Why Are Librarians Picking So Many Fights?

At the end of last week, I asked on Twitter if people thought Amazon was a threat. This was on the heels of their announcement that the company was getting the Harry Potter books for the Kindle Lending Library. There was a ripple through the librarian social media and I wanted to get a barometer reading from my Twitter followers which seemed split between saying yes and no.

Over the weekend, I’ve started to think that it’s the wrong question. Hell, it’s the wrong line of thought. This feels like the picking of a fight; worse, it is the instigation of an unnecessary conflict. Why? Because some company deigned to add a service that mimics a function that the library serves. To add insult to injury, they made a reference to the long waits for library eBooks in their announcement. If my peers are going to get up in arms about one line in a product announcement, this just demonstrates how thin our skin is at the moment.

Perhaps it is more of a reaction to the unfairness felt by public librarians at the hands of publishers over the issue of eBooks, but Amazon isn’t the culprit for the eBook lending woes. Whether Amazon will allow library lending from their own publishing arm is something yet to be seen; I would not rule it out nor would I hold my breath waiting for it. But that move will not make or break public libraries either.

Another company that raises some librarian blood pressures is Google. Aside from killing ready reference (in the nicest possible way), there are intermittent rows over privacy policies, that book scanning project that been stalled, the scholar search they created, and possibly that library partnership they abandoned a few year ago. While these differences are bound to occur between a global company and a vast and varied network of library entities, it does not rise to the declaration of war or threat level that some of my peers have proclaimed. Yes, there is overlap in some of the services that Google and the library provide, but there are still a vast number of differences in goals, direction, principles, and execution that do not put the two on a collision course.

As of this moment, I have yet to see Amazon or Google (or any other company for that matter) as being the reason cited that any library has been cut or closed. It’s always been a matter of political will, whether it is local, state, or national. The threat is not from these companies or ones like them; it is from our own communities. In fact, our communities are a bigger actual threat than the imagined threats from these outside entities. Our communities are the investors, the stakeholders, and the immediate purse string holders. It doesn’t get any more “power over life” than that.

I should say for the record that there are some fights that are worth picking. (*cough*the academic publishing model*cough*inadequate public funding models*cough*recognition of the school librarian as a fellow teacher and educator*cough*) But looking for a fight with anyone who glances over at our setups is a bit, well, psychotic. There are real threats out there that need to be confronted, but this inclination to fight any threat (real or perceived) sounds very Dick Cheney-ish. Such continued behavior is a waste of valuable resources (most notably time and energy), it leads to issue and threat fatigue, and distracts from the attitudes, perceptions, and people who can ultimately shut a library down.

So, before you go and shout to the world about something that is a ‘library killer’, please take some time to get some perspective on how and why it would. The world is full of enough fears, it doesn’t need someone to conjure up new ones.

eBooks for Libraries Petition (And Why It Is More Important to Share It Than To Sign It)

Library Renewal and the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library started a petition entitled simply, “eBooks for Libraries”. They set up a pretty slick website where you can see a video, read a bit about the issue, and (most importantly in any campaign) sign a petition. Their goal is to send publishers a simple message: if you want to reach the reader’s market, there is no better way to do so than to sell eBooks to libraries. Period. End of discussion.

The importance of not simply signing this petition but sharing it is twofold: first, in asking publishers to consider selling to libraries, it helps to demonstrate a market. Not just ALA entourages meeting with publishers, not just librarians lobbying companies to be more open with their selling practices, but putting forth an actual end user who will use and enjoy their work. This petition really isn’t meant for librarians to pass around to each other and encourage signatures; goodness knows how much librarians dig this kind of inside baseball. No, the target signees here are your library members. These are the people that organizations like ALA have shown to buy things that they originally borrowed from the library. The people who are the subjects of studies that indicate that people who borrow books tend to buy more books. While the common example that is kicked around is the “lost sale”, where is the talk about the “double dip” from people who borrow the book from the library (which the library purchased) and then bought a copy for themselves? It’s the simple demonstration that engaging in these kinds of sales can help the publishing market and increases its revenues.

