Imaginary books and invisible libraries

The perpetual laments of the booklover are, “so many books, so little time” and “when will my favorite author come out with their next book?”  There is also the grieving version, otherwise sobbed out as, “why didn’t my favorite author finish their series before they died?” Robert Jordan was almost the poster child for the grief version, or would be without the assist from Brandon Sanderson. And I think the entire fantasy-reading public would appreciate it if George R.R. Martin would finish up The Song of Ice and Fire before too much longer.

I read an article this week that reminded me that the “so many books, so little time” part of the equation could be even worse. The article in Salon is about Invisible Libraries. What is an “Invisible Library,” you ask? That’s easy. An Invisible Library is one that exists only within the pages of fiction, and not in the real world.  In other words, a pseudo-library.

The original Library at Alexandria would not qualify, since it did exist. They just had a few long term problems. Chiefly war. And fire. And did I mention war?

But there are two fairly large and very much pseudo libraries in fantasy that would seriously increase the TBR piles of every bibliophile now living, while simultaneously solving the problem of dead writers’ unfinished series.

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the Lord of Dreams has a library.  The Library of Dream contains all the books that authors never wrote, or never finished, except in their dreams. What a concept! Robert Jordan’s own version of the end of the Wheel of Time. Charles Dickens probably finished the Mystery of Edwin Drood in his dreams, too.

There is also a “Invisible Library” in the Discworld, and while I would love to be able to peruse its shelves, the thought of it saddens me at the same time. Death has a library. Actually, I’m pretty sure he has two. One library is all biographies, and the ones for living people are being written in every minute. The ones for the deceased are, well, finished. The other library is a collection of all the books people meant to write, but never did. I think I might have a couple of books in there myself. That’s the one I want access to. How many Great American Novels are in there, imagined but never written? And Great British Novels, etc., etc.

And just the idea of imaginary books. Going back to Sherlock Holmes for a minute, during the Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, Holmes referred to the case of the “giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” The world is probably prepared by now, but we’ll never get to read Watson’s version of the case.  Holmes and Watson tossed out the names of many cases that Watson had yet to write, and now, never will. They are all invisible books.

There are other kinds of invisible books. Some would be dangerous if they really existed. Every horror fan knows about the Necronomicon. And no one in their right mind wants it. H.P. Lovecraft created this fictional “terrible and forbidden book” as part of his stories about the Nameless and the Cthulu Mythos. Other writers also used the name Necronomicon, creating weight behind his fictional creation.

My favorite invisible book is still The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not the one by Douglas Adams, which was wonderful. I mean the one that Ford Prefect was the roving researcher for. The one published by one of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. And I wonder if it would fit on an iPad.

Visions of Futures Past

The British Library has just opened an exhibition on the history of science fiction. I had to read the article twice just to prove to myself it was real. The exhibition is called “Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it” The exhibit will be running through 25 September 2011, for anyone who has a chance to visit London.

Besides the images from the early science fiction pulp magazines, which are incredibly awesome, there is a lot on the blog and in the exhibit about science fiction as literature. science fiction is a literature of ideas, after all. As a concept, it’s been around for a couple of centuries, depending on how one defines it. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were writing science fiction, among other things. So was Lewis Carroll. And Mary Shelley–what is Frankenstein if it isn’t science fiction? The exhibit traces SF back to writings in the 17th century!

Science fiction has always looked at other worlds. Either worlds in the future, alien worlds, virtual worlds, parallel worlds, perfect worlds, or apocalyptic worlds. Those are the themes described in the exhibit, with covers from the pulps or illustrations from classic novels to match. But the fact is that modern SF subgenres derive from those original themes; future world stories are now hard sf,  alien worlds are space opera, virtual worlds are cyberpunk, parallel worlds are alternate history, perfect worlds equal utopian, and apocalyptic worlds are post-holocaust novels. Someone else’s mileage may vary on definitions, but the principle holds.

The history of SF is all around me in this room, too. We re-shelved through the letter H over the weekend. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is here. One of the surviving space operas. It’s a story that transcended its original time to become a cornerstone of the genre. Also, Asimov’s Complete Stories is here, which includes his 3 laws of robotics somewhere in there. Every robot story since has dealt with those laws in some way, either to use them or to flout them.

