In the Digital Attic: Dan Cohen to Lead DPLA

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) announced today that Dan Cohen has been named its founding Executive Director.  I wish him and the DPLA best wishes as they move forward into this next phase of the roll-out and development of this organization. 

One of the challenges the DPLA faces is how to build a viable, sustainable set of relationships with all of the existing public libraries across the United States.  Frankly, some public librarians and other interested parties are worried that the DPLA may make local public libraries redundant.  On his blog, Dan placed a post today announcing his move to DPLA.  He took some time to explain his sense of how DPLA will interact with all these local community public library.  Here is what he said in part:

The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country, but instead will extend their commitment to the public sphere, and provide them with an extraordinary digital attic and the technical infrastructure and services to deliver local cultural heritage materials everywhere in the nation and the world.

Developing an “extraordinary digital attic” has a nice metaphoric ring to it, but I think that the third thing Dan mentions – services – will be the rub.  What sort of digital library services will the DPLA provide, and how well will these services work?  I have followed the development of the DPLA for a couple of years now, admittedly in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, and I have to admit that this questions of services, not collections, has been of the most interest and concern to me.  I hope the DPLA, under Dan’s leadership, works equally hard on all three things:  digital collections gathering less digital dust in the attic, technical infrastructure, and compelling national library services. 

Only a Test (In the event of a real emergency…)

Just testing this new installation of Windows Live Writer.  I may want to resurrect this blog after lo these many months. 

The Orphan Age

Could this be the beginning of the end for the age of orphan works – published works for which the author, publisher, or other copyright holder cannot be found? 

orphansLast month the University of California and Cornell, Duke, Emory, and Johns Hopkins announced that they would begin making the digital versions of their orphan works digitally available in full text through the HathiTrust Digital Library for use by current students, faculty, researchers, and staff at their own institutions.  The universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida already are members of the Orphan Works Project, which uses a public process to attempt to find the rights holders of previously identified suspected orphan works. 

Examples of suspected orphan works include:

  • Last Train from Atlanta [the copyright holder must have been on it.]
  • Confusion: A Novel [the rights holder may be wandering about dazed and confused]
  • Over Their Dead Bodies: Yankee Epitaphs & History [damn Yankees]
  • The Octopus of Paris [how could an octopus lose its grip on its rights?]

Note that this new initiative will not make these suspected orphan works available to the general public, only to people currently affiliated with these institutions.  It’s unclear to me if this access will be made available only to members of the universities that hold at least one print copy of the title in question, or to anyone affiliated with the mini-consortium (UMich, UW-Madison, Florida, Duke, Berkeley, etc.), or with the entire HathiTrust Consortium, which has over 50 members.  I submitted a webform question on the HathiTrust website, but haven’t received a response yet.

Here are a few thoughts about this situation:

  • The name “orphan work” may be an unequivocal misnomer.  An orphan is a minor whose parents have died.  Authors certainly die, but copyrights, as part of the author’s estate, always pass down to some legal entity, even if the author dies intestate.  If this is true. there never are orphan works, just difficult to identify and find parents (i.e., rights holders). 
  • Some authors are not happy about this development.  On September 12th the Authors Guild, other author groups,  and even some individual authors announced that they have filed suit against the U. of Michigan, the HathiTrust, and other participating universities in this endeavor. 
  • Perhaps the key issue here is not what will happen to works we used to call orphans as they are digitized, but what happens when works are digitized or, more generally, converted in any way.  It is difficult to predict how the courts will decide this issue, but it would be a better world if libraries and individuals who have invested in content in some way had the right to convert content as they see fit to meet their needs.  Conversion rights should reside with the users. 

Where’s the Theory?

Earlier this week I gave a brief talk at the end of a half-day online conference about QR codes and augmented reality.  Throughout the afternoon we had heard lots of interesting information and ideas about how to generate QR codes and AR environments, and how libraries are using these tools to provide interesting  information experiences.

My talk took a different approach to these twin topics.  I wanted to explore with the group some of the larger issues that QR codes and AR could highlight if they become widely accepted and used.  Specifically, I suggested that our very sense of place – of our homes and haunts – probably will change.  We may revert, at least in part, to a pre-industrial sense of place, before all of the transportation revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries made the very idea of “being here” more-or-less a daily fight-or-flight decision.  I could stay here, or I could fly to Cancun for some R&R. 

ball of string casts a long shadowThe idea of getting away from here may have been one of the defining ideas of the last half of the 20th century.  The idea has been immortalized in such ad slogans as “You are now free to roam about the country” and “I’m going to Disney World!”  A friend of mine recently observed that the prospect of getting away for a week on a cruise ship was the distant reward that made her day-to-day existence in the here-and-now tolerable. 

