We the mediators

Back in early 2006, Peter Brantley (now the director of the Digital Library Federation) got a lot of interesting folks in libraries and publishing together in one room to talk about issues related to reading in the digital age. While libraries and publishers have different focuses and priorities, we both serve as mediators between authors and audience, and both kinds of mediators are seeing dramatic upheavals and innovations in the ways we carry out our missions.

So the meeting touched off an interesting series of discussions. I’m having a hard time finding the “official” presentation pages from the original meeting, but here’s a short summary from me and a more detailed list of talk summaries from Tim O’Reilly. After the meeting, discussions continued on a mailing list of participants that over time added a number of other folks in publishing and libraries.

A number of the folks involved, mostly on the publishing side of things, have now started a group blog to take many of these conversations public. The blog is called Publishing Frontier, with the tagline “a raucous public discussion of the publishing revolution”. Its starting contributors include folks who’ve worked at trade publishers, scientific imprints, commercial research labs, and grassroots book digitizing.

The blog promises to be an interesting forum and chronicle of the digital revolutions in communication, largely from publishing perspectives (much as I hope this blog to be another such forum and chronicle, largely from librarianship perspectives). I encourage readers here to check it out.

Posted in meta, publishing

Copyright information sharing: An update

I regularly get mail about the web pages I have on copyright registrations and renewals and the inventory I did on the first renewals of periodicals. Turns out a lot of folks, both inside and outside of libraries, are interested in reviving and repurposing old creative works, if they could just figure out whether they were still under copyright, and how to reach the copyright holders if they are.

Here’s part of a not atypical query I received recently (posted with permission):

My anticipated enterprise regards short fiction published predominantly in monthly war-era periodicals; the “usual” specificity of interest – ’23-’63 periodicals which might not have been timely renewed.

It appears to me, after an exhaustive study of public domain law & online resources, that your work is the current state of the art: the closest thing – right now – to definitive.

My question, then…is there, so far as you are aware, any “quantum leaps” anticipated to come down the pike in some forseeable future re: a “definitive” means to check ’23 – ’63 renewals? Especially online/searchable?

Again, THANKS beyond measure for your work; it’s the closest-to-perfect tool yet for exasperated publishers seeking to simply ascertain whether the project they’re considering is “doing the right thing” where not violating someone else’s property is concerned!

It’s both gratifying and frustrating to receive email like this: gratifying because it’s always nice to hear your my is benefiting people; frustrating because I know there’s so much more that could be done to share copyright information, especially when there are so many people interested in it.

And in fact, more is being done, and planned. I organized an open discussion at last spring’s Digital Library Federation (DLF) forum called “Sharing Copyright Information: Opportunities for Collaboration”. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation, involving people from a number of libraries and other organizations. Here are the notes from the session. For a good overview and background on many of the copyright issues discussed, see Stanford’s Copyright & Fair Use website.

There have been some notable developments since the spring. Carl Malamud and Peter Brantley have “liberated” recent copyright registration and renewal data from the Copyright Office’s database, making them available for analysis and indexing. Mimi Calter at Stanford has been refining and analyzing their database on book copyright renewals. Bill Carney at OCLC is planning a project for registering copyright information with WorldCat entries. You can read more about these and other initiatives in Peter Brantley’s “Checking Copyright” blog post from last month.

We’re still a long way from a one-stop shop for copyright research. But I hope to use the new data Peter and Carl have liberated to complete my inventory of periodical renewals (which now is complete only to about 1950). I’ve also heard from more than one group that would like to digitize all of the pre-1978 copyright registration and renewal records that are not in the Copyright Office’s online database. If we had good machine-readable data for new and old copyrights, we could construct powerful search engines for copyright registration research. I don’t know who’s actually going to supply this data, though, or how long it will be before it’s all available.

Of course, copyright registration searching is just one part of the problem of copyright clearance, which can involve complicated issues of provenance of works, rights, and information. I’ve recently made a presentation giving an overview of some of these questions (slides here) to an interested group of computer scientists, and a paper I wrote with more details on provenance issues in copyright research should be published later this month. (I’ll link to it when it comes out.)