Ray Bradbury is shelved in the next section, so there’s Fahrenheit 451 along with a thick volume of his stories. Can anyone who loves books ever forget the power of that story?

On the very first shelf, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rests along with the other books in the series. True humor in science fiction is really hard to do well. The Hitchhiker’s Guide was a incredible accomplishment.  Every once in a while, someone can catch that lightning in that bottle.

Way, way, way, too many years of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. I only say too many because each volume is positively huge. They take up two shelves, all by themselves.

Harlan Ellison is here, with so many Dangerous Visions. Some Robert A. Heinlein, but I kept only the good stuff. There’s a lot of Frank Herbert, and I still have a copy of Dune from when it was published by Chilton. Yes, Chilton was the original hardcover publisher back when no one else would touch it.

At the same time, there are newer books in here as well.  A lot of Eric Flint’s 1632 series. Alternative history is still considered science fiction, mostly because it isn’t anything else. Kage Baker’s Company series, which is a combination of time travel and alternate history.

But I can’t get over the idea that the British Library is doing a major exhibition on the history of Science Fiction. The BL is a place I associate more with the Magna Carta than Orson Scott Card!

Library futures and bookselling futures

In today’s Shelf Awareness there is an essay titled “Deeper Understanding” about the future of bookselling that has a lot of implications for libraries.

The premise of the essay is that companies succeed in one of two ways: they either promote convenience, or they provide some type of unique or high-quality experience, service or product.

One example would be Chips Ahoy cookies vs. real, honest-to-goodness home-baked chocolate chip cookies. Another, more seasonal example: grocery store ice cream, including Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs, as opposed to the local ice cream parlor in your town that makes its own. The local version is special, or at least the one I remember was and still is. (Graeter’s will ship out of Cincinnati but it costs $120 to ship 12 pints, not including the cost of the ice cream.)

Amazon sells convenience. A customer can download a book 24/7 from just about anywhere on the planet. Independent bookstores, on the other hand, sell unique experiences and fantastic services, or they die. Some examples that are working: Powell’s in Portland, OR, Tattered Cover in Denver, CO and Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL (Chicago Metro). But what about libraries? Libraries also need to sell themselves in order to compete for increasingly scarce resources.

Can libraries be as convenient as Amazon? Should we even try? Or should we choose to use our expertise to provide unique experiences and fantastic services, as those independent bookstores that are making a go of it are? Attempting to be all things to all people in all ways is a recipe for disaster–there is a reason that the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” is a such cliché. The US Postal Service is in just this position because its government mandate forces it, in effect, to compete with email, twitter and FedEx, all at the same time. FedEx only has to concentrate on UPS.

If a patron is looking for a copy of Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris, or A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, both on the New York Times Best Seller list, the local library is probably going to put the patron on a waiting list. Budgets will not permit enough copies to be purchased to meet immediate demand. And even if they did, would any library want to devote that many dollars to a title that won’t be in quite such high demand a year from now when those dollars could be spread over many other titles?  We can’t beat Amazon or Barnes and Noble on convenience. But we can beat them on service and experience, if we put our hearts and minds into it.

Just think about it. Libraries can become the ultimate independent bookstore. And, even better, we can do this in synergy with local independent bookstores, holding events that help both entities. Author signings at branches and the independents. Writers’ workshops with authors that visit both places. Theme parties in conjunction with local writers’ groups or even the romance, mystery or science fiction convention in the area. Children’s storytimes at both venues. Book clubs and recommendation blogs that independents and libraries can work on together. There are many possibilities that share expertise and service and promote local resources.

Otherwise, Amazon beats the independent bookstore on convenience, and we’re just part of the tax burden that no one wants. But publishers and authors need both of us to help sell books. There’s still no replacement for one person telling another “you’ve got to read this book!” Libraries need to find more ways to be that person.

Strength in Unity

I’ve been following the debate about the potential “forking” of the Digital Public Library of America project. This is a project that is going to continue to generate a lot of intelligent commentary.

