Everybody's Libraries

December 3, 2007

Book People postscript

Filed under: citizen librarians,meta,online books — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 2:39 pm

This past Friday I closed down the Book People mailing list, a forum for people making and reading free online books that Mary and I started in 1997. Much of the activity of folks on the list would be early examples of the sort of citizen librarianship that I referred to in the first post to this blog. I announced the list’s closing about three weeks ago, giving my reasons in a later post.

In the last three weeks of the list’s activity, various listmembers wound up conversations, planned or announced various new forums, and said their goodbyes. You can read all this, and the rest of the list’s history, in the archives, which are remaining online. The most direct successor to the list is Book Futures, a Yahoo Groups mailing list maintained by Kent Larsen, and there were some other lists announced as well.

I closed the list with my own retrospection and thanks. But I continued to get some more listmember reflections even after my last post (and for all I know some more may have come in after the list’s email address was decommissioned.) Here’s one of them, a message I got from Michael Stutz (posted here with his permission):

John,

When you started Book People back in 1997, I began a list for the discussion of what has now become known as “open content,” in an attempt to prove a concept I’d been working on in obscurity for years.

My list, Linart, shut down years ago, and that goes so far back that a whole lifetime is packed in the interim. But I do know firsthand what it’s like to administer and moderate a list like this and I know that to do it justice takes more time and work than most people would believe. I’ve never known a list with closer and more careful moderation than Book People. Absolutely every time a BP post came into my inbox, I thought of this and how keeping a good list running takes a massive amount of work.

It’s always sad to see an end, but looking back I do think that Book People had a good run and, like Linart, it reached the end of its course—a decade ago, the idea of publishing an online or electronic edition of a book was a novelty, there weren’t so many of them and they weren’t always easy to find. Not so anymore—at the very instant your announcement came into my inbox, I was downloading several gigabytes of rare old books, dozens of volumes among hundreds that I’d found through a full-text keyword search.

Just the same, Linart was a great idea because at the time no one was publishing copylefted work online—and even more importantly, _no one thought it was possible._ My main interests were books and art, but I wanted to see every kind of copyrighted work digitized online with “copyleft” licensing. And it might seem crazy now, but the reactions
from open source and free software figures to my dream went from complete disinterest to overt hostililty: “Copyleft is for software! You can’t do that with books, music, art”—replies like that were typical. Few people in the world were copylefting non-software works, but Linart is best left in the 20th century and the world as it was before Wikipedia and Creative Commons. In fact, after seeing the results of several years of online “open content” and having tested it extensively firsthand, I’m now critical of the method—I know its weaknesses and errors and have come to see that it isn’t the right solution for the age.

But what remains important today is the greater question of online publishing in general—and, of course, the future of the book. As a reader I’m nearly exclusively online for newly-published material, and as a writer that’s also where I want to find my audience, but how to do it and how it will all work out, how new writing and new books will be published and read and sold, remains entirely unclear—I’m still looking for the answer, and so I think the new Book Futures list is very aptly named and hope it takes off on its quest from this place we’ve come to after over a decade’s worth of Book People.

If anyone else from the list would like to add any postscripts or other comments here, feel free to add a comment to this post.

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