I’ve always been taken with Peter Elbow’s notion that, when it comes time to grapple with ideas, we’re trained to play the Doubting Game. That is, we test ideas by trying to break them, and too often we think the purpose of argument is to win. But another way of making an argument is to examine an issue logically to see where it leads. If your goal is enlightenment, rather than winning, you can make an effort to understand all sides. Elbow argues it’s more effective and ethical to try to play the Believing Game, to try to understand all sides, especially the one you disagree with. Rather than try to take apart your opponent’s ideas, try to understand it thoroughly, and by stepping outside of your own belief system, you might be able to see assumptions you hadn’t recognized, or simply a new perspective that had been invisible. It’s a kind of mindfulness that sets aside the end point-I win!!-in order to focus on the present moment: ah, I understand.
I spend time in different parts of the information universe. My strongest identity is as a librarian and as a user of libraries, so I have a passionate desire to share information and to ensure that it is preserved and protected from censorship. As an academic, I do a fair amount of writing, but for a number of years my colleagues and I have decided not to publish academic work that will only be available behind a paywall. It would be hypocritical for me, as a supporter of open access, to do otherwise.
Down the mean streets
But I also have a foot in the commercial publishing world, as a reader and writer of commercial fiction-also known as mysteries-and through that peculiar passion have gotten to know a lot of writers and booksellers and publishers. It makes me sensitive to issues that I might not otherwise be aware of, such as why my book shopping behavior matters. Amazon has made it awfully convenient to buy books impulsively, but it turns out to be just as convenient for me to drop an email to my favorite independent bookseller as it is to push a button on the Amazon site. The store I shop at is 75 miles away, but the owners don’t mind mailing me books, and so far (because it is a remarkably good bookstore-it won an award from the Mystery Writers of America last spring) they’ve had everything I’ve asked for in stock. They even give me a discount.
Because I know how hard they work to keep their doors open, and because I value their depth of knowledge about the niche they’ve specialized in, I not only try to direct my spending toward their business, but I have been slow to jump on the ebook bandwagon. I can see the advantages of having a vast supply of reading material in a small, lightweight package, but I worry about a future without bookstores and the dedicated, knowledgeable people who run them more for love than money. I wouldn’t even make the connection between my dollars and their future if I hadn’t gotten to know them personally and learned something about what is involved in curating and managing a bookstore. I would have taken them for granted.
In addition to booksellers, I have gotten to know enough editors personally to cringe when I read dismissive or vitriolic attacks on traditional publishing as useless, Jurassic, or greedy. I know these individuals work hard at sorting through the piles of manuscripts to find one that has potential, how much hands-on work a good editor does to make each book she publishes better, and I know they do all this with low salaries and little job security. These personal connections make it possible to glimpse behind the assumptions to see the complexity of their worlds. I can’t make blanket statements condemning their practices when I know what they’re trying to accomplish and what they’re up against. Knowing the actual people involved, no doubt, also makes me more inclined to play the Believing Game.
That extends to academic publishing. I have a friend (who happens to share an interest in crime fiction) who works for one of the large science publishers I sometimes criticize. I’ve learned a lot by reading some of her blog posts and online comments about the volume of work handled and the technological innovation that goes into publishing highly regarded cutting-edge scientific research. I respect what she does, and I recognize that it’s expensive-and valuable. We need to work on ways to continue to support that valuable work in a way that makes it available to as many people as possible, and that will require more than marshaling our outrage to win an argument. We have to play the Believing Game and learn something about each other or we might as well be on Dover Beach, ignorant and clashing by night.
But before this turns into a group hug, I do sometimes hit a wall. I confess I cannot understand what the Author’s Guild and other parties suing Hathi Trust and a group of academic libraries hope to accomplish with their litigation (other than, as Andrew Albanese suggests at Publishers Weekly, to gain a bit of leverage in their fight with Google as the settlement falls apart). In the case of the orphaned works that libraries plan to make available for free after diligently seeking owners, how will the plaintiffs be harmed? The plaintiffs believe libraries have no right to take matters that Congress should resolve into their own hands. But since these groups have been eager to seal a deal with Google to make an end-run around Congress’s unexercised authority to deal with orphaned works, it seems a bit churlish to get all huffy about it now. As for the claim that libraries shouldn’t have the scans in the first place, there’s a fair use counter-argument that seems stronger to me than Google’s; besides, where is the harm? The plaintiffs seem concerned that someone will hack into Hathi’s vault and let the books scamper free, but they aren’t equally concerned about ebook seller’s security or acknowledge that there are already torrent sites loaded with Kindle-ready material that is far more commercially appealing than what Hathi has digitized. The complaint seems both overwrought and petty, and it seriously misrepresents both the threat and the potential benefits of the project.
What is more troubling to me is the way that copyright is being read as a one-sided right: for authors to control the circulation of their work. It’s treated as a moral right, not as a balance of interests recognized by law. In fact, the Constitution spells out that the only right authors have been granted by copyright is a limited monopoly that exists because it is assumed to provide conditions that will promote a public good. It’s the public good piece that these lawsuits ignore completely.
We’ll all be celebrating Constitution Day tomorrow (a day early because it falls on a weekend). It might be a good time to discuss the part of it that gives Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”