The name says it all. The excellent intention is to create a Digital Public Library for the U.S.  Based on following the listserv, there has been a lot of energy, which can sometimes seem to be more heat than light, invested in the determination of the definition of each individual word in that name–Digital, Public, Library, and I swear, sometimes even America.

But what would a Digital Public Library of America be? The phrase “Public Library” has a certain image in most people’s minds. For better or for ill, public libraries in America have become associated with best-sellers and helping kids with their homework, as well as storytimes for pre-schoolers.  That is not currently part of the vision of the DPLA.  So far, the Steering Committee has seemed primarily interested in more scholarly aspects of a potential DPLA, something more akin to an expanded American Memory project combined with Project Gutenberg and other out-of-print classic books.

This has led to discussions of a possible “fork” in the project, to dropping “Public” from the name, and to a therefore separate Public Library based DPLA-type project driven by Public Library needs.  The point-counterpoint argument on this topic was recently published by Library Journal.

There are cogent arguments both for and against a “fork” in the road.  But the arguments for the “fork” all seem to be based on human behavior. Academic librarians and public librarians are used to thinking and behaving in certain ways, and so we tend to go on doing so. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When I worked in Alaska, there was virtually no division between the academic librarians and public librarians in the Alaska Library Association. There simply weren’t enough of us to not work closely together. Also, we all crossed over from one type of library to another too often to not know how the other half lived and worked. When a big state conference attendance means 300 people, everyone knows everyone.

Nate Hill makes the point in his posting on the PLA blog that the Digital Public Library of America needs to be a big tent.  It is the libraries that will determine how its resources get used in each community.  Academic libraries will use its resources for scholarly purposes. Public libraries and their users will use its resources for a variety of purposes;some will, in fact, be scholarly, but others will be self-help, recreational, or whatever flights of fancy the user chooses. But first the resource needs to be there. And to paraphrase that famous movie line, “If we build it, they will come.”

This is going to be the Digital Public Library of America. As a public librarian, I know there are a lot of things that are important to public library users that will need to be included to make this truly a public library. But usage patterns are changing, and we need to move forward. A “fork” is not the answer. There is strength in unity. All types of libraries are currently being questioned about future relevancy in the face of the digital onslaught. The Digital Public Library of America is our collective answer–our future. We need to face that future together, not argue over who has the best seats at the table. Let’s set a table we all can sit at together.

If Reference is dead, we need an ID on the body

The latest outcry in the library world is that Reference is dead.  Where’s the body?  What part of reference is dead?  And what should we do about it? 

Reference isn’t what it used to be.  Librarians are not the high priests and priestesses of information, and probably weren’t even when we thought we were.  The type of ready-reference questions that used to make up a significant part of a public library’s reference diet have gone to Google.  Ready-reference is dead.  And that is not news.  Joseph Janes has been talking about this for five years at least, based on these notes from his Internet Librarian keynote in 2007.  I’m pretty sure I heard him say this sometime before 2007, but this is the earliest date I can prove.

OCLC’s Perceptions of Libraries 2010 report shows that users don’t start their information searches on library websites.  Is anyone actually surprised?  On the other hand, what does surprise me is the number of times that this data point is used to support the argument that reference is dead.  What does one have to do with the other?  Reference has never been about the question, it’s always been about the service.

The OCLC report goes on to say that people who have positive view of libraries support libraries, and that people are increasing their use of libraries, in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that people are increasing their use of technology across all age groups.  Everybody does everything online at every age, and everyone seems to want to continue to do it at the library.  And although reference may be dead, everyone wants more service.

So what is service if it isn’t reference, and who should provide it?

Service is whatever the person who comes into the library, whether that is online or physically, defines it to be.  If they walk out happy, we’re golden.  If they don’t, we’re idiots.  Some of the pundits seem to have lost sight of this.  I agree that directional questions are not reference, but someone needs to assist people with them, otherwise we don’t just seem, we are, cold and unhelpful places.  But the fortress-type reference desks of the past are not what users expect to see in the here-and-now, and staff who go out among the PCs, the wireless user area, and the stacks to seek out people who need help are a better way to provide service for most people.  At the same time, it’s not the only way.  Just like some people won’t ask directions when they are lost, some people won’t admit they need help when someone approaches them, they will wait until they are totally befuddled, then seek a place where help is available.  Human nature is contrary.