My talk sorta fell flat.  It was late in the day, and people had been listening to and discussing these two topics for over three hours.  It was not the ideal time to be trying to discuss the bigger picture of what we are about.  As the conference evaluation forms started to arrive back from the attendees, most people gave the highest praise to the person who had presented the most practical information about QR codes.   

This type of aversive response to theory and big-picture thinking, however, is amazingly typical to talks, articles, blog posts, and other utterances that occur in my field of Library and Information Science.  Because librarianship is a very practice-driven profession, practitioners want to know what to do, where they can get the tools they need to make it happen, and how much it will cost.  These are all good, valid concerns and interests, and in general I applaud action whenever it springs forth from the perpetual froth of talk, but I still wonder:  Where’s the theory? 

Most librarians seem almost averse to theory.  Their reluctance to have conversations about theory and the deeper, long-term implications of our practices is palpable whenever the dreaded T-word comes up in conferences, workshops, and comments to blog posts.  I’m trying very hard to understand this attitude toward theory that seems to be widespread in my profession. 

Perhaps this blog post is just sour grapes on my part, cloaked in some high-falutin angst about the state of theory and theoretical discussions in my profession.  Maybe I’m just a boring speaker when I try to engage in theoretical talk.  Perhaps my theories are all cracked and my ideas are harebrained.  In a strange way, those explanations would be a comfort to me, but they don’t allay my fear, which has been growing for over two decades now, that my profession has a deep-rooted problem regarding theories and theoretical thinking, and that this problem has real, practical consequences for the profession that are not good. 

26 Sad Steps

I’m still doing some initial processing of yesterday’s big revelation that henceforth libraries will be allowed to license eBooks from HarperCollins only for 26 circulations.  What does this mean for libraries trying to provide good  eReading experiences for their users?  What are the short- and long-term implications of this shot across the bow? 

There’s already been a lot of reporting and commentary about this bombshell, via tweets, blog posts, and news articles.  Here are a few more random thoughts, written in haste early on a Saturday morning, in no particular order:

  • Boycotting eContent from HarperCollins may be a good short-term strategy to let HC know librarians are not happy about this, and it may cause HC to “cave” (change the new policy or abandon it altogether), but I think librarians should focus on the long-term implications and opportunities.
  • I have no idea why this new policy was leaked through a sanitized message from Steve Potash at OverDrive.confused  Why didn’t HC senior management be more up-front about this?  Whatever the reasons, I don’t think OverDrive should be blamed.  Over the years Steve Potash has mentioned to me several times that obtaining rights from publishers and other rights holders to distribute their  eContent has been one of the most difficult aspects of OverDrive’s overall business.  Let’s face it:  Most publishers never have liked the library lending model, but they had to tolerate it when printed objects (printed books, tapes, CDs, DVDs) were the norm.  Now that we are entering an era where the eText is shunted about (downloaded, transferred onto and off of various PP ICEs – Personal, Portable Information, Communication, and Entertainment devices), it appears that some of the big publishers want to either control library lending or squash it completely. 
  • It’s time to finally drop this charade that eContent should be treated like printed content.  Publishers and librarians both are guilty of playing this game of denial.  This is one of those “mind-forged manacles” (a great phrase from William Blake) that is preventing everyone from realizing the true affordances of eContent and the eReading era.
  • So what are these “true affordances” of eContent?  Simply stated:  With eContent it’s possible to make an unlimited number of perfect copies of a work, then distribute them at the speed of light to just about anywhere on the earth.  In theory at least, there’s no reason why anyone should have to wait, place a hold on, or be denied access to any bit of eContent.  If you can discover it, you should be able to access it.  Obviously, this cluster of basic affordances has some serious legal and economic implications, as well as huge social and cultural implications, that are hard to wrap one’s mind around (even after you’ve shed those mind-forged manacles), but if we call continue to play this little game of pretending that eContent should be treated and used like printed content, we’ll continue to wallow in this awful state of group denial.
  • The right of first sale may be over.  I cannot think of a way to carry that concept over to the eReading era in a healthy manner.  Other commentators, such as Mike Shatzkin and Sarah Houghton-Jan, seem to agree that at this point in time the right of first sale is on life-support.  The basic problem, it seems to me, is that the right of first sale works really well when what you purchase is a content object where the content (say, a novel) and the container (say, a masterfully designed and produced cluster of paper, ink, cardboard, glue, and cloth) are more or less wedded for the life of that content object.  When the text and the text-bearing device have a static relationship, it’s easy for the seller and buyer to agree that the buyer “owns” that static combo for the life of that object.  I can write in that printed book, tear out each page as I read it and feed it to a goat, lend the book to a friend, give it to my local library, whatever.  In the eReading era, however, the fundamental relationship between texts and text-bearing devices is dynamic, not static.  Think of all those copies of eContent moving around us at the speed of light.  We move eContent onto and off of a increasingly wide array of useful PP ICE’s all the time, sometimes without the aid of conscious volition. 
  • What we need to move toward as a cluster of stakeholder groups (authors, publishers, booksellers, tech companies, libraries, library vendors, readers, etc.) is some sort of distribution system that realizes the fundamental affordances of eContent, that never denies access to any eContent to anyone (I know, that’s quite an ideal state, but let’s dream large for a moment), and yet has considerable consensual cultural, social, legal, and economic support.  Clearly, this silly 26-step program that HarperCollins has implemented is not a first step toward that promised land.  We may, however, be headed toward an era where access to most eContent will be licensed, and the idea that libraries and individual readers own anything (other than their PP ICE of choice) will atrophy.  Personally, I think a licensing structure based on time, rather than on the size of the population served or the number of licensed uses, will be better for everyone in the long run.  As a librarian and as an individual consumer of eContent, I’d like to be able to decide if I want to license access to an object or cluster of objects for a year, or 10 years, or until I die, or perhaps even after I die, so that I can pass on some of my favorite digital objects to my heirs. 

