Open Library Opens

There is a temptation to think big when it comes to books. For example, here’s a clip from the newly-revealed Open Library Project’s website, part of the Internet Archive .

What if there was a library which held every book? Not every book on sale, or every important book, or even every book in English, but simply every book—a key part of our planet’s cultural legacy.

First, the library must be on the Internet. No physical space could be as big or as universally accessible as a public web site. The site would be like Wikipedia—a public resource that anyone in any country could access and that others could rework into different formats.

Second, it must be grandly comprehensive. It would take catalog entries from every library and publisher and random Internet user who is willing to donate them. It would link to places where each book could be bought, borrowed, or downloaded. It would collect reviews and references and discussions and every other piece of data about the book it could get its hands on.

But most importantly, such a library must be fully open. Not simply “free to the people,” as the grand banner across the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh proclaims, but a product of the people: letting them create and curate its catalog, contribute to its content, participate in its governance, and have full, free access to its data. In an era where library data and Internet databases are being run by money-seeking companies behind closed doors, it’s more important than ever to be open.

So let us do just that: let us build the Open Library.

It’s a little far from complete, to say the least, and the building won’t be easy, but it’s an interesting concept. Basically, if I understand it, it’s a wiki platform for combining information about books from various sources to create a single, open source, publicly-built and publicly-modified catalog of books past and present. It’s sort of like Google Book Search, only it isn’t owned and controlled by a mega-corporation. It’s a little like Library Thing, but more ambitious in its goals. (Library Thing is excited.) It’s a little like OCLC’s Open WorldCat only it’s . . . open. In the free web version of WorldCat, the public can find books and add reviews, but only libraries that pay for the not-open Worldcat are included and they must subscribe to the First Search version to underwrite the free version.

Will librarians embrace this new project? Will book lovers? Library Thing has over 2 million unique records, WorldCat has 85 million, and Google won’t say. The Open Library demo has apparently around half a million records so far, but to be fair it’s only been open for a few days. It remains to be seen how it will catch up and become as complete as it would like to be.

What’s really interesting to me about these visions of a complete and public library is that they make three very interesting assumptions: first, that books are an irreplaceable cultural resource; second, that ideally they should be available to all, without charge; and third, the best catalog includes everything ever published. There’s a touching belief here that books and democracy are somehow interconnected, and that everyone should have access to books – all books. It’s a little ironic, when so many communities are deciding they really can’t afford a public library anymore.

Still, optimism about a DIY Internet-based library catalog abounds. Over at BoingBoing Rich Prelinger says “I have a hunch that it’s going to be the primary way many if not most people access books, and I see it becoming an always-open window on the desk of every librarian.”

We shall see . . .

Goozamazon UP

So libraries came up with an an alternative to Google. They are working with Amazon to digitize out-of-copyright or library-owned-copyright books and sell POD copies through the megasite. Only unlike the Google library project, the libraries do all the work. And unlike Google, Amazon sells printed copies, with a kickback to the libraries that do all the work.

We’re talking about books that need no editorial work. Libraries create the digital files. The books are in the public domain. Libraries are institutions that preserve and lend books but don’t sell them. Universities that exist to promote and pass on knowledge, and yes some of them publish and sell books, but for the greater good. Not for shareholders.

Would it be possible to do something creative with Association of American University Presses? Develop some print on demand relationship with a company that focuses on printing, as Rice UP is doing. Maybe use it as a testbed for new publishing models, instead of letting Amazon use universities as a testbed for becoming a publisher – and for riding on the coattails of the good press Google got for digitizing libraries?

Somehow, seeing Amazon as the alternative to Google seems lacking in imagination. But I’d be happy to hear from libraries (and university presses, for that matter) about why this is a good idea.

Lousy Publishers!

Peter Brantley (whose interesting thoughts have been blogged about here before) has an interesting post on university presses, scholarly communication, and what it is that libraries don’t get when it comes to publishing. Putting it bluntly, he says “I am coming to the conclusion that librarians are likely to be lousy publishers.”

