Tag Archives: amazon

Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:


(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

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?

Heather Has Two Mommies and Just Canceled her Amazon Account

A current kerfuffle on the Internets has to do with Amazon de-ranking GLBT-themed books as reported on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

Amazon’s policy of removing “adult” content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon’s customer service explained:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1″ by Michel Foucault, “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), “Little Birds: Erotica” by Anais Nin, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), “Maurice” by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and “Becoming a Man” by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Maybe this is just a new marketing gimmick – create viral annoyance to get your brand out there. Certainly Kindle 2 got a lot of attention when the text-to-speech feature was disabled because the Author’s Guild has put its head in a place that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

In any case, libraries have one thing going for them – we defend intellectual freedom. Let’s see if we can tweet that to the world. Support your free (as in beer and as in speech) library.

More To Bezos Than Books Or Kindles

If you’re about my age you may remember when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek the very same week (Oct. 27, 1975). It was a pretty big deal. Outside of a president or other world political figure, simultaneous mutual admiration by multiple highly read national magazines is pretty rare. While history didn’t exactly repeat itself with multiple covers, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, came pretty darn close. He is featured in major articles in Wired (May 2008), BusinessWeek and Fortune (May 5, 2008). All the articles appeared within a week’s space.

When academic librarians talk about Amazon.com the conversation is mostly about their book business or, more recently, the Kindle. But we should perhaps spend more time directing our attention to the person that runs Amazon, Jeff Bezos. When people think of books I don’t doubt that many of them think of Amazon before they think of libraries – if they think of libraries at all. And Amazon is certainly far ahead of libraries in providing a platform that allows customers to add content to their website and engage in conversation with each other. I’m not suggesting that academic librarians should view Amazon as a competitor. After all, we’re not even in the same business. Amazon is an online retailer. Academic libraries are in the learning business. What we should be doing is studying how Bezos has turned Amazon into an innovation machine (although the Fortune article sees Amazon as an “iteration” machine – one that makes lots of small moves and learns quickly from its missteps).

For the last year or so there’s been a fair amount of chatter about innovation in the library world, on blogs and at conferences. That’s good because as a profession we need to drive innovation in our libraries. What sometimes concerns me is that some of what I hear about innovation sounds like a mixed bag of platitudes. Perhaps just understanding innovation is part of our challenge. I prefer a description of innovation from an article titled “Innovation in Organizations in Crisis” in the fall 2007 issue of Design Management Review. According to the authors, Cherkasky and Slobin, innovation is finding new ways of creating value and bringing them to life. Simple and elegant. It’s not about inventing something new and it’s not about making big changes at your library at a pace that makes heads spin. Here’s what Bezos has to say about innovation in the BusinessWeek article:

Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.” That approach puts a finite lifetime on a company, because the world changes, and what used to be cutting-edge skills have turned into something your customers may not need anymore. A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?” Then do an inventory of the gaps in your skills. Kindle is a great example. If we set our strategy by what our skills happen to be rather than by what our customers need, we never would have done it. We had to go out and hire people who know how to build hardware devices and create a whole new competency for the company.

I commend you to read these three articles; your libraries have them if you can’t find them online just yet. We can learn about innovation from the thought leaders of business. Some of our best successes – considerable innovations for academic libraries such virtual reference, cafes in the library and self-service automated operations – had their roots as innovative business products. Given that the ACRL conference is in Seattle (Amazon’s HQ) in 2009 I was hoping that Bezos would be an invited speaker. ACRL recently released the keynote and invited speakers, and while it looks like a great lineup, Bezos is not among them. Releasing the Kindle was a significant innovation for Amazon, and a major risk for Bezos. Innovation or iteration, there are lessons academic librarians can learn from Bezos about ways to lead in the learning business?

BTW, thanks for some good comments to some recent posts. While I still think some of you are misunderstanding me when I use “leaders” and “library directors” (or library deans or whatever you like to call it) interchangeably, I appreciate it when you share your views. But not everyone leaves a comment. Some bloggers prefer to put their response into their own posting. ACRLog readers may not catch those so here are two I recommend to you: “But What If I Don’t Want it All?” over at Academic Librarian and “Teaching Technology/ies” over at info-mational.