Category Archives: Books

Three Cheers and Two Questions for the DPLA

Robert Darnton gave a talk at my institution last week about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He presented a progress report, the details of which he has outlined in the New York Review of Books. The first prototype of the DPLA, using technology developed in the project’s “Beta Sprint” competition, should be released in April 2013.

Darnton’s inspiration is familiar to most academic librarians: publisher greed has turned the public good of knowledge into a private commodity. Rising subscription prices have created an enclosure movement whereby the knowledge commons has become a gated community. The DPLA is envisioned as a “mega-meta-macro library” that would harness the technology of the internet to disseminate and preserve the world’s information for all, and for the ages.

I was encouraged and inspired by Darnton’s talk. As the project moves forward, I have two questions, both relating to possible unintended effects of the DPLA on long-term preservation of library materials.

Darnton described how the DPLA would employ a “moving wall” model of access to collections. Much like JSTOR’s archives of journal articles, the DPLA’s holdings would ideally lag three to five years behind currently released material (once some very thorny copyright issues have been untangled). Local institutions – public and academic libraries – would complement the DPLA by continuing to provide access to newly published books. The DPLA’s “opening day” collection would aggregate existing digital projects, such as the Hathi Trust and Internet Archive, enhanced by unique digital collections from rare book and special collections libraries.

My first question is: to what extent would this moving wall disincentivize academic and public libraries to maintain and preserve their own print collections, once the DPLA’s materials are available? My institution, like many, has deaccessioned back runs of JSTOR journals. With pressure on our libraries to reappropriate shelf space, will we see the same trend with book collections? Will public libraries lose support from their communities if “everything” indeed becomes available on the internet?

Second – and I must credit one of our library’s interns for this question – since the DPLA will aggregate many different digital collections, how confident are we that digitization standards will be consistent? Darnton admitted after the lecture that provided certain baseline standards are met, the project may have little control over quality. Individual institutions do such a nice job in digitizing their own materials, he suggested, that they could be models for the rest of the project. But given the amount of material targeted for inclusion, and the unlikelihood of reprocessing millions of pages of material already digitized, we can probably expect a wide variation in standards. How important is this, to us and to users?

Before the lecture, I joked to a friend that we were about to watch an episode of “Darnton Abbey.” Librarians in Darnton Abbey will be both upstairs and downstairs – we should labor to support the project, but we, like all users, will also greatly benefit. In the face of trends that threaten to enclose information in an estate of privilege, the DPLA aims to democratize knowledge for all.

Once More to the Breach

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University.

Summer’s over, I know, but we must go once more to the breach of web privacy. A California librarian recently complained about Amazon’s new Kindle ebooks lending program for libraries. The complaint focuses on Amazon’s privacy policy and advertising. In a ten minute video (the transcript of which is here), the librarian argues that in our hasty “greed” to get books into the hand of readers, librarians violated one of our sacred trusts: privacy protection. Amazon keeps a record of all books lent on Kindles via corporate servers. This information is later used like it is on the website, both to recommend new titles and of course advertise products by selling that information elsewhere. While the story was picked up in the library press and on Slashdot, it wasn’t widely publicized, at least not to the extent of the story of Amazon’s lending program. The reason why is simple: web privacy is now a non-starter.

This isn’t the first such story about Web privacy (or lack thereof), and it is not likely to be the last. But it is a non-issue and will remain so as far as cyberspace extends. It’s not as if we weren’t warned.

As long as go as 1999, in a widely publicized story (perhaps forgotten now?), Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, told a group that the issue of privacy on the Web was a “red herring” (no relation by the way). McNealy went on to say that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” McNealy wasn’t the only one to argue in this manner, and neither is Amazon the only company with a patent disregard for privacy. Frankly, any company or social network on the Web puts privacy on low priority. Don’t get me wrong. Privacy isn’t an absolute right. I can think of times when not disclosing someone’s shenanigans would border on the criminal. But our patrons should be able to do basic library business without being hounded.

To be sure, the strength of the poisoned privacy varies among various Web apothecaries. With Facebook rapidly approaching one billion users, only a tiny minority remain who can care about privacy. Only last year Zuckerberg reminded all of us that “the age of privacy is over.” At the time, some saw this as an about-face. But anyone who followed Facebook helter-skelter knew otherwise. James Grimmelmann remarked once that of all the social networks, Facebook had the best privacy statement, and it was awful.

But I like the way Zuckerberg phrased it because I think it sums up nicely where we are about the Web and privacy. It’s a brave new world, and those not yet on board are from another, older and quite possibly, flat one. This was never made clearer to me than a few years ago.

I had the distinct pleasure to visit MIT in 2009 and learn of new web-related inventions in the proverbial “pipeline.” Amid our somewhat graying profession were these twentysomethings, naturally, all exceedingly bright. Some of what we saw has already come to pass, while others remain in development. There were toys, apps, and so on. But what really caught my eye was a broach or lapel pin.

This pin, our attractive, late twentysomething, explained to us, made certain you never forgot a name or a face again. I’m terrible with names, so naturally I perked up even more. When you approach a person, she said, the pin casts his or her “vitals” on their chest, visible to you but not to them. Commonly known things, she said, like age, marital status, number of children, where they work, recent vacations or even recent accomplishments. This way, she told us cheerfully, you’re never at a loss what to talk about. You know, how are the kids, is Peter enjoying Harvard, and how was the vacation in the Caymans?

