What’s that about the library brand?

Two tidbits to explain what I talk about on this blog. I’m not anti-technology, but I’m for playing to our strengths:

“Books” as the library brand grew even stronger. The
information consumer believes that
the library brand was “books” in
2005. Even more believe it is
“books” in 2010. 69% said “books”
was the library brand in 2005, while
75% said “books” in 2010.

The online library has not
become a substitute for visiting
the library in person. While use of
the physical library saw strong
growth in 2010, the library Web site
is not attracting significantly more
users. Penetration is basically flat
from 2005 at under 35%. The top
reason for not using the library Web
site remains the same as in 2005: “I
didn’t know it existed.” The top
reason given by college students:
“Other sites have better

Thanks to the OCLC

The Public Library Ebook FAIL and the purposeful aging of libraries.

But the current system, though unfriendly to users, probably serves the interests of local libraries, which can point to e-book lending as one way they’re staying current and relevant. And it’s hard to see that publishers would have a big interest in streamlining e-book lending — they want people to buy e-books or even printed copies instead.

So says Yahoo’s tech guy, Peter Svensson. Truth be told is, he’s right. It’s a steep price to pay for free, and I don’t think that when the next big ebook reader push for Christmas comes around, that libraries will be able to recover our earlier losses. We will continue to work with our vendors to get this thing to work, but we missed a big chance to prove how “with it” we are.

That’s fine. Actually.

The lending of software and econtent has always been a sticking point for libraries. It is clear that content creators (publishers) and content delivery systems designers (booksellers and publishers) have little interest in making it easier to lend their content for free. That is not to blame them, it simply is not in their interests to do so.  Libraries can devise their own systems to deliver their own content, or we can do what we do best: engage in the hated practice of physically lending out things to people, because physical possession is one of the strongest measures we have to enforce the public good.

Under the standard terms of the agreement, it would seem to this non-lawyer that a library could no more lend an iPad with a Kindle book on it than it could lend Netflix movies to patrons.  Maybe one could argue that all the library is doing is lending computer programs, which is permitted under Section 102(2), provided that the proper warning notices are included on the device itself.  But while this might apply to the iPad software, I am not sure that I would want to argue that an iBook or Kindle book is also a computer program: “a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result.”  Furthermore, licenses usually take precedence over any rights available in the law. -Peter Hirtle, LibraryLaw Blog

Do you remember those bizarre warnings about copyright law that were slapped onto photocopiers? Same issue here. Content providers consistently use threatening legalese to erode the power of sharing. Ebook readers magnify the effects, and it costs the libraries not only money, but also the integrity of the term “public good.” Our self-limiting makes us look like roadblocks and allows publishers to dictate what they think is important to our communities. Do we do something as daring as lending a thing? Look at the popularity of tool libraries, and the word-flip of libraries lending tools. In a different sense, libraries such as Red Rocks Community College lend out tools for content creation and consumption without fear of reprisal. Limiting our vision of libraries as places where content is only consumed allows us to rely on our vendor-partners without reaching our full potential; and the assumption that we have no place in challenging the models of distribution and creation given to us might keep us in their good graces, but it will not help us serve our communities better. The idea of lending out stuff is an old idea for libraries, and compared to Ebook models it seems positively antique. This is the purposeful aging of libraries, the marginalization of our raison d’etre. Perhaps I’m romanticizing the past or even worse, our future ruin, but it’s an impulse worth pondering (thanks to Andrew Sullivan):

John Patrick Leary on Ruin Porn:

So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation…

Rob Horning on the same:

Ruin photos speak to our desperate desire to have our world re-enchanted. We want the banal structures and scenes of our everyday life dignified by the patina of decay, so that we can imagine ourselves as noble, mythic Greeks and Romans to a later age and, more important, so that we can better tolerate the frequently shoddy and trite material culture that consumerism foists on us, see it once again as capable of mystery.

Photograph by Yves Marchan and Romain Meffre courtesy Steidl.