Second, this is a good way to educate our public library members as well as provide them with a means to make a difference. To the first point, this is an issue in which the stakeholders (the taxpayers) are generally unaware of important nuances of this library issue. Every time I teach a class on how to download eBooks, I tell people that they may not see their favorite author or book because the publisher refuses to make it available for library lending. It never fails to get looks of astonishment and head shakes. People simply do not know the details and importance of their involvement; this petition puts it out there in easy-to-digest terms. As to the second point, it is imperative to provide people with a means of making a difference. Yes, an online petition might not have the same effect as thousands of people marching on these companies in protest, but this is one place where change starts.

Personally, I think a goal of 10,000 signatures is far too modest. I managed to get 70,000 by the time I ended my HarperCollins petition at Change.org, and about 50,000 of them came over the course of a week. The people who are readers and public library supporters are out there and I guarantee there are more than 10,000 of them. It’s time to go for the gusto and blow the doors off this goal. I encourage everyone to send this petition far and wide. Share this petition now so that people in the future can enjoy a greater share of the library eBook experience. Now, let’s do it.

Fifty Shades of Unsurprised

I was waiting for it to happen ever since it entered the pop culture mainstream and so it has finally come to pass:

Florida Library Removes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ Erotic Trilogy, From Shelves

The Brevard County Public Library system in east central Florida has pulled copies of the books from its shelves after officials decided they were not suitable for public circulation.

“We view this as pornographic material,” Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said in an interview on Friday. “I have not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but I’ve read reviews of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ From what I understand, it’s a lot about male dominance and female submissiveness.”

Brevard public libraries ban bestselling book over sexually explicit content

The Brevard County Library director decided to take it off the shelves of the county’s 19 library branches.

They originally had bought 17 copies of the trilogy.

But after ready reviews, they decided the book didn’t belong in their collection.

“Well the criteria is we don’t put pornography on our bookshelves and that’s in general right now what the tone of this book is,” said Brevard Co. Government Communications Director Don Walker. “I mean if you read any of the reviews, they’re saying that it’s a book that’s based largely on male dominance, female submissiveness, soft porn. I’ve heard it described as mommy porn.”

Fond du Lac Public Library says ‘no’ to controversial bestseller

The best-selling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” will not be found on the shelves at Fond du Lac Public Library.

Library Director Ken Hall said there were no plans to purchase the controversial book, which delves into romance and sadomasochism.

“‘We don’t collect erotica’,” Hall said he was told by the person who orders books for the library — and he supports the decision.

Fond du Lac Library Declines to Buy Controversial Bestseller

Public Library officials are explaining their decision not to purchase a popular, yet controversial, romance novel. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a New York Times best selling book and will soon become a major motion picture.

The novel also contains a lot of sex. One book reviewer even dubbed it “mommy porn.”

“We have to take a look at the work as a whole,” FDL Public Library Director Ken Hall said. “What is in the book other than salacious material? So far, we haven’t found anything in it(other than salacious material).”

Based on anecdotes I’ve heard from librarians over the last couple of years, this whole situation sounds like a replay of the Madonna “Sex” book controversy from the 1990’s. Some libraries won’t order it, some will find the book being challenged (both successfully and unsuccessfully), some libraries circulate it and then realize what they’ve done and pull it (opening themselves up to another kind of controversy), and the rest libraries will just treat it like any other material. Over the next year or so, there will be a steady output of librarian based intellectual freedom naval gazing in which the objective and theoretical principles of collection development will square off against the on-the-ground reality of local collection policies and community needs. The tension between the two viewpoints will rise but not resolve itself.

Lather, rinse, and repeat as each successive book comes out in this trilogy. We’re in for a couple of iterations of this issue.

Personally, this sort of controversy brings up the question, “How is this book different than anything else in your average romance section?” Apparently, based on quote above from FDL Director Ken Hall, the difference between Fifty Shades and those other romance books is that the latter actually have something called a plot.  So long as Jane is trying to find her place in publishing world or Bob is trying to overcome the death of his wife, they can get all the nookie they want. But if I was to cut out all of the plot elements and just palce the erotic scenes run back to back, it would be potentially unacceptable for inclusion. I’m glad to know there is such a fine distinction between romance and smut.