A lot of what used to be reference questions have turned into questions about how to use technology.  There are a lot of places outside the big cities, suburbs and university towns where the library is the geekiest spot in town, even if high speed bandwidth is only DSL speed.  And that’s not because the librarians are resistant to change, it’s because the library is located somewhere in that infamous “last mile” for broadband service, and DSL is all there is, and that’s if the library is lucky. 

Is reference dead, or dying?  Or is it just changing?

The cry that “reference is dead” sounds a lot like an echo from McMastergate a couple of weeks ago.  Librarians are expensive staff, and most libraries are facing budget cuts.  If reference is dead, then just cutting reference librarians is a quick and easy way to reduce the budget.  If reference has changed, and job descriptions and qualifications and staffing levels need to be seriously re-examined, that takes time, effort, and unfortunately, committees.  It’s certainly not a quick and easy fix.  But it provides better service if it’s done right.

And right is just not the same thing everywhere.  One size doesn’t fit all.  Saying “reference is dead” makes a good sound bite, but depends a lot upon definitions.  The late Tip O’Neill is famous for saying, “All politics is local”.  So is all library service.  It’s provided by your funding agency to your community, whether that be your taxpayers to your city and county, or your student tuition and grant monies to your students and faculty.  If the service is the right service, whether you call it reference or information services or just plain, “get help here”, users will keep coming in.  If you don’t provide the right service, you will become irrelevant.  There are some libraries, as Karen Schneider has posted, that are increasing relevance by providing, among other services, more research (in other words, reference) services. 

And, for a reminder of just how varied local service can and should be, the profiles of just the nominees for the Best Small Library in America should remind all of us of the sheer number of things that libraries and librarians do.  It’s not all about big libraries in big cities, or even medium sized libraries in medium sized towns.

Two of the three biggest lies are:  1)The check’s in the mail; and 2) One size fits all. 

Library budgets are hurting right now.  The checks that we have in the mail are smaller than they used to be.  Using the one size fits all sound bite of “reference is dead” to cut reference librarians, instead of going through the more extensive exercise of transforming information services into what our communities need now will make us less relevant, not more relevant.

The only way Amazon gets me in the Kindle Store

eReaderIQ iconI just received an update from eReaderIQ.  This is a service that lets you know when there are new free books added to the Kindle store.  It will also tell you about price drops, and recent Kindlization of previously non Kindle titles, as well as an advance search feature for the Kindle store.  I don’t have a Kindle, and I don’t even like Amazon all that much, but I love this service.

Barnes and Noble logoWhen I was purchasing “dead tree” books, I got them from Barnes & Noble.  Strictly speaking, I usually got them from, but that’s still not Amazon.  They had a real store I could visit when I wanted truly instant gratification, and, when I only needed moderately quick gratification, B&N shipped faster without my having to pay extra for Prime Membership.

When I bought an ebook reader, I bought a Nook.  One of the big selling points was that it had some built-in flexibility.  I could use it for ebooks from the library, if I was willing to jump through some hoops (that process was fairly teeth-grinding the first time).  I could also get free books from Baen and Project Gutenberg, while still having the advantage of being able to shop for books in bed at midnight if I really didn’t feel like reading anything I had on hand.  (The local Barnes and Noble currently hands out a cheat-sheet with every Nook they sell that gives new Nook owners the handy-dandy instructions on how to borrow ebooks from the library and read them on their new Nook.  This is a win-win that Amazon just can’t match.)

