating to see how our brains adapt… or not.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

PLA & Movers & Shakers

I’m off to PLA at the latter end of this week, but I wanted to congratulate the 2012 Library Journal Movers & Shakers that were revealed this week. I was pleased to see some familiar faces (Brett, Leah, Allen, JP, Nate, Nina, Emily, Richard, Allie) as well as looking forward to learning about the projects and causes of those I have yet to meet. I find that this particular Library Journal issue provides personal inspiration for new ideas, thoughts, and projects.

Once again, congratulations to the 2012 Movers & Shakers. And if you see me at PLA, stop me and say hi!

Alternative Uses for the Pesky eBook Budget

Not happy with an eBook collection that has limited checkouts or paying three times the price for the “privilege”? I’m willing to bet that there are better uses for that eBook budget money that would yield a higher rate of return on investment, better community outreach and involvement, and/or make more fiscal sense for your library’s stakeholders. So, I brainstormed a few ideas but I’m hoping that you can help me think of more possible uses. Let’s begin!

(Note: Your results may vary. Not all ideas are suited for all library types, shapes, and sizes. Remember to always take what works and adapt/discard the rest.-A)

  • Programming! No time like the present to bolster up your programming content! Do your part to stimulate the economy and employ someone to teach a class, perform, or lecture about a local subject or interest. If you hire locally, you keep the money in the local economy. Alternatively, take the money and use it to provide refreshments or catering to current programs. Food brings people together! Programming is excellent for bringing people through your doors and into your building where you can educate them as to what other goods and services the library has to offer. Use programming to bring something different and unique to the library. Consider the top circulating subjects in this Library Journal article. Does your library have programming to reflect this kind of interest?
  • Hire Someone! The current theme right now is being short staffed, so why not take that money and hire someone to help out? It gives someone a job, it helps out the local economy, and it keeps the other staff from reaching the breaking point. Whether it’s a high school kid to shelve books or an adult to run a circulation desk for a couple of hours, that could make a difference in staff morale and time management.
  • Build Something Cool! Like a Digital Media Lab. Or a recording studio. Perhaps not those things specifically, but something that reflects the needs of the community on a larger scale. These two examples represent something that people generally don’t have in their own homes but are useful for their interests or hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it just has to serve a need that currently isn’t being met.
  • Start a New (and Different) Collection! Guitars, seeds, kitchen tools, museum passes, and video games are some of the collections out there right now. They represent a wide range of interests and activities within the community. Consider this idea from the life enrichment perspective; in fostering people’s interest and curiosity, this could be the next logical step to support such pursuits. Nurturing the cultural and intellectual pursuits are not simply limited to print or visual media! These kinds of collections get people using their other senses as well as up and out in the world.
  • Start Your Own eBook Partnership! Douglas County Libraries in Colorado have formed a partnership with the Colorado Independent Publishers Association for eBooks. Whether a library goes on their own or through a consortium, this kind of trail has been blazed already. I’m going to guess that you might even get a better deal out of it with less hassle.

I understand that this list represents a variety of complexity in execution, but they are alternatives paths to spend library budget money in productive ways for the benefit of the community. It’s really up to each library to evaluate the situation and consider the best course of action. I would hope that this would inspire people to reconsider the current eBook deal and invest in their library in a different way. There are always other paths that can be taken.

If you have other ideas, leave them as a comment or a pingback and I’ll add them to the post.

Note to Overdrive: Make a Deal with Amazon Publishing

To me, this makes sense in the wake of the Random House price hike, Penguin withdrawing their collection, and HarperCollins continuing with their limited eBook checkout policy. Amazon is poised to become the next major publisher, it has the deep pockets that can attract authors of all calibers to their fold, and librarians are hell bent on making sure that libraries offer eBooks to their communities (pricing or terms and conditions be damned). This is the perfect time for Amazon to come in with a public relations win by agreeing to non-sky high pricing with non-limited circulation demands.

Sure, we’ll still buy the essential eBooks by popular authors from HarperCollins and Random House, but we can get more for our money with Amazon authors. Why? Because we want to show genre diversity in our collection, a principle supported by the ability to purchase in quantity. I’ll presume that these books will be available only in Kindle books format, thus leading to hard conversations with members who purchased the Nook under the former understanding that it was completely library eBook compatible. This in turn could encourage people to buy Kindles in the future (or iPads, since they run the Kindle app) and taking away from sales of the Book, the Barnes & Noble device. (Barnes and Noble being the company that publishers are betting on to survive as a physical book retailer.) It will put Amazon authors into the hands of library patrons along with all of the marketing and information collection abilities that Amazon loves to offer and gather. They can achieve market dominance in the library eBook lending field just by showing up and not acting like an ass.

I’m not concerned with retaliation from other publishers. What could they do that they haven’t already to libraries? Would they hold back their print books? Refuse to sponsor ALA association awards? Write out another press release about how much they value their relationships with libraries and librarians yet still won’t consider eBook lending? Honestly, what could they possibly do?

Overdrive, make a deal with Amazon Publishing for eBook lending.

Random House Not So Random with Library Ebook Price Increases


First, let’s recap a few things.

Ebook library lending on the rise? Check.

Budgeting for eBooks predicted to rise over the next couple of years? Check. (Don’t confuse this rise with getting more money to spend; it means just a larger part of the current materials budget pie.)

Publishers full of insecurities when it comes to library eBook lending as a revenue channel? Check.

Random House still the only publisher that allows for unrestricted library lending? Check. Same company that saw sales for eBooks tripling over the course of a year? Check.

I’d say I was surprised by the steep nature of the Random House library eBook price increase, but I’m not. If they weren’t going the way of HarperCollins with the limited checkout model (which was a public relations stinker), then the only other thing they can do is increase the price. I would hope that for triple the price they’d at least throw in something (like being able to own the damn things), but alas it is still the same deal.

The best term I can think to describe the library side of the equation here is a poker term called “pot locked”. Simply put, it means that you’ve bet enough money that folding your hand is not an option; you’ve invested your future into the cards you have. For all the energy and efforts that have gone into getting library eBook lending in the first place, the library can’t simply back out after mustering up patron expectations and marketing the eBook lending service. As librarians will generally choose to provide content versus not providing it (terms and conditions be damned), those eBook budgets will still be spent to the last dollar. Granted, there will be less eBooks available to our communities but the content will still be there as we promised and swore that we would get for the people who support us.

Well played, Random House. Well played.

I’m guessing that if there was any group that should be pissed off by this price increase, it should be the midlist and emerging authors. Pricing like this means putting a priority on titles that we know will circulate rather than taking chances on midlist or new material that might not see the same use. That’s the consequences of having the same relative budget with a triple price increase; eBook collection development will turn into a very selective practice in which only the content with proven track records will be purchased. Sure, we’ll still buy the hardcover and paperback versions of your book, but at these prices you won’t grace our virtual shelves.

Maybe what is needed here is our own version of the Cost of Knowledge site. Given that the majority of librarians review and promote publisher’s content in our own communities without compensation, perhaps it is time to withhold this valuable word of mouth marketing. If my peers who do this kind of work in their spare time committed to not reviewing books that do not have a library eBook counterpart, I think we could get the movement that we want from the publishers. (I make an exemption for book bloggers who are paid to do it since it is an actual job, but I would hope that they have some discretion with what they review in order to follow suit.) Why should we have a book club discussion about the latest Lisa Scottoline or Stephen King novel when we can’t get it as an eBook title? Our power rests in what we talk about with our communities and what we put on display or use for library programming. It’s time to wield this power for the good of the people who use the library.

If anyone sets this up, let me know so I can proclaim it from the mountaintops. It’s time.