As much as I like new technology, I also romanticize the old in libraries–the uniqueness that past objects and methods lend. They all speak to the heart of the matter: meaning. It is heartening that we understand this better than most. Look at the poster for the “library renewal“:

This is a lesson in romanticizing the past as a brand for the future. The vintage 70’s color palette, the use of skeleton keys as a placeholder for content delivered on portable devices, the anthropomorphic characters to remind us of books that we read when we were kids. These are the images we need to capitalize on, because our most recent gambit to try and be Amazon by way of Overdrive wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Thanks George Norlin.

George Norlin, a former CU president, emblazoned this admonishment by Cicero on my undergraduate university’s library. Like the person who shot this photo, I admittedly spent no time here until my junior year, and as much as I love libraries, this one is still a maze of architectural pastiche, ridden with half-floors, secreted sections, and hairpin call-number shifts. For that reason, I think the librarians in Norlin understand what Cicero was talking about. Right underneath this gem is a quote by Norlin himself:


Given the labyrinthine depths that were rumored to be within, this one read like a dare, the sticking-out-his-tongue-at-you from a man who didn’t know how appropriate his words would one day become. Norlin (the library) provides you with views from the stacks that looked at what used to be the backside of the old building. You used to have to wind your way though tattered government documents to get to one computer lab, and to get to the other, you walked past either special collections or the children’s literature section. The new information commons rectified these issues, but the library still has jarring juxtapositions. It’s still an interesting place to read visually, as new library furniture settles down next to the wrought-iron  window frames of the old exterior. This is not to romanticize the old. This is not to champion the new. Steven Johnson’s 1997 book, Interface Culture:

From its outset this book has been conceived as a kind of secular response to the twin religions of techno-boosterism and techno-phobia. On the most elemental level, I see it as a book of connections, a book of links — one in which desktop metaphors cohabit with Gothic cathedrals, and hypertext links rub shoulders with Victorian novels. Like the illuminations of McLuhan’s electric speed, the commingling of traditional culture and its digital descendants should be seen as a cause for celebration, and not outrage.

Thanks to Snarkmarket for the tip. I love the Norlin Library because it does just that. In reading Ann Blair’s book on Latin reference books, she makes the argument that many of the fears and complaints we have about new technologies are roughly the same as others had back then, which also echos Johnson’s sentiments:

The story of the management of textual information in personal notes and printer reference books, 1500-1700, could be presented as a decline narrative from the heights of great learning to an increasing reliance on shortcuts and substitutes, or alternatively, as a triumphalist account of new methods of democratized and made increasingly sophisticated. Similarly, among those reflecting on the current and future developments, the doomsayers on the one hand and the info-boosters on the other often seem to be the loudest voices. -Blair, Too Much to Know, p.267.

But what Blair finally argues is that these works “designed innovative methods of managing textual information in an era of exploding publications to which our own methods of reading and processing information are indebted.” (268) I would argue not only are we indebted to them for the methods, but also for the outlook: that new ways of managing information are not worth stressing out about, that innovation is shaky but helpful, and by looking at how things were done in the past, we can occasionally devise new ways of working for the future. There’s a lot of hoopla over new and “unprecedented” modes of communication, but I believe that a thoughtful understanding of the past will give a much better idea of how people actually use information and knowledge as opposed to how the creators of such products would like them to. Likewise, slavish obsession to the past isn’t going to actually solve new problems. As George’s library ended up, all of these things need to exists side-by-side in unexpected ways. It’s time to grow up.

Ereaders and Content: The New “It” Bag

Make them dumber! Yes, we want stuff that’s even dumber and more durable and more flexible. We want stuff we can plug into other stuff forever….I’d love a directory of these steadfast components. I feel like my Samsung TV (very dumb) might be a candidate. The 24″ Dell LCD I’ve had at home for five years would definitely go in that directory—I think these Dell monitors are widely recognized as the, like, basic black t-shirts of computer components at this point.

