Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What will be the iTunes of the eBook?

Forbes: The end of the printed book?

Tim O'Reilly: Not exactly. I think we're seeing a transformation of the marketplace. The biggest challenge is not the death of print; it's the question of how books will change. Take the map: The print map has largely gone away, and online mapping has become the norm. In the process, what we expect from maps has changed: They include directions, nearest gas stations, nearby merchants. The book's format will change, sure, but so will the very form.

The format of the book is in a state of change. Right now, the ebook reader resembles a thin stone tablet and the ebook itself mostly closely resembles photocopies of pages more than anything else. Coincidentally, if you want to save a passage from your ebook to share with others, the easiest way to do it is to photocopy your screen (via David Fiander).

While it is admittedly very important that we pay attention to ebook readers and the ebook file formats they use we must not neglect the software that readers will use to store, organize, and access their collections. Otherwise, we will be like the music industry grappling with iTunes and the movie and television industries who are grappling with Netflix... but possibly much, much worse.

This insight came from a conversation I had with Art Rhyno. He told me that his son, who is taking engineering at the University of Windsor, already has developed a habit of going to Springer eBooks for his research needs and has gotten quite comfortable with using its features. Art then raised the point that it might be difficult for get our users to start using the Scholars Portal ebook platform once the Springer ebook content is migrated there, if these users have already created a 'bookshelf' and saved annotations in the previous platform. (Scholars Portal only added user profiles to their ebooks platform just this week).

I'm far from the first to cotton to the idea that its annotations that might prove to become more important to readers than where their ebooks come from. The best thinking that I have read about the idea is from James Bridle's Walter Benjamin’s Aura: Open Bookmarks and the future eBook. Of note, the subtitle of the work is "The form of the book, and its aura".

But even traditional pen and ink annotations play an important role in literary scholarship even if the annotation is only a check mark and a squiggle.

When (Laurie) Anderson told a friend about the project, he showed her a Bible that Melville purchased just before he began writing his literary masterpiece. Many of Melville's original pencil notes had been erased by his wife, with whom he'd had a less-than-perfect relationship. After an unsuccessful attempt to have the erased passages reconstructed, Anderson pored over the pages herself with a magnifying glass, hoping to find the inspiration behind Melville's tale.

In Isaiah 27:1, she found what she'd been searching for: "In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea." Next to the verse was a check mark and a long squiggle.

"I thought, 'That's it!'" Anderson recalls. "The whale is his snake and the ocean is his garden, the place where he works out good and evil."

When our conversation at the OLITA Council meeting turned to annotation and ebooks, Nick Ruest, keeper of the Digital Collections of McMaster University, told us that it was the annotations of the scanned material that particularly interested scholars and students.

It's worth noting that, at the moment, publishers either don't understand the value of the ability to annotate and share annotations, or they see it as too costly a value-add for too few people. Footnotes are disappearing while references are published separately from the work itself.

Where do you keep your book annotations, references and citations? Is it separate from your library?

I keep mine in Zotero. In fact, Zotero is my library. My ebook reader is my browser. This blog is how I share my annotations.

For now.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libraries and The Fear of Free

Let us speak plainly.

Ebooks are the proverbial iceberg on the horizon of libraries. If the library profession doesn't act appropriately, decisively and soon, libraries are screwed

We need to stop insisting that the value of the library is made by the subsidy of objects alone. At the moment, our primary value is that we provide free items that only cost the user the inconvenience of having to physically come to the library to pick up the item when that object is available. But when the price of the such items drop, then the relative cost of the inconvenience goes up to the point that paying $8 a month for Netflix becomes much more attractive than paying for parking twice a month at the public library across town.

Academic libraries are not immune to the forces of cost vs. convenience. There is a growing interest in Activity-Based Budgeting (ppt) or Incentive-based Budgeting at public universities (book) and this means that the campus library, once a shared resource, explicitly becomes a cost centre that must be paid for directly from the other faculties on campus. (The University of Toronto started using ABB since 2007 and two years later, their libraries started charging graduate students from other schools a substantial fee to access their collections). Now imagine a future scenario in which the largest commercial publishers decide to drop the cost per article to $5. Those faculties who will be able to do research without their campus library will advocate that they shouldn't have to subsidize the other faculties that do. Now, I'm not trying to make the case that this particular scenario is likely to occur and play out. I'm just trying to make the point that if the library is seen only as a subsidy, then our future will be controlled by those who set the cost and convenience.

Libraries can change course. It may even be easier than we think. But in order for us to do so, we need more hearts and minds to re-interpret our collective mission and express it in new ways through the communities we serve.

First, we need to stop making free the enemy of the library. 