In any case, I feel that Banned Books week should be paired with “National Update Your Collection and Challenge Material Policies Because You Probably Need To (No, Seriously, Do It)” week. While Fond du Lac can point to a policy in place, Brevard just looks incompetent by adding the book to the collection and then unilaterally removing it based on reviews (the same reviews available to anyone with an internet connection). I have a feeling that there is more to the Brevard decision since the quotes from officials down there don’t pass the smell test for me, but that’s something for time to tell.

My prediction is that, in ten years time, this will be another fabulous footnote in some library science textbook on intellectual freedom. What do you think?

UPDATE: The lovely and awesome people of Twitter have pointed out a post on Heroes and Heartbreakers linking to a search of the Brevard County Libraries catalog showing books that are erotically on par or even more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey. In responding to my post on Twitter,  Robin Bradford and glossaria note that library carries authors such as Zane (specifically The Sisters of APF: “the indoctrination of soro ride dick”), Lora Leigh (“known (specifically) for her hot anal sex scenes”), Anne Rice/Roqualaure (Sleeping Beauty trilogy), Anais Nin (including Delta of Venus), and Joey Hill. This does beg the question as to whether this removal is more about this particular book than erotic literature collection in general.

(h/t to Robin and glossaria for sharing their expertise!)

UPDATE: Sarah Mae Harper shared a link to this story on the Brevard Library System book removal. Pull quote:

While the naughty novel doesn’t check out with local library officials, a quick look at the Brevard system’s online catalogue reveals a solid stash of some of the most erotic and enduring literature.

Copies of “The Complete Kama Sutra” are available through the Cocoa Beach, Mims/Scottsmoor, Palm Bay and Titusville branches. Also up for grabs countywide: “Fanny Hill,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Fear of Flying,” “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lolita.”

So what makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” different?

“I think because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing,” Schweinsberg said. “This is not a classic.”

(Thanks Sarah!)

Tor and DRM and Libraries

In the midst of my illness laden life a week ago, I managed to catch the announcement that Tor was going to drop DRM from its books starting in July. Perhaps it was the fever, but it seemed to generate a lot of buzz and speculation about whether this would be the beginning of the end for eBook DRM. It was wrapped up in optimism as to which publishers would follow suit and when, as if it was a logical conclusion.

In following up on it for this post, the first thing I noticed in the BBC article is that Macmillan called it an “experiment”. This phrase alone raises enough flags to starts its own color guard. Sure, it’s a fancier term for “trying something out”, but it means there are metrics that are being followed and measured closely. For myself, this raises a few more questions to ponder. What kind of timeline is this experiment going to run? Months? Years? What are the variables that are being tracked? Sales? Bit torrent file movements? Just how big a dataset are we talking here?

Like other recent moves in publishing, I have a hunch that this is going to be watched by the other publishers before making their own move. This isn’t something for the short term, it’s going to be for the long term; however, it does mean that attitudes are shifting within the industry. But in the meantime, I highly advise against holding your breath.

In the meantime, I don’t believe DRM is going anywhere. The fear of piracy is such an emotional trigger that anything that appears to make it easier will have a hard time offering a logical argument for removing a barrier. It’s a very human response to overestimate risks that involve an emotional aspect when the actual facts and statistics prove that the risk is low or non-existent. Consider the fear of dying from an act of terrorism (extremely low) versus dying from a car accident (statistically much more likely). The former kept us from flying commercially for a year after 9/11 while fatal car accidents can be found in the news nearly everyday. After years of sensational news stories about file sharing and bit torrents, it’s hard not to imagine that the first reaction to any discussion about eBooks and DRM is not an emotional one.

If there is one group that will not see the end of DRM anytime soon (if ever), that would be libraries. Given the current apprehension to eBook lending, DRM is the only assurance that companies like Overdrive can give to publishers to ensure that these eBooks don’t virtually walk on them. It will be the ‘friction’ that publishers want to ensure that the retail transaction is smoother than the library one and to offer a non-existent guarantee that a book does not overstay in someone’s device. With eBooks, purchasing will always be encouraged over lending, whether it is from the library or one person to the next.

And so it begins, the long wait while the Tor experiment runs its course. DRM is not dead, it’s just in a transitional period; it is especially not dead for libraries.