Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a couple of issues roll through the online librarian community: the Chick-fil-A gay marriage row, the Tosh ‘rape joke’ story, and the gun control commentary over the movie theater massacre in Aurora. I’m not here to rehash the multiple viewpoints on each of these subjects, but to hone in on something I observed with each one on both Facebook and Twitter: the loud and public announcements of unfriending or unfollowing on the basis of holding opposing positions by my fellow librarians.

On one hand, I understand it: a person can be so offended by someone else’s attitude that they wish to rid themselves of the malefactor. Social media is a platform of personal choices, ranging from whom to talk with to what to talk about. As such, it follows that it should not be an uncomfortable place.

Perhaps some of these actions are the product of the weak connections people have made on these services, choosing to associate with others for the most tenuous of reasons (“You like the color blue? Me too! Let’s connect!”). As easily as these bonds are formed, so too are they broken by the first brush with conflict; when relationships are built on such shaky connections, it does not take much to knock them down.

On the other hand, this open denouncement of another on the basis of holding a contradictory position has underlying implications that really bother me. Personally, I don’t see how ending an online friendship (acquaintanceship?) brings about any sort of understanding to any issue; in turning one’s back to another, it ends the dialogue right there. While I might not be able to convince someone to see things my way, at the very least I’d like them to know where I’m coming from (and vice versa). The movement towards a more inclusive and understanding greater society does not start by excluding people who don’t agree with you. In turning off people with dissimilar viewpoints, this action merely carves out a smaller and more efficient echo chamber and leads to gaps of comprehension and acknowledgement. When you stop questioning, examining, and evaluating the many facets of the world (including attitudes and beliefs), I think there is a lot to be lost in the greater whole.

Professionally, it feels like a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. To flat out reject and condemn someone’s personal ideas and feelings while defending the right to collect and provide access to unpopular, unsavory, and/or otherwise indicted works of literature seems hypocritical when placed next to each other. At first glance it puts a premium on published works over the spoken word or online social communication; a bound book is placed on an intellectual freedom pedestal while a tweet, Facebook update, or blog post is not afforded the same considerations. In my current comprehension of the concepts of intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression, I find no caveats or clauses allowing for its abridgement because it is not “correct” either socially, politically, or morally nor the format or medium where it appears.

Furthermore, such public acts perpetuate confirmation bias in our critics who believe that the library does not collect certain types of materials because it content is too conservative/liberal/etc. for the liberal/conservative/etc. librarians. While some might argue that there is a compartmentalization that happens when it comes to collecting material for the library that sets aside personal judgments, librarians are still imperfect human beings who opinions, beliefs, and biases. This kinds of behaviors erode our credibility to make that claim that we act in an unbiased and fair way in approaching our collections. Ultimately, it betrays some of the tenets of the profession that attracted us to it in the first place.

It is a fair counterargument to say that breaking ties with someone does not equate to telling them to be quiet or placing other restrictions upon them. Freedom of speech and expression are protected from government consequence, not social or societal. As well it should be since there should be a means in which to demonstrate or affirm one’s own belief system. For those people who simply broke ties without overtly condemning the opposing viewpoint, I concede the point. I can only rebut by saying that my observations have shown me that this is not always the case.

In writing this, I’m hoping that people step back and give a little more thought as to how they act when confronted with different opinions on their various social media platforms. It’s not that librarians shouldn’t wear their beliefs or politics on their sleeve, but they should be aware of how that looks and appears to others. At a time when the field is struggling with defining (and redefining) what the library is in this digital age, the perception of the library is a critical component. If we can’t make our credentials as neutral institutions unimpeachable, how are we different from the search biases displayed in search engines like Google and Bing, the slant of news companies like the New York Time or the Wall Street Journal, or any number of online entities that show you the world through their kaleidoscope?

I know I can’t possibly address all the extenuating and exacerbating circumstances that led people to unfollow or unfriend others, so some of what I wrote may not apply. As such, your mileage on this post may vary but I hope it offers food for thought.