The publishing work flow is intense: it requires significant hand- and thought-work. Editors don’t sit around at their desks waiting for pretty, tightly-formed, well-argued drafts to come floating by. There is a lot of work in finding, attracting, grooming talent; encouraging the actual writing; producing coherent drafts; editing; presentation; administration; rights; marketing; and distribution. Some of these things are made easier by Web 2.0 and social computing, but in most cases, the workload has only increased, at least in the short term…. Not everything is going to be improved by being processed through a collaborative, social mill. The best things are always going to take somebody’s care, and love.

Peter’s excited about the possibilities – but it’s not going to be easy. “If either of these sets of institutions are to participate in a solution – libraries and presses – it will require serious, long-term, fundamental re-invention of their essence. There’s pain there; it won’t be avoided. And we’re not there yet.”

Comments are worth reading, too – do publishers do a good job of publishing? are the libraries that are involved in digital publishing succeeding, and how does what they do differ from the old model? what are the costs of the “human-factor” intangibles such as building a list, acquiring important books, keeping an educated ear to the ground?

I’d love to hear from organizations that have developed healthy library/university press partnerships. What’s working? What’s challenging? What do we need to know about each other?

Why Do Students Read?

Barbara’s post about promoting reading for pleasure reminded me of something Twyla Tharp wrote in her book The Creative Habit:

I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.

Tharp goes on to describe the various reasons she reads–to compete with other people, for personal growth, and mostly for inspiration. She talks about how she reads–she starts with the most recent thing an author has written and reads everything by that author moving backwards in time; she reads as much as she can around a work–books by the author’s contemporaries, commentaries on the author, biographies of the author, or the author’s letters.

Phew, that’s a lot of reading. The point of it all is utilitarian. She’s reading to get ideas for her work. This seems to be true for many creative people: John Waters admits to subscribing to hundreds of magazines and living with scores of books; Bob Dylan tells in Chronicles how he went to the New York Public Library and read microfilmed newspapers from the 19th century for inspiration.

Why, how, and what do students read? There’s a lot of confusion on this topic. There are some studies, hard-to-believe, that claim that most college grads can’t even read a short text and follow directions. The Chronicle runs a list every few months “What They’re Reading On College Campuses” but that is sales at college bookstores so presumably it includes professors as well.

I’d like to see one of those work practice study thingies on this topic. What about a bulletin board off the library web site that simply asks Why do you read? There are so many interesting and various different reasons to read–for grades, to learn, to compete, to feel part of a community, to escape reality, to be interesting to other people, to be well-rounded, for pleasure–it seems a shame to focus on just one.

Reading in the Vulgate

Julie Elliott has an interesting article in the most recent issue of RUSQ on academic libraries and reading promotion. (Yes, I’m quoted in it, but don’t let that put you off.)

Indulging in a fondness for books has become a contested territory. People think of books as our “brand” even though libraries offer much more. If we reinforce that outdated view of libraries by celebrating books, are we selling our libraries short – or are we honoring something people actually love about libraries? The Librarian in Black is irritated that public libraries have summer reading clubs; it suggests that reading is better than other activities and that people who don’t read aren’t welcome at the library. But is being irritated by popular forms of reading another kind of elitism?

Beyond the “we’re more than just books” argument is the fact that academic forms of reading differ from popular literacy practices. Oprah’s endorsement of reading as something that will expand your horizons draws on personal identification with characters and situations rather than the analytical, critical approach taught in college. Public libraries have long honored diverse reading tastes, but academic libraries are likely to be accused of wasting money if they purchase genre fiction or popular history (even if it’s of high quality). Academic libraries that try to satisfy students’ interest in reading outside the syllabus risk being tarred with the scarlet letter “O,” encouraging reading for pleasure at the expense of reading seriously.

Common reading programs
on college campuses are growing in popularity. They give first year students an opportunity to to talk about something they have in common that has academic credentials. But they are modeled on community reading programs (started with Seattle Reads) and so are smack dab in the middle of that contest over how we should read.

Academic libraries may be the perfect place to explore those contested notions of reading. Maybe we can help our students take pleasure in the reading they do for courses – and take their pleasure reading seriously.