Rather than take 26 sad steps down the thorny path prepared for us by HarperCollins, let’s try to find a way to realize the full potential of the eReading era. 

Do Readers Want Library eLending?

There are two things of which I am reasonably certain:

  1. Librarians want a viable, robust library lending model for the ereading era.
  2. Publishers don’t. 

But what and authors and readers?  Do they want a viable library lending model?  I have a hunch that many authors think that obscurity – not having their works come to the attention of potential readers – is a greater threat than being denied a maximum revenue return on their writing activities because of some piracy, the loaning of copies to friends, and the lending of library-owned copies.

When it comes to readers, I assume that most want a robust library lending model for the ereading era, but a 2010 survey and resulting research report and market analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is cause for concern.  The survey was administered to 1,000 citizens in each of four countries:  U.S., U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands.  (The researchers also interviewed 40 experts.)  All survey respondents were between the ages of 18 and 65.  According to the methodology section of the PwC report, “The consumers were selected in a census-representative manner with regard to sex, age, and profession.” 

library stacksOf the respondents who indicated that they already owned a portable ereader or were interested in getting one (either through purchase or as a gift, I assume), they were asked in one of the survey questions how important a list of 21 features and affordances of ereaders were for them personally. 

The list of 21 features was a good mix of aspects of the hardware, software, and content.  The feature that the most respondents indicated was very important to them was long battery life.  Approximately 74 percent of the American respondents indicated this.  The second most important feature (about 68 percent for U.S. respondents) was a wide range of ebooks.  Other features that were very important to the Americans included:  damage resistant/easy to clean (60 percent); user-friendly operation (59 percent); display size (54 percent); and an integrated ebook store (54 percent). 

Well down the list of very important features was the concept of a lending service from a library.  About 33 percent of the Americans who respondent indicated that this was a very important feature, and only about 24-25 percent of the Brits, Germans, and Dutch rated this as a very important feature. 

While these survey results are disappointing from the standpoint of this librarian, we need to bear in mind that this is just one survey, conducted over half a year ago in May 2010. Most people who are already ereading or seriously considering it may be focused on selecting a portable ereading device and integrating it into their reading lives.  After they’ve purchased a few eBook titles at $10 to $15 per unit, they may develop a greater appreciation of the value of a robust library lending system for the ereading era. 

I also don’t really know how the survey question that led to the results presented in Figure 10 on page 21 of this report was framed and contextualized.  I don’t even know how the respondents were instructed to respond.  Was there an opportunity to indicate other desired features that were not on the list presented to them?  Were they presented with this list of features and asked to select the, say, five that they considered the most important?  If so, the fact that one in three of the American respondents included library lending as one of their must-have features may be a positive indicator of a bright future for libraries and the library lending model in the ereading era.  I’ll try to get answers to these questions from the research team and report back.  