In reflecting on what I have written before I press the Publish button, perhaps I am trapped in some form of naïve idealism which compels me to find a middle ground, one that wants me to engage and try to get a better understanding so that the world doesn’t look so vastly and wildly discombobulated. It’s not an easy undertaking in the slightest when faced with onerous and odious beliefs, but I still make the attempt. It’s part of an eternal struggle to reconcile intellectual freedom and freedom of expressions as ideals versus the reality of my own beliefs, opinions, and thoughts within the world around me. In working towards these ideals in their more pure form, I feel it strikes at the heart of the notion that the library is a place that offers something for everyone, regardless of who they are and what they believe. Libraries offer their collections and services to all who seek it, not all who are worthy it.

The Latest on the DOJ eBook Anti-Trust Suit

Today, the Department of Justice filed a response to the public comments on its settlement with three of the publishers in the case U.S. v Apple Inc., et al (also known as the price collusion case). They also established a webpage that has the response and all eight hundred and sixty comments submitted during the public comment period. I spent a little time today reading some of those comments (ok, skimming the legalese ones since they put handy summaries in the headings and at the end) and checking out the highlights of the government response. It’s a lot to take in, perhaps too much, and it paints radically different pictures of the eBook market future.

If you believe Apple, Barnes & Noble, and the Authors Guild, the lack of agency pricing would give Amazon an absolute and undisputed monopoly over the eBook market. This would be bad for consumers since Amazon has a low anti-competitive pricing structure and would be the source of eBooks for the market (attached to a proprietary platform but I didn’t see anyone make this particular point). It also imperils brick-and-mortar booksellers who could not compete with the loss-leader practices of Amazon, thus forcing them out of business and making the book playing field even smaller. Sure, the consumer would pay less now for eBooks, but there is less competitors to choose from.

(I thought it was strange, but I didn’t see anyone threaten to not sell their books through Amazon. If you really think it’s that unfair or unreasonable, find other ways to sell your books. I know this sounds a bit naïve, but these publishers have to be addicted to the ease at which Amazon moves their product and the money it generates despite all of these horrible conditions they proclaim.)

If you believe the government, Consumer Federation of America, Stephen Windwalker of the Kindle Nation Daily, and David Gaughran and the gaggle of writers who cosigned his letter, the agency pricing arrangement does immediate harm to the consumer by raising prices on eBooks. While it fends off the Amazon monopoly by preventing them from lowering prices as a loss leader for the rest of their business, this is not in the best interest of the consumer, but the retailers and publishers. It defies some of the basic concepts of a free market (that the market will determine the value of a product, for one) and hinders innovation by keeping old business practices and models on life support through artificial pricing schemes. The competition to construct and sell a better widget does not happen when the current widget is propped up as the ‘best standard’ for the field. In a sense, the consumers are harmed twice: first by the price raise, second by the lack of motivation to innovate.

This whole mess goes before a federal judge who is free to accept or reject this settlement; even then, there is the trial to follow for the non-settling parties. I’m going to be cheering for The Man on this one; while the eBook market may be nascent, it’s not right to stifle its direction or growth in order to preserve a status quo that trades normal market inequalities for artificial ones. It’s going to be a long bumpy road on this one, though by the time it ends, the findings might be moot in the face a completely different market landscape. This case is one to follow, but it’s in the long run.

The GoodReads Bullying Drama

In case you wanted to take a break from libraryland drama but wanted some other kind of related drama to occupy the space, there are things afoot in and around the literary social community, GoodReads. There’s a lot to sift through (especially as someone who is not familiar with the site, its social dynamic, or posting policies), but in doing my research into the matter over the weekend I found what I considered to be the best summary of the current state of drama:

If you aren’t familiar with this situation, here’s the short version: There’s a cluster of people who are put out by Goodreads users “bullying” authors through negative reviews, so they’ve taken it upon themselves to anonymously (and pseudonymously) harass those users by exposing their personal information.