But now I have an iPad, and it changes things.  An iPad is essentially vendor agnostic.  As long as “there’s an app for that”, it can be anything I want it to be.  Or, everything I want it to be.  It’s a Nook and an Overdrive Media Console and a Bluefire Reader and, occasionally, a Kindle.

eReaderIQ tells me when there is a new ebook available for free in the Kindle store.  Even if I absolutely hate the title, I absolutely love getting the information.  And, unfortunately for the state of my various TBR lists and piles, sometimes I find the title interesting enough to download.  I know this is a loss-leader for Amazon.  They hope that people will get the freebie and then buy other books by the same author.  If I want something that’s not free, I’ll either check the library, or, purchase from B&N, so it’s not working on me, but the concept is excellent.  And, it absolutely proves the point made by librarians that letting people read the actual work is what turns people on to getting more books, including buying more books!  The freebie is a teaser, and I’d be willing to bet that both Amazon and the authors who put their books up think it works for them in the long run.

Baen Books LogoBaen Books has a terrific explanation of this from their perspective, written by Eric Flint, who has also put his money where his mouth is as an author.  The Baen Free Library makes the first couple/three books in many of their most popular authors’ series (including Flint’s) available for free download.  They know that if a reader likes the first two or three books, they will feel compelled to read the rest of the series.  Think of it as a gateway drug.

Project Gutenberg logoBut it’s the service aspect of this that I keep thinking about.  As a service, this is absolutely fantastic.  Barnes and Noble does not seem to have anything to match it, or if they do, they are hiding it quite thoroughly.  Project Gutenberg even manages to do this, and they won’t make a profit on it, but Barnes & Noble can’t seem to manage it (neither can Google).  What’s up with that?

Can libraries do the same thing?  Just think about it for a second.  Send out an email to patrons of what the library added, today.  Just today.  Every single day.  And/or what the library placed on order today.  And/or all the ebooks added to the library’s ebook site.  There really isn’t any need to get fancy about this, eReaderIQ certainly doesn’t.  It’s the books, and it’s all the books. There’s no added text, there’s no filtering, just the publisher blurb and the cover picture.  If I don’t like the books, I can delete the email or ignore the twitterfeed.  This could be automated, and it would provide a daily reminder of what the library does that’s good for readers.  And it would be an automatic update to the library’s twitterfeed and Facebook page every day.  Think of the possibilities!

What should a platform fee buy, anyway?

There are so many things swirling about how libraries purchase ebooks, it’s hard to know where to begin. 

 The Kansas State Library and OverDrive are butting heads during the renegotiation of the Kansas contract for OverDrive access for public libraries in the state.  This is primarily about the platform, or access fee, not about the individual content purchases, which are separate and priced as purchased.  But without the platform, no library can access the content.

Steven Jobs introducing the iPadThere are a few issues up front.  This particular original contract was negotiated in 2006.  The Sony e-reader with e-ink had just been introduced.  The Kindle was one year away.  Steven Jobs probably hadn’t even dreamed his iPad dream yet.  Ebooks for iPhones were still two years away.  No one could have predicted the explosion in ebook adoption by the consumer public, let alone by libraries. 

But there is a reason that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse and not a blessing.  OverDrive has become the major supplier of ebooks and downloadable audio to public libraries.  Unfortunately for OverDrive, it is human nature for people to take shots at whoever is out in front, and in the public library digital market, they are it.  To add fuel to the proverbial fire, public libraries are facing the perfect storm of record-breaking usage, heart-rending budget cuts, and an ear-splitting clamor for the digital services that OverDrive represents, with no human, technical or monetary support in sight.  For many libraries, ebooks represent another “do more with less” scenario, just with a higher profile.

On top of all of this, platform fees are very strange beasts.  When a library subscribes to a database for a year, the database license fee includes both access and content.  When the subscription stops, the access stops.  It may be expensive, but the concept is relatively simple.  In the case of OverDrive, the content is paid for separately from the platform, or access, fee.  So what does the platform fee buy?

The platform fee buys access to the content for library patrons, it buys access to the purchasing site so libraries can license additional content, it buys reports so the libraries can figure out what to buy and what not to buy, and it buys customer support for both patrons and libraries,.  And that’s where the questions come in.  Is the library getting value for money?  It’s not about the content.  Each ebook and each downloadable audiobook is paid as it is purchased.