My own personal epiphany of the matter came through a conversation at OLITA council about the reticence of many public libraries to promote free books from such ventures as Project Gutenberg. One observation was that libraries aren't interested in promoting resources that don't result in an increase in library circulation counts. The stakeholders of public libraries don't think highly of connecting users to free educational material on the Internet.

In the academic sphere, there are similar forces at play. Every time, I hear a librarian say that the library is the place to find "trusted" and "quality" information, I cringe because such thinking implicitly debases open access research because it's free to readers. Librarians don't want institutional repositories (campus research free for the world) at the expense of being able to buy commercial research for our campus.

Next, we need to start expressing the value of libraries through gate-counts (and website hit counts) rather than circulation counts. Not through books, but through book clubs. And writing circles. Letter press workshops. Wordpress bootcamps. Book digitization.

Then, we need to stop waiting for a commercial product to save our profession. It is maddening to see the extent that public libraries are willing to spend their energies castigating Overdrive and Harper-Collins for acting as a business rather than partner with the Internet Archive to lend ebooks. It is troubling to see academic libraries collectively spend millions of dollars on "Google-like" discovery layers and outright refuse to even consider simply using Google Scholar (or customizing their own Google Search Engines or taking on the responsibility to build their own digital library for themselves).

And my last recommendation (for the moment) is ask libraries to stop spending money licensing commercial products that they can never own (nor preserve for the future). Instead, libraries need to use, support and develop open source tools and collections - for ourselves and the communities that we serve. Again, there is resistance from many libraries to use free software. Ironically, if you ask them why not, these libraries will tell you that they don't feel that they can own a product if they don't pay for it. My own personal observation is that the ability to pay for a service contract from a dedicated developer or support company encourages organizations to use open source software.

I haven't read it myself, but I understand that Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" makes a convincing case that software should be thought of as a service and not as a product. As soon as my Sunday afternoon reference desk shift is over, I'm going to head upstairs and borrow this book because I think this is the same transition that libraries have to make.

There is still time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poetry has left the building. Have books gone too?

Ever since I've watched it this past Sunday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about Darren Wershler’s talk about modernist avant-guard poetry, Marshall McLuhan and Christian Bök's Xenotext Experiment. I keep coming back to Darren’s post-mortem of poetry and his description that poetry is currently on the same scale, in terms of economics and impact, with making doilies for the church rummage fair.

The situation has been a little more than century in the making and has everything to do with media theory. To cite Friedrich Kittler again, whose thinking on the subject is heavily indebted to both McLuhan and Innis, before the second half of the 19th century, literature, especially romantic poetry, had a monopoly on the delivery of vivid cultural experiences. That changed in the mid-19th century when virtually every form of electro-mechanical media reached a mass audience within a few decades. For Kittler, from the era of silent cinema onward, film establishes immediate connections between technology and the body, which make imaginary connections unnecessary. Film exhibits its figures in such detail that the realistic is raised into the realm of the fantastic which sucks up every theme of imaginative literature.

When you compare the cultural force of film to poetry... well there’s really no comparison anymore, is there?

Now, are we ready to make a similar comparison between books and YouTube, videogames, Facebook, and text messaging and the rest of the digital realm?

No matter how relevant u THINK ebooks & ipads are to the community, video games are even MORE important to them #hcod

Now there’s been lots of hand-wringing over the future of the book. Heck, at this point there is an entire genre of books dedicated to the death of the book out there. But I don’t think we in the world of 26 character combinations has really come to grips that it’s not just poetry that has left the building.

Look at your own Twitter, Facebook, RSS, and email inbox. Count the number of references to videos, blog posts, and online newspaper and magazine articles. Now count the references to passages of books.  I work in academia... hell, I work in a library.. and the former dwarfs the latter by an order of magnitude. Or two.

Unless we are able to read, store and share books effortlessly online, books will die.

That is, unless they are already dead.

Possibly related:

I've overhead university kids talk about Pokemon as if it was the lingua franca of their childhood.

I've played an ARG called Snow Town in which the readers of the story became characters within the story and in doing so, changed the story's outcome. This and the real-time unfolding and telling of its unfiction, made Snow Town much more engaging and enjoyable than the remaining texts belie.

TED Talks. The TED speaking series is probably the best example that I can point to as a form of cultural idea transmission that might have surpassed books in terms of impact. And speaking of which...

Immediately after I saw Darren’s talk, I decided to catch up on some TED Talks and, having two preschoolers in the in the house, decided to watch Deb Roy's Birth of a Word:

Most of the talk is dedicated to an absurdly ambitious project to capture, using digital video, every interaction and sound within Roy's house in order to understand how his newborn son learns to speak. How a child learns to speak is fascinating unto itself but then, near the end of the talk, there is a brief description of a related project that hit me like a hammer.