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 2011):  Dr. Christina Mueller, a member of the research team, responded to my email inquiry with some clarifying remarks.  She gave me permission to post her remarks here.  This additional information from Dr. Mueller actually warms the cockles of this librarian’s heart, because so many respondents – nearly 3 of every 4 Dutch and American respondent — listed library lending either as very important or important.  This topic is still not in the same league as battery life, but, over time, I think it will grow in importance to readers who engage in portable eReading.

Here is the core response from Dr. Mueller:   

We asked the survey participants, how important the specific features of eReaders were for them. We gave them a list of 21 items and asked them to rank them as ‘very important’, ‘important’, ‘less important’ and ‘not important’.

We found out that of those respondents owning an eReader or who could imagine buying an eReader, 25.9% indicated that lending services from a libary were very important, for 45% it was important, 22.8% less important and 6.3% not important. When looking at the country differences, we found out that Dutch and US-American respondents regarded this functionality more highly than respondents in the UK and Germany: 73.9% in the Netherlands and also 73.9% of respondents in the US ranked lending services from a libary as imprtant or very important (US: 31.7% very important, 43.2% important).

We did not ask participants to indicate their top five features they desired from the list, but rather evaluated the most important features based on the percentage of respondents indicating the features as most important. We did not ask participants to write in other desired features that were not on the list presented to them, either. Nevertheless I hope that this gives you some further insights on our survey.

The Bodies and Soul of a Book

joe espositoEarlier this week Joseph Esposito whipped up an interesting blog post over in the Scholarly Kitchen.  He really ladled it on thick.  He argued that the current way of thinking about books as some spirit or essence that can be plopped into any of a growing number of bowls (printed, PDF, ePub, Rocket, Pocket, Kindle, Spindle, etc.) is mistaken, misguided, and unpalatable.  He suggested that most authors write for a certain type of vessel.  Evidently the author, while writing, imagines not only an ideal reader, but also the ideal finished product, the spirit of the text instantiated in a very specific dish.  We must recognize and respect, Esposito cautions, the authority of the author to select the best vessel for the spirit of his or her utterance. 

Esposito argues that it is erroneous to distinguish the text from the text-bearing device. “Text” and “text-bearing device” are my terms, not his.  I’ve been using them for years to differentiate the aspect of a book that is the text – the ideas, arguments, narrative, sentiments, style, etc. — from the book as a physical object – so much paper, glue, and ink, or, now, plastic, glass, and gossamer digits.

Bobby RiggsEsposito asserts that such dualism is false and misleading thinking.  The text is not the spirit, nor the text-bearing device the body, the “mere mortal coil.”  What medieval rubbish.  For Esposito, the text-bearing device informs the text, rather than the other way around.   “…the creation of a text is a dialogue between the ideas and words of the author and the limitations imposed by its container.”  Writers are like tennis players, ever mindful of the net and the boundary lines.  The reader, evidently, is Bobby Riggs, pandering to the crowd and belittling the game.  Esposito asserts that changing the container of the text changes the text. “The problem with getting books out of their containers is that books are their containers.”

I don’t buy his argument.  Reality intrudes.  Think of all the texts that appear in multiple containers, perhaps first as a series of chapters in some periodical, then as a published thingy, then, perchance, anthologized, which must be either the Elysian Fields or the Tartarus for any self-respecting text.  Dickens wrote most of his “novels” as monthly serial installments of usually three chapters each, with a big dessert of six chapters as the final course.  All these years we’ve been thinking we were reading his novels, when really we were reading his serials.  Which container shall rule?

DickensBy the bye, I once read Bleak House with a friend via the installment plan.  It took two years, as I recall.  We read an installment, then chatted about it, then waited a month before reading the next installment.  It was a completely different experience than reading a Dickens thingy more-or-less straight through.  And, of course, Eric and I reading the installments still did not experience Dickens’ text the way he probably envisioned, because we had the whole thing in our hands all the time, not some slim thing on cheap paper, and the society in which we lived while we read was not all abuzz about that unfolding text.  No one at the club (to which I’d belong, if I weren’t unclubbable) ever sauntered over to me with a glass of sherry in hand and inquired, “I say, old chap, what do you make of the most recent number of that thingy Chuck Dickens is writing?” 

Alas, the author can imagine any container he or she wishes, but, once the text has been released into the wild, we readers, publishers, aggregators, anthologizers, hackers, movie producers, made-for-cable movie producers, and librarians will knead, pound, and extrude that text into whatever darn dish we jolly well please. 