Several of us, all over 50, let out an audible gasp. But isn’t that a violation of privacy, we asked, almost in unison. Oh, no, she reassured us. It’s all on the Web anyway. And then she said something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. When asked about the ethics of it all, she replied, again cheerily, “Those are issues taken up by another department. We don’t really engage in the ethics part of it.” And that’s when I knew. We are of a different age because even the developers no longer think about these things, assuming they once did. Ethics will ponder that matter and get back to you. But don’t call us; we’ll call you.

None of us want to remain fully anonymous, but many of us–at least those of us over 50–would prefer to remain somewhat private. Not anymore. Everything we are or hope to be, whether true or not, is on the Web; and someone is or will be making use of it. In this brave new world, we all live our lives on the backs of so many digital postcards that travel the globe daily.

This isn’t about going back, or trying to recapture the genie or clean up the toothpaste. Those days are over. Rather this is about how we librarians have become students of change and must now weigh those changes regularly. As the Web changes books, it also changes the libraries that house them. And so McLuhan was right after all: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

And so here we are, once more to the breach. Habent sua fata libelli: books have their fates. The only question that remains today is this one: is this the fate we want for them, for our libraries?

“We Don’t Read That Way”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College.

I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.

One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

Publishing Fat Cats, Collection Curation, and Serving Today’s Patron

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Heidi Steiner, Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University.

The greatest reflection I find myself having following this year’s LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit is only vaguely about ebooks. Instead my mind is circling around balance. I tuned in to the “Marketing Ebooks to Students” panel ready for ideas about how I can get the online students I work with even more sold on ebooks to fill their immediate needs. I greatly enjoy Library Babel Fish and was excited to hear Barbara Fister’s perspective, which turned out to be: “I’m not quite ready to market ebooks to my students yet.” Barbara raised many questions we should all be thinking about. Her probing questions touched on patron privacy, censorship, preservation, sharing, putting money into yet more temporary licensed bundles, the long-term ramifications of providing patron driven acquisitions for last-minute needs, curating collections for the future, and talking to our patrons, both students and faculty, about what they really want. As a result, my brain is now in a seemingly inescapable conundrum.

While Barbara was speaking, I found myself focusing on her mentions of patron driven acquisitions (PDA) and trying to rectify her well-argued thoughts with my personal mental framework around PDA. Most people probably think of patron driven acquisitions in the most traditional sense: patrons initiating purchases of books for the physical collection. This may be in place via request buttons in the library catalog or some other mechanism. With ebooks in the fold, there are also plenty of libraries experimenting with patron driven ebook acquisitions. In my mind, I go directly to the model of PDA we use at my library, which is built around on-demand ebook rentals. Herein lies where my internal struggle begins. How do we balance standing up to the man, curating collections for the future, and serving the patrons we have now?

At Norwich University we serve an array of unique populations, including corps of cadets and civilian on-campus undergraduates and entirely online students in the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Our online students are on a tight course schedule with most in 6-credit hour, 11-week graduate courses, many with steady research requirements. At the library, we are constantly looking for ways to make necessary resources available quickly and seamlessly for all our patrons, but the online students pose the greatest challenge. This is notably important considering the impossibilities of physical interlibrary loan for books when students are around the globe. Collection and content curation can only take a small library so far, especially in serving such a diverse group of patrons. For us, patron driven acquisitions, specifically ebook rentals facilitated with Ebook Library (EBL), are a stop gap in the hole of needs and expectations. We choose what of the EBL catalog to make visible in our collection, patrons can see five minute previews of any given ebook and then request a loan. Ebook rentals default to a week and we pay a percentage of the ebook’s retail price with each rental instance. A purchase trigger goes off after the third rental to stay cost-effective. In my mind, our model of PDA at Norwich is more easily equated with interlibrary loan than collection development.

I often cannot help but ask myself why we are throwing money at publishers to buy books with roughly a 30-40% chance of circulating, when we can provide students with on-demand rentals thus guaranteeing use. What are we giving up by feeding the fat cat publishers and using collection development policies to make a best guess at what might get used one day? It’s a double-edged sword. We are feeding an industry that restricts knowledge to only those with access, while still curating a collection for the future, but may not be providing the resources our patrons need now; it is impossible to predict each possible need. On the flipside, what are we giving up with PDA in any of its possible incarnations? Depending on the scenario, it could be a lot or a little. PDA could mean sacrificing the integrity of our future collection, but it can also mean a satisfy patron today and knowing money spent was actually used for something. Fister’s short yet very powerful talk definitely provides some further clues to both answers, but it seems to me that nothing is that cut and dry.

We are maintaining balance through a combination of traditional, liaison program based collection development and patron driven ebook rentals at Norwich, but I cannot honestly say we are doing much to fight the fat cats…yet. In her talk, Fister argued we should be reinventing the academic monograph, as we are already spending money on books and just might posses the expertise to make it happen. This is an awesome thought and worthy quest, but where do small libraries fall in scholarly content creation? Certainly we can load open access ebook records into our catalogs, as Fister suggests. We can also work towards open access awareness, encourage and push publication in open access journals with our faculty and practice it ourselves, but what role can small college and university and libraries legitimately play in production?

I want to cultivate services that are right for our patrons now, but also desire building a library that is sustainable into the future. How are your libraries reacting as publishers keep an iron fist and ebooks proliferate, all while patron driven acquisitions meet immediate needs? Where do you find balance?

Finding Footnotes and Chasing Citations

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?

This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.

Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).

Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.