I don’t want to have lots of people exerting redundant, expensive efforts to clear copyright, or to be deterred from reusing older works because clearing copyright is too difficult. It helps for those of us who are working in this area to keep each other informed about what we’re doing and finding out. So feel free to add a comment to this post if you have a question or useful information on copyright clearance. You can also email me (address in the “about” page) to suggest relevant items for future posts on copyright issues.

Posted in copyright, sharing | 4 Comments

Book People postscript

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):


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.

Posted in citizen librarians, meta, online books

Library branding? I got your library branding right here

Hey, I’d love to be able to give directions like this to where I work: “Just look for the giant books“.

Okay, one of these is only a temporary facade, and the other is for the parking garage rather than the library building. But it would be a cool idea for a permanent feature, especially if the books changed periodically (as a few commentators at the above link suggest.)

Where I work, we could probably fit them nicely between the arrow slits. (The main entrance looks better now than when that photo was taken, though the exterior outside my office on the third floor Walnut Street side is basically identical to the third-floor facade you see here.)

(Thanks to Making Light for the pointer.)

Posted in architecture, libraries

Two exciting bits of online book news

Well, exciting to me, anyway.

I was thrilled to learn, via Open Access News, that the University of Pittsburgh Press is going to digitize most of their backlist and make it available online for free open access, with the help of the Pitt libraries (who have been digitizing all kinds of collections over the past decade). They’ve started off with 39 titles from their Latin American series. I’m very excited to see a major university press offer much of its books to the world at large. (And I think it would be fun to eventually have access to a digital version of, say, Youghiogheny: Appalachian River, which I bought from them a few years back.)

I also learned from Boing Boing that Vernor Vinge has put his novel Rainbows End online for free reading, along with some supplementary images, and links for buying print copies. This is a major, recent novel (it won both the Hugo and Locus Awards earlier this year). It compellingly explores many themes that resonate with people thinking about libraries of the future, including the persistence and reliability of memory, mass persuasion and coercion, imposition of computer-mediated virtual experiences over the physical world, and the resultant downgrading of the physical world and those who interact primarily in it.

The book features both wonders (like the curing of formerly “hopeless” Alzheimer’s patients) and horrors (like a spectacularly destructive mass book digitization program, horrific at least for anyone who loves print as well as electronic books.) It’s not meant as literal prediction of the future, but, like a number of Vinge’s other stories, it makes the reader think about the possible ramifications of the technologies and social systems we’re building now, and reflect on the nature of humanity, technology, and computer-mediated culture.

Posted in online books, open access, science fiction, university presses

Turning an entire field open access?

I just got back from a meeting with Salvatore Mele of CERN, who visited our library to talk up SCOAP3, a proposed program whose aim is to make all of the major journals in high energy physics (HEP) open access; that is, freely usable by anyone in the world.

Physicists are already leaders in academia for providing open access to their non-peer-reviewed papers, in places like arxiv.org. The aim of the coalition is to also make their peer-reviewed journal research fully open access as well. It helps that high-energy physics publishing isn’t very big; there’s apparently about 20,000 people in the field who mostly publish in 6 peer-reviewed journals. And the total annual cost and complexity of producing those publications is considerably less than the cost and complexity of manufacturing just one large-scale experimental program.

The project is taking a different approach from many open access initiatives. Rather than starting a new set of journals, or proposing per-article submission fees for authors, SCOAP3 proposes that a central consortium be set up to fund the peer review process at the existing major journals in return for making all the content open access. The funds would then come from major libraries and funding agencies in the countries that have high-energy physics programs, in proportion to the amount they publish. The project believes that it would cost less for libraries to fund the peer research through this program than they formerly paid for major HEP journal subscriptions, so libraries could divert their funds accordingly without having to spend more.

It’s an interesting idea, and reminded me a bit of the strategies of health coverage organizations: use market leverage to negotiate low fees from providers (in this case journal publishers) in order to be included in the services that clients prefer to use, aiming to make service more equitable and affordable, and overall costs lower.

The incentive structures to make this work will be tricky. Publishers, libraries, and authors all have to be willing to cooperate in sufficient numbers to keep the coalition together. Authors need to be prepared to take their work elsewhere if some publishers don’t cooperate. Libraries and funding agencies need to stay convinced that it’s worthwhile to pay for content that would be free to non-payers as well.

