February 16, 2018

Making Sense in a Digital World | Peer to Peer Review

There are lots of things we do that no longer make sense. For example, consider the phrase “call numbers.” How long has it been since we had to call for our books? I’m pretty old, but none of the libraries I used as a student had closed stacks. That said, we might want to avoid explaining what the “call” in call numbers means to our busy students. They might take a fancy to the idea of waiting while someone else rounds up their books for them, and we no longer have that kind of staff.

Libraries have a reputation—at least among librarians—for holding onto routines and practices long after they have lost their value. Many a smoking blog post has been ignited by the burning need for change, and the stubbornness of librarians who are dragging their heels. But on the whole, librarians have embraced the digital shift. When your job is sharing information, the Internet is full of opportunity for doing more of it, faster and better.

Meanwhile, in the digital book world . . .
When it comes to scholarly publishing, so many things don’t make sense that it’s staggering. But we’ve gotten fairly used to that brand of insanity. Tenure requirements, societies relying on subscriptions, big-money corporations, yadda yadda. This is our everyday life. In the last couple of days, though, I have been trying to eavesdrop on the Digital Book World conference in New York via Twitter, and it makes me scratch my head all over again.  Those attending are the digerati of the book world, and even they seem to be a little bit scared of making the most of the Internet—partly because they see how Amazon has done just that, becoming the rogue elephant in the room.

For book publishers, the digital shift seems to be a good news/bad news story. The World Wide Web is a platform full of opportunity for reaching customers, who are too cheap to pay reasonable prices and might just steal you blind! Publishers aren’t sure what to expect because, until now, they have never dealt directly with readers. They let middle folk—distributors, wholesalers, and retailers—do that. Apparently they prefer it that way. I can’t really think of any other reason why, when a major trade publisher decides to put further limits on what they will allow their libraries customers to do, they duck for cover and let OverDrive be the messenger. In a few days, ALA officials will track them down in New York to see if they’re willing to talk. [More from LJ here.] I’m not sure they’ll drop their “we love libraries, but you can’t have our ebooks” approach, but since they won’t come to us, I’m glad that ALA is going to them.

There are lots of things about book publishing in a digital age that make no sense to me. Take the continuing existence of regional rights. Increasingly, when people talk about books, they are talking to one another across borders. When a reader wants a book, how does it benefit the book industry to tell them they can’t because they live in the wrong place? Oh, I know why this practice persists. But it still makes no sense that you can buy a printed book and have it mailed across a border, but you can’t download an ebook. (Er, at least, not legally.) Making books available worldwide all at once would let books travel at the speed of buzz. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Then there’s the repackaging of books for different English-language markets. In an era when publishers cut costs by reusing the same stock photos on covers over and over, why is it a good use of scarce resources to create totally new packaging when a U.K. book is published in the U.S. or vice-versa? The only benefit is that book bloggers can argue over which cover is better. (I’m presenting a special raspberry to books that get a different title when they cross a border, just to confuse us.)

We could have told you that
The much-tweeted news from the conference was that some publishers are realizing that DRM is frustrating their customers and may be counterproductive. You really didn’t have to go to a conference for that insight. We’ve been telling you that for quite a while. The most puzzling thing I’ve encountered in tweets from the conference, though, is the gee-golly enthusiasm for hot new things: discovery is key! Metadata is awesome! And, hey, sharing information about readers would be really swell!

Hello? Haven’t we been trying to tell you for a long time that we already do these things, and we do them pretty well? We’ve published more research than anyone about what readers want and how to figure that out. This literature on readers’ advisory is serious R&D, folks, and you don’t have to pay big bucks for it, either. Oh, and if you want information to drive decisions, we have numbers that show library users are your customers, that libraries are good for business. Hello? Hello?

A lost cause? Not necessarily
Though the number of library-related panels at this conference expanded from one to three this year, I don’t expect we’ll see any softening of positions on libraries and ebooks anytime soon. One gloomy tweet predicted that “ownership of ebooks may be a lost cause.” We’re down to one of the Big Six publishers who hasn’t prohibited or restricted licensing frontlist titles to libraries—and that one is considering its options.

But maybe it’s not all over. Today I also sat in on a web conversation held for liberal arts college libraries interested in what the Internet Archive is doing. They not only have an open library catalog (called, fittingly enough, the Open Library) that takes a Wikipedia-like approach to shared cataloging and an API you can use to play with the data, they have a lending library. Participating libraries join by signing up and sending a book to be scanned. It doesn’t have to be in the public domain. They are scanning books published between 1923 and 2000, as well as negotiating to buy digital files of more recently-published books. Once the Internet Archive has scanned the book, the original is stored in container-like lockers where the book will be preserved and the digital copy is available for check out to patrons at any participating library. In order to respect rightsholders’ interests, only one user can borrow the book at a time, either through a Web browser or Adobe Digital Editions. Sorry, Kindle users: your devices won’t read these books. The idea isn’t to compete with vendors like OverDrive for market share or to provide digital editions of popular, high-demand books, it’s to use the long tail to experiment and see if the virtues of libraries and what they have done in the past by owning, sharing, and preserving books can be reproduced in the digital world. It reminds me of a bumper sticker a journalist once gave me that I have in my office: “Ignore your rights and they’ll go away.”

This digital collection may not get a lot of use from our patrons. To be honest, I’m not sure how interested our students will be in ebooks, no matter what part of the tail they come from—so far they’ve met with a big yawn—but this is a project I believe in. I’ve signed up. Now all I need to do is pick out our first book.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Charlie Parker says:

    Here is why publishers of popular ebooks will soon conclude that licensing to libraries is smart and those that don’t currently will sign up. A new development is substantiation that by providing popular ebooks libraries expose them to the public and that results in sales. The LJ survey reported on in the PW post “Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers” http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publishing-and-marketing/article/49316-survey-says-library-users-are-your-best-customers.html and the Amazon press release about how their Lending Library program led to sales described in Paid Content’s “Amazon: Early Data Shows Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Increases Sales” http://paidcontent.org/article/419-amazon-early-data-shows-kindle-owners-lending-library-increases-sales/ both make a compelling case. This, put together with OverDrive’s new program that exposes authors’ entire lists in library catalogs whether the library owns them or not and offering sale and recommendation options will position libraries as significant sales outlets (3M says they’ll have similar functionality soon).

  2. John Coltrane says:

    Actually, while the stacks do remain open, some libraries are offering a service to retrieve books and have them waiting at the circ desk. In that case, they’re still call numbers.