These authors have banded together to create a site, “Stop the GR Bullying” with the purpose of stopping what they see as cyberbullying of authors on the GoodReads site… by engaging in a higher level of cyberbullying in creating profiles of “enemies” by posting whatever information they can gleam from their online presence. One of the people they named reportedly got a threatening phone call after her profile went up. With this escalation, as the old saying goes, “shit just got real” (or perhaps, possibly more apropos in this case, “When ‘Keeping It Real’ Goes Wrong”.)

In all seriousness, I don’t foresee an outcome that doesn’t have someone getting charged with harassment (for the call, at the very least) or some sort of legal action against the owners of the site (who will be publicly named, as the discovery phase of any lawsuit will reveal it) for incitement and/or libel. What started in the review and comment sections on the GoodReads site is going to have have greater repercussions than the possibility that someone skips over reading a particular book. It’s really a shame that it has escalated to this level.

In stepping back and looking at the situation as a whole, I think there is a library angle to this whole drama as the rise of the self publishing industry continues. It may not be something to act on today (or in particular to this series of events), but it is worth noting what is going on in a social community centered around reading. Whether it is looking for the best ‘sweet spot’ for the moderation and policy of reviews or comments, the management of people around a particular activity as libraries look to create and cultivate communities, or creating relationships with the independent and/or self published author scene, I believe it is well worth the look to evaluate this drama as a whole and learn from it. Also, I think there are some lessons to be learned from the wants of the readers, reviewers, and authors as some libraries take the plunge into creating viable local literary scenes.

For much, much further reading on this situation (presented in chronological order):

First Sale Doctrine as an Endangered Species

While the news that the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari for the case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. goes back to April, it was only last week that Publishers Weekly reported that the Library Copyright Alliance had filed an amicus brief for the case. If you hadn’t heard of this case before, now is the time to learn about it and follow it closely. To say that the stakes in this case are high is an extreme understatement as it could impact hundreds of millions of items in library collections around the United States.

The short version of the case is that Mr. Kirtsaeng purchased and imported textbooks from his native Thailand that were content identical but made with inferior colors and printing stock (in other words, cheaper versions of the same textbook printed in the United States). He then sold these textbooks on sites like eBay and pocketed the profits. John Wiley & Sons got wind of this and filed a suit to stop him doing so under various copyright based legal assertions. Mr. Kirtsaeng argued that his sales were covered under the First Sale Doctrine; since he purchased the book, he had the right to re-sell it. The district court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and held that the language of the First Sale Doctrine did not apply to foreign created works; as such, Mr. Kirtsaeng did not have the right to resell the book. In reaching the Supreme Court, the question before the Justices is this:

The question presented is how these provisions apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States. Can such a foreign-made product never be resold within the United States without the copyright owner’s permission, as the Second Circuit held in this case? Can such a foreign-made product sometimes be resold within the United States without permission, but only after the owner approves an earlier sale in this country, as the Ninth Circuit held in Costco? Or can such a product always be resold without permission within the United States, so long as the copyright owner authorized the first sale abroad, as the Third Circuit has indicated?

Scary stuff indeed.

As libraries rely on the First Sale Doctrine to lend materials, this could mean that all foreign produced works (including those legally created by United States copyright holders and then imported) would not legally lendable. This would surpass the clusterfuck that was the wording and implementation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that made libraries quarantine their children’s collections because of lead content concerns. This is much bigger and far more reaching as it hits every kind of library in the United States. Every collection would need to be scrutinized to determine if the materials were of foreign manufacturing origin; the results could be catastrophic if not completely fatal to the lending ability of libraries.

There is light at the end of the tunnel here, but whether it is the outside sky or a train coming through has yet to be seen. The oral arguments will outline which Justices have which concerns and which way they might be leaning, but that is several months away. It will be interesting to hear how the arguments are framed and presented.

In imagining the worst, I’m wondering whether lending would continue as an act of civil disobedience (as suing libraries isn’t the best PR move ever), insist only on books printed in the United States (leaving distributors in the lurch in dealing with publishers), and/or taking the money we would have spent on the collection and investing it in other things like collaborative spaces, comfy accommodations, or updating and upgrading our technology portfolios. In any event, it’s certainly something to watch and follow closely.