Robin Sloan takes up an excellent idea: that sustainability should be a key factor in the design and purchase of material goods. I particularly like the analogy of the “basic black t-shirt” as being a solid, unchanging, durable component in a wardrobe. He also links to L.L. Bean’s Signature Collection as an example of a place to find such classic sartorial components. While the black t-shirt is very much like a Dell LCD, the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a different beast that ends at the same timeless result. You can buy a classic black t-shirt anywhere (although some might hold up better than others for the value), and they are designed, made and sold by many different sources. The L.L. Bean S.C. is the result of pulling “classics” out of their archives and remaking them with new fits and styles. The creative director at L.L. Bean S.C., Alex Carlton, describes the process this way:

The archives are like a time capsule of New England style, and that’s really what provides the flavor of L.L.Bean Signature. Exploring the archives is incredible – this is history made tangible. We’re inspired by all of it, not just clothes: there are photos from L.L.’s fishing trips, his journals, old catalog art. It illustrates the building of L.L.Bean, and it allows us to work in a very authentic way. We’re not designing in a vacuum.

When we started thinking about L.L.Bean Signature pieces we looked for archive items that seemed especially relevant today. Our initial approach was to reinterpret those items – putting new twists on vintage ideas. From there it grew into creating brand-new products, but we’re always using the archives for inspiration, even when we’re making things that are new.

Not even the classics are that simple. In this case, they are the product of one man’s interpretation of a second man’s brand, which basically is the commodification of New England style, generally of the rougher, outdoorsy sort. Black t-shirts are a solid component of very select wardrobes, but the constitution of a fashion basic is not just the utility, flexibility or durability of an item. It is also tied to the general acceptance that these items meet those criteria in the community that uses them. Chanel is legendarily the creator of the little black dress, but in reality, she can be credited with its refinement and popularization at most, likewise the L.L. Bean Signature Collection is a refinement of the popularization of a rough-hewn New England style. It works for many wardrobes, but not all.  “The basics” are part of a brand, designed to be part of a carefully controlled system of signs and signifiers. Chanel understood this in her black dress, Dell understands that in making cheap, durable monitors, and L.L. Bean understood this in making rugged outwear. They use the concept of “basic” as part of a brand that reaches to their community: the product is “dumb” but the designer is “smart” by keeping the cycle of production and demand in their favor.

Those products that are “smart” automate this process, keeping the consumer locked into a tighter cycle. At The New Inquiry, Rob Horning sees this play out in the potential world of ebooks and ereaders:

But perhaps more important, publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decision making, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision that dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books.

The idea of the “it bag,” a closed and conspicuous market that drives its own demand is very much like device-specific content. Ponder the “it bag”:

Thus, cheap coated-canvas bags were converted into objects of consumer fetish with eye-grabbing adornments: denim and diamonds, graffiti, crystal beads, and, almost always, a prominent logo. “There was a stage when, however unappealing something was, if it had enough logos written all over it, somebody seemed to buy it,” Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic of the International Herald Tribune, says. Menkes calls the period “a worldwide aberration,” as if she were talking about the concomitant era of credit-default swaps and subprime-mortgage lending. -John Colapinto, “Just Have Less,” The New Yorker, January 3rd, 2001.

Stylistically, the it bag refers to itself: it is based on a bag from a brand, popularized by a celebrity, and then recycled in various forms with different adornments. There is no new creative injection, just the appearance of such. The phenomena moves from one company to another, each getting a turn at being “it,” a different look but the same function: it’s a purse, but more importantly, it turns everything into its own promotion. Anything that goes against that promotion is cut. Amazon’s pricing and enclosed media ecosystem works the same way: if you are not explicitly for it, you are against it. It bags and Amazon to say it as Horning does, entomb you in your preferences. They do this by being “smart,” and not allowing you to divorce the medium from the content.

It’s up to libraries to deal with these concerns in an environment where these kinds of intellectual closed circuits is what fuels the market. Aaron Schmidt quoted Katheryn Greenhill’s elegant blog post:

Or we could save our energy and find untapped sources of content created by our local users and work together to create a single publishing platform and rights-management tool to allow easy creation and access to local content.

That’s the excellent ending of Kathryn Greenhill’s answer to her own question: How do we force publishers to give us ebook content that includes works that our users want and that they find easy to download to their chosen device?