Using the same parsing technology used to analyze the information captured in his house, his lab team processed thousands of hours of TV footage along with thousands and thousands of comment streams (from sources such as Twitter, one assumes) and then looked for assocations between one and another.

(It's hard to explain the visualization. You should see it.)

Just a like a small child who learns to associate the sounds of ‘WAH-TER’ with the sight of water, it appears that we are becoming something larger than our individual selves and this something is learning to speak to itself about the images it sees.

And we are not talking about books.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ebooks and the existential crises of libraries

Yesterday, I was in Toronto for the first OLITA Council meeting of 2011. OLITA meetings are productive and good fun. At this meeting, we spent some time planning for the upcoming one-day Digital Odyssey  conference. The theme of the conference will be Ebooks (R)evolution and those involved will be approaching potential speakers shortly.

Generally there is not a formal call for speakers for the event, but if you know of someone who has done some work or writing pertaining to ebooks, you can let me know and I will forward your suggestions. Obviously equity is top of mind at the moment and so if you know of a great voice on ebooks that should be heard by a wider audience please let me know.

There was a running joke at yesterday's meeting that councilor Fiacre O'Duinn has a knack for instilling existential crises in others. At last count, I had about four yesterday. Here's the first one. It deals with ebooks.

The topic of discussion was the possibility of ebooks privacy and Fiacre brought up of the scenario when book scanners would drop in price and size to become a common consumer-item.  I said, "well, let's remember what the TV networks did when they saw their viewers go online to watch old episodes. They all banded together to create Hulu" and as soon as I said it, the penny dropped.  What's stopping the Big 6 publishers from creating their own online library to lend out ebooks and bypassing pesky libraries altogether?


I've found much of the discussion regarding the recent Overdrive-HarperCollin's 26 books controversy important but lacking.

I have to admit that I feel that the whole notion of lending ebooks is problematic. Digital copies that disappear after a set limit of time is a model that has not been established for music, newspapers, magazines, television episode, movies, or video games. My feeling is that the publishers are just buying time before they create their own Hulu.

There has been some sentiments expressed that HarperCollins recent actions betray how dumb they are. But maybe they aren't so dumb after all. Eric Hellman has done some analysis that suggests there is cunning in their strategy to strangle the long tail of lending.

In my own reading outside of libraryland, I've learned that Harper Collins is doing some interesting ebooks projects at the moment. From the world of Alternative Reality Games, the blog ARGNet reports in PC Studios Takes the Reading Experience Mobile :

Carman’s other foray into mobile storytelling is Dark Eden, a paranormal thriller targeting the 12 and up demographic, published through HarperCollins. The story centers around seven teenagers attempting to overcome their fears. Sharing the same counselor, the teens are sent into the woods to meet with a man who will help them overcome their fears. Both the book and the app will debut at Comic-Con this July. An alternate reality game that Carman describes as PC Studios’ most ambitious yet will launch on May 10th, offering a terrifying taste of what’s to come.

And from O'Reilly's Publishing News: Week in Review: HarperCollins may be on to something with its all-digital imprint

Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has launched an all-digital line, Avon Impulse... the imprint will put out one original e-romance a week... Authors do better with e-books however, since they're paid a royalty rate of 25% of the net sale. With paperbacks, they're paid 8% to 10% of the list price, which works out to be considerably less.

Look who's on their way to building their own Hulu?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Dear Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University

I am writing this letter to you today on International Women's Day. Or, to be more accurate I'm writing you this letter *because* it's International Women's Day.

I am writing to ask you if you think that it's acceptable for a symposium that you will be a speaking at - The Future of Academic Libraries - to have what appears to be only 3 women presenting out of a possible 21 speakers.

The percentage of women in Canadian academic librarianship is 73% [CAUT Almanac, pdf].

Last night I got a call from a student from McMaster as part of the University's current Alumni fund-raising drive. She was kind, clear, engaging and polite. When I told her that I was able to apply my geography and environmental science degree from McMaster in my work as a science librarian, she told me that she really appreciated librarians and just recently a McMaster librarian helped her find the data she needed for her GIS class. 

But as able as she was, she was not ultimately effective in getting closer to her fund-raising goal for reasons that were not her fault. So after I told the student my reasons why I would not donate to McMaster University, I told her that I would write you personally and tell you those reasons myself because... well because it only seemed fair.

I support McMaster librarians and the excellent work that they do. I'm looking forward to working with them at Code4Lib North (that McMaster University is kindly sponsoring) and I hope to run into them again at The Humanities and Technology Camp being held two weeks later at UWO. (As an aside, did you notice that there are no McMaster Librarians speaking at The Future of Academic libraries at the symposium? Others have.)

I will not be attending The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium because 15% doesn't sound fair to me.   I want a future that's more fair than the present, for myself and for the student I spoke to last night.