If your library couldn’t lend out foreign works, how would that effect you?

In Soviet Russia, eBook Reads You

Last week an article in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks tracking the habits and actions of reader got passed around the usual social media outlets. There didn’t seem like there was much of a reaction; I think the article merely reconfirmed a belief that the eReader companies have been amassing data on their users. The article stands out since it mentions some specifics observations that have been found with the data; people read non-fiction in starts and stops, series like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades are read back-to-back-to-back, and the average reading time it takes people to finish books in the Game of Thrones series. These are insights that the publishing industry has not been able to reliably track (if at all, as the article suggests) and represents a new tool that can analyze a reader base for additional extrapolated information.

However, in this rush to collect data on readers in order to better market or write books for them, there are a couple of things that don’t sit right with me. It leaves me wondering how comparable is the eReader reading experience to the print reading experience. Is picking up a book the same as picking up a Kindle? There doesn’t appear to be any baseline to act as a basis of comparison. The presumption here is that the reading experience is the same between the two mediums when it has yet to be shown. In trying to design a ‘better’ reading experience, they are doing on the data of one medium which may or may not translate to the other.

As eReader use is still in the minority in the United States, what kind of demographics are being measured? It’s grabbing data from the digitally invested even as the book markets still has a strong paper element to it. While it can’t be ignored that a rough usage rate of 1 in 5 people has pushed the eBook market to equal and/or surpass aspects of the print book market, it remains to be seen as to how this aligns with the overall reader population. Are these people a good sample?

In approaching the content side, the article talks about publishers and authors could create books that avoid some of the ‘stopped reading’ pitfalls. This seems like an attempt to thwart Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. (Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you’re really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you’re not, then put it down and look for another.) I’m wondering why this is a good idea in an activity that is highly subjective and personal. The data might tell you when people stop reading a book, but it doesn’t scratch the surface as to why. Most people might stop reading a book at page 75, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The defect in the story or the failure to grab the reader attention could have happened on any page prior to it; that’s just when they gave up on it. It’s a data point that lacks the necessary context to make it truly valuable.

I’m a bit concerned as to what the feedback will do to the writing process. If an author is told that a particular passage really resonated with readers, how will that change their ideas and approach to their stories and style? Will it take it in new directions? Will it encourage authors to write towards these safe and favorable areas rather than push the boundaries of their craft? Or could it move the reader and author into greater sync in terms of what people want and what the author can provide?

Finally, my last and greatest concern regards privacy. It runs the gamut from who is being followed and what is being collected to whether it will have a chilling effect on subject/title selection. In New Jersey, library record privacy is regulated by statute.

18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined
    For the purposes of this act:
   a.   "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
   b.   "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.

18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions
    Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
   a.   The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
   b.   Disclosure is requested by the user; or
   c.   Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
   L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.

(Retrieved July 1, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

I’ve wondered if the Overdrive-Amazon connection is in breech of this law. From my understanding, Overdrive has enough access to make certain that a library member is authorized to borrow a book; they get the library card number, our system tells them whether or not it is valid, and then the transaction goes forward. In downloading the book to a Kindle, Amazon takes on the role of the library by maintaining and enforcing the borrowing period. They also have personally identifying data that goes along with the Amazon account. In handing off the transaction from Overdrive to Amazon, how much information is exchanged? Is it just a nod or is there more?

Now, it might be argued that it constitutes a legal disclosure as it relates to the proper operation of the library. If that’s the case, then it becomes a question as to whether this is a good idea or not (or even possibly an ethical one). In any event, it is handing over readers for data mining without getting a share of that information snapshot or proper warnings to the library member as to they could be exposed to. (Yes, I know some libraries have warning screens when shifting from the library website to Amazon. Good on them and I can’t find a good link to it.)  In the rush to get eBooks on our virtuals shelves, we bought licenses which do not convey the benefits of ownership and handed over our library members to third parties who do not wholly share our library values and principles.

What do you think?