ANSWER: They will not.

We need to design it ourselves, but will its scarcity be it’s allure or its downfall? I’m going to go out on a limb and quote Agenda Inc.’s articles of faith about luxury brands: “We believe luxury is rarity. We believe that innovation – the pursuit of rarity – needs to be redoubled as a goal for all luxury brands.” In a world where the desired goal is to create enclosed information ecosystems, the creation of open-standards and local content is more rare than anything. Beyond that, however, is the idea of serendipity. Can we create a system that allows for the unexpected to infuse the normal? It goes back to the basic black t-shirt, a dumb component that works no matter what the content put into it. Local content makes it unique, but it does not widen its appeal, and it threatens to also create a closed off group where local things don’t have much interest to those outside of that locality. Libraries can’t force publishers to do anything, but our patrons (their customers) can.

Information overload and a defense of print reference.

“At some point, the niches will become so small that they will exclude everything that didn’t emanate from our own consciousness. It will be as Ortega feared. We’ll all end up qualified experts on ourselves, and nothing more.”

The author, Rob Horning, started this post with a classic case of library information overload, paralyzed at the mass of knowledge that he will never be able to master, a feeling I also get more and more, both on the internet and off of it. Happily, this is the stuff of librarianship: helping people get by in he deluge.

One interesting aspect of many reference works is how personal note-taking became a publicly used tool to construct new knowledge (read Ann Blair’s excellent new book, Too Much To Know). Like any text, reference books are full of errors, and more importantly, they are full of judgments. That is what makes them so important as entry points into any subject: the best reference tools bear the clear influence of their authors and the fields they work in. Like Horning, we all can’t be experts, but we certainly should consult them, and like any person, we should look at what they say critically. (excerpt from book) Another quote from Horning’s essay relates to the ideas of niche knowledge and having an opinion:

Ortega claims that the mass-man “wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.”

As we engage in writing and research, we have to take responsibility for our opinions, just as we examine those of others. Any research has an opinion or bias, what is interesting is the unwillingness of librarians to recognize this in our own work. This mental block is the product of librarianship’s swing towards defining ourselves as “information providers” as if information was like water or electricity. In addition to these services, we need to say more about ourselves. If librarians want to be taken seriously as educators, then we need to promote our biases, and take ownership of our personal quirks. The EDUCAUSE review “The Library as Learning Space” calls for libraries to continue to push electronic collections, and move unused print collections to off-site storage, allowing for more learning spaces.

“This process of development, including a re-conception of services offered by librarians, will ultimately allow two further developments: the closer positioning of librarians into teaching and research activities; and a broadening of the library’s curatorial role from the purchase (and licensing of) materials to the management of locally produced research outputs, data sets, and learning objects.”

That quote is stellar, the import of locally produced knowledge can’t be under-stressed, but it is only one part of what makes libraries unique. The focus on digital materials (and yes, licensed materials are useful harbingers of sameness), misses one thing that sets notably great libraries from average ones: print reference. The curation of useful print reference matches the speed of trying to slog through search results, and if you want to help somebody feel less overwhelmed when taking on a new subject, it can’t be beat. Sure, many great reference works are available online, but they are not all inclusive, and many of them hide behind the identity of the publisher, confounding as stone-faced search boxes imply all-knowingness. Print reference does two things better than digital: it displays its own limits by narrowing possibilities, thus exposing its own biases. It also gives courage: they are done by people, so you too can enter their domain, join the conversation, and have an opinion  if you so choose. Libraries are places where in-depth engagement and learning is encouraged, excellent and sometimes obscure print reference material reflects that.

Yup, sums it up.

When we can step back and compare different linguistic domains, we engage in a second-order literacy: a literacy about literacies. This, I contend, is the meat of transliteracy. It isn’t about learning how to use a particular digital tool. It isn’t about social media. It isn’t about new media, augmented reality, immersive story-telling, or any of that jazz. Transliteracy is about our ability to understand when and how we move across an ever-expanding realm of linguistic domains.

Wilk @ Sense and Reference