Charles PortisAs a reader, I chafe at Esposito’s characterization of the relationship between the text and the text-bearing device, between the soul of the book and its bodies.  One of my favorite books is Norwood by Charles Portis.  I’ve read it auditorily as a narrated audio book, as well as visually as a printed paperback.  (I steer clear of the 1970 movie version starring Glen Campbell, because evidently it’s tasteless.)  While these were two different, distinct reading experiences, at some level I still felt that I was experiencing the same text.  The soul shown forth.  I laughed at the same parts, Joe.   Re-reading digitally the picaresque adventures of Norwood Pratt probably is in my future, and it will be a good experience, and I’ll recognize the text as an old spiritual friend. 

I agree with Esposito that over time the technologies of the containers for books affect the types of books we write. This is a form of technological determinism against which I want to rebel, but must acknowledge and cannot argue away.  The economics and legal structures underpinning disseminated writing affects how we write and read, too.  Esposito’s argument hasn’t motivated me to rethink the way I understand the fundamental relationship between texts and text-bearing devices, but it has reinforced my growing appreciation for the nuances and varieties of text-bearing devices – of the body types these wonderful souls can inhabit and inspire. 

mark twainEsposito stirs Frost several times into his post, so I’ll spread a little Twain as some frosting for this muffin.  During the print era, when the printed goblet ruled supreme in our minds and in our hands, we erroneously imagined that all writers were writing in the same dialect and not really succeeding.  In the digital era, a veritable smorgasbord of tasty text-bearing dishes will emerge.  I’m with Huck.  “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.” 

While Esposito’s basic thesis causes me concern, I relish some of his details.  For instance, he offers a good tentative classification of six types of ebooks that the new ereading technologies seem to afford.

  1. “The Institutional Book is a record of a text; the aim is to maintain in digital form all that we have come to expect from print.” In other words, an institutional book is just a printed book digitized, with as little alteration in conception and execution as possible. Reading an institutional book on a PP ICE (personal, portable information, communication, and entertainment appliance) is familiar and comforting, but an institutional book does not really capitalize or realize the affordances inherent in ereading on a PP ICE.
  2. The second type of digital book Esposito enumerates is what he calls the Classic e-book. “An e-book is a Classic when it embodies the primary virtue of a printed book — namely, it mostly disappears from our awareness as we become immersed in the text.  This was one of the declared goals of the Kindle, and in my view, Amazon has been very successful at this.  A Classic E-book provides a reading experience that is just a tad different from a familiar printed book.”  So, when the reader becomes immersed in a good ebook, it flies free of its institutional, pulpy status and becomes a classic.
  3. An Enhanced e-book introduces other elements, such as audio, video, and computer simulations, into the text. As Esposito sees it, with the emergence of the enhanced e-book, “…all the affordances of computers are now at the disposal of the creator.”
  4. The fourth type of ebook that Esposito outlines he calls a Muscular e-book, a phrase used “…to describe books that invite an almost aggressive reading style”  He seems to have textbooks, technical manuals, and such truck in mind, although I can imagine many possible muscular reading experiences of philosophical and religious texts.  I’ve been challenging Plato to a best two falls out of three match for decades.
  5. The Social book will be communal in some ways, from a simple wrapping of comments and commentary from various individuals around the primary text to a truly communal text, such as a wiki.   Gentle reader, please don’t run for the hills at the mere mention of a wiki.  Some people see this type of ebook as the future for ereading.  The old-fashioned way of reading silently alone will die off with the current generations as the new age of a reader’s paradise of communal reading dawns. 
  6. The sixth and final type of book Esposito envisions is the Staccato Book. The cell phone novel – short and pithy like a string of text messages that would make Hemingway suicidal – is a good example of the Staccato Book as a type.

Willa CatherEsposito seems to suggest that the better writers of the ereading era with think long, hard, and creatively about how these new containers and affordances will shape and sway what they utter and how they utter it. “…understanding the nature and affordances of the container are very much a part of the creative act of writing a book in the first place.”  Rightly so, but the author doesn’t always get what he or she imagined.  I’ve heard tell that Faulkner wanted to have the text of The Sound and the Fury presented in different colors, but his publisher (Grady Fring, no doubt), ever mindful of costs, nixed the idea.  Evidently Willa Cather was very attentive to fonts and page layouts, but I imagine subsequent printings of her works have drifted away from her original intentions. 

Maybe we should embrace the idea of authors’ cuts of their works.  Perhaps a few years hence, as we flip digitally to the verso of the title page on our ultra slim and sleek portable devices, a hologram of the author will rez and announce with august authority, “I’m the author, and I approve this institutional, classical, muscle-bound body for the soul of my book.  If you mess with it, you mess with me.” 

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