At my LPOW, I handled all the digital stuff.  All the selection, all the purchasing, all the contracts, all the reports.  I’m also a user, but I read way more ebooks on my iPad than I listen to audio on my iPod, mostly because my car is 6 years old but the sound system is too good to rip out and the add-on AUX port just isn’t all that, even though I did add one.  Enough said. 

Overdrive Media Console PicFor patrons, using the library’s OverDrive site is easier than using NetLibrary–way easier.  Not to mention, there’s an app for most devices.  But comparative ease of use is a really low bar to get over.  And in two years of working with it, I didn’t see much change to the website.  There was a tremendous proliferation in the number of compatible devices–but that can easily be said to be a business necessity for OverDrive.  If it didn’t natively support the Android and the iPad by this point, how many libraries would have “just said no” in the past 6 months?  And how many libraries have had to explain to patrons how to email PDF documents to themeselves to use Bluefire?  Also, making changes to the patron interface is very high-touch on the part of OverDrive, and libraries pay for that, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.  On the one hand, the library does not have to do the set up or maintenance, which is good.  On the other hand, the library can’t do simple changes for itself, either, like changing the loan period, or creating special topic promotional selections for the holidays, which is not so good, and adds to the cost.  On the third hand, (and yes, I know I’ve created a extra-terrestrial here), usage is up, up, up.  Usage equals access equals bandwidth.  At my LPOW, we had more than tripled bandwidth for all of our internet usage in less than three years, and that cost money.  At the same institution, OverDrive is now used twice as much in one month as is was in three whole months when the service first started.  The additional bandwidth usage on their end has to get factored in somewhere.

New York Times Best Seller List PicAnother part of what the platform fee pays for is the platform that librarians use to send more money to OverDrive.  In other words, libraries pay for the right to spend more money.  The best thing that OverDrive could do would be to make it as easy as possible to spend more money.  But it isn’t all that easy, especially compared to the tools that we are used to using with print and AV vendors.  In fact, the purchasing process has gotten worse in the wake of the Harper Collins mess, because now Harper Collins titles must be searched and purchased separately.  But the purchasing side of the equation needs to be updated.  There are a lot of simple tools that could help this process, such as standing order plans for ebooks, and standing order plans for the 25 or 50 or 100 most popular authors, pre-publication availability, etc.  Or just an automatic plan to get anything that reaches the New York Times Bestseller List.  The tools we have available to get stuff available or upcoming on the print side needs to be replicated, because explaining to patrons is painful, as I wrote here not long ago.

Barnes and Noble NookThe other piece that libraries get is customer support.  Whether customer support is adequate or not is always in the eye of the beholder.  Ebook readers and iPads were the gift of this past holiday season.  The email I received from a colleague who had given her 95 year old mother a Nook and was requesting the loan period on ebooks be increased to 28 days because her mom couldn’t finish a book in less than that (and 28 days is the standard loan period for a print book at that library) told me that ereaders were in the hands of a population that no one expected.  Most libraries have limits to their ability to support the tech behind this revolution.  Between all of us at my LPOW, we could figure out a lot of things, but if a patron had a problem downloading to a Palm Treo, we were collectively out of experts, and we called OverDrive.  A smaller library would have a smaller pool of in-house users, experts and converts to draw on, but might need just as much customer support, and might have just as many, or more, patrons going directly to OverDrive. 

There has to be a better way to make this work.  Providing ebooks and other downloadable content is one the fastest growing services that public libraries provide.  As the price of ereaders continues to drop, as more and more people use smartphones instead of landlines, reading on a mobile device is going to penetrate even more of every library’s service population.  If we don’t get on this bus it will leave us behind. 

But it would be better if we drove the bus.  Or at least, had a chance at “backseat driving” this bus.  For other materials that libraries purchase, we have choices about where to spend our money.  There are two major book jobbers, not one.  And there are several in the next tier.  There are multiple vendors who provide AV material, who also must compete for the library business.  Only in the online spaces do we end up in the position where we have to negotiate for the “best one of one”.  Even if that “one” were very, very good, competition for our business would make it better for everyone–for the vendor, for the libraries, and for our patrons.