But HEP is a community where that may well work. The initiative that physicists have already taken to make their work open access (and also to shift publications away from some overpriced journals) could well keep them and the key publishers in the coalition (especially since some of the publishers involved are nonprofit societies run by the physicists themselves). And the major consumers of HEP journals could be willing to keep paying for the content to uphold their prestige, bolster support from their scholar-clients, and to avoid going back to the bad old days of having to pay skyrocketing journal prices.

The project is relatively new (it appeared on the radar of Open Access News last year), but a number of European agencies have already joined. They’ve just started a drive for US support (with early US endorsers showing up here). I’ll be interested to see how it’s received here, and hope that it will succeed in achieving its goals.

Posted in open access, serials | 2 Comments

What’s this all about, Part 2: Everybody’s Libraries

In my previous post, I discussed “citizen librarianship” and the rise of online library services that go beyond the established library organizations and practices. And I claimed that the most promising future of libraries involved understanding and building up “everybody’s libraries”, as a collective group and as a concept.

The collective group is easy enough to understand. It’s just the sum of all the library content and services usable by the global community. The bigger this is, the more we can benefit.

But what do I mean by “everyone’s libraries” as a concept? I mean a group of characteristics that I think will describe and build up the best libraries of the future. “Everybody’s libraries”, as I see it, includes

  • Libraries everybody can use. We’ve been sharing information with the online world at large almost since the day we set up computer networks. (The work of Project Gutenberg, for instance, started over 37 years ago.) Openly accessible information can be used by anyone it reaches, enlightening the world, making it easier to build on old work to create new knowledge, and enabling new kinds of production and commerce. Open-access libraries become even more usable when they make their information easy to find and repurpose, and when they accommodate varying languages, abilities, and education levels. For various reasons, not everything can be used by everyone all the time, but many of the barriers to access today can and should be removed.
  • Libraries everybody can put their work in. Libraries need to accommodate whatever information is important to their communities, from whatever source, and in whatever form, whether that be books, serials, images, multimedia, ephemera, or any of the forms of electronic information introduced in the Internet age. Many libraries are rightly selective about what they acquire, but we shouldn’t limit what they are able to select to benefit their users.
  • Libraries everybody can build. This includes the “citizen’s” libraries people build themselves and the established libraries that people contribute to. I started a kind of library 14 years ago as a computer science graduate student. It serves the Internet as a whole, and I continue to grow it. I also now work for another library that serves a smaller, university-based community with a broader range of collections and services (including some that are enhanced by our users’ contributions). The work I do with one library often enhances the work I do with the other. Many other people are now also building their own libraries, with the help of various tools for collecting, describing, organizing, preserving, and providing access to the information their communities need.
  • Libraries everybody can share. This is a crucial characteristic, distinct from but dependent on the characteristics above. In the past, if my library bought a new book or introduced a new service, it improved the lot of my library’s constituents, but did little or nothing for anyone else’s library. That no longer has to be true. My library, if it’s willing and able, can now share its content, its metadata, and even much of its services and technical infrastructure with any number of other libraries. The costs of turning local resources into shared resources can be very small; the benefits to the users of all these libraries can be very large. In this kind of environment, the improvements that I make in my library can also be turned into improvements in your library, and in someone else’s library– ultimately, in everybody’s libraries.

Most of these characteristics assume lots of libraries, large and small, independently managed but sharing whatever collections, services, knowledge, and other resources they see fit. People sometimes imagine that one day everyone will just use one big “universal library”, containing all knowledge, and run by some overarching organization, government, or corporation. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I hope it doesn’t. There are too many ways that people want to collect and use information for various purposes. The library landscape of the future should support the construction, cooperation, and use of many kinds of libraries– physical, virtual, and hybrid– serving many kinds of communities and needs.

Everybody’s libraries, then, include libraries for everybody, by everybody, shared with everybody, and about everything. No one library is all things to all people, but collectively, they can be much greater than any single library can be. And if we understand and support everybody’s libraries (as I hope to encourage with this blog), we can make each of our own libraries better serve their users.

Posted in citizen librarians, meta | 3 Comments