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 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

What’s this all about, Part 1: The Rise of Citizen Librarians

I got the idea for this blog from Dan Gillmor, a journalist who over the past few years has been documenting and encouraging the “citizen journalism” movement online. He gave an inspiring presentation at the Digital Library Federation’s forum earlier this month on some of the work being done by amateurs and professionals to gather, analyze, and spread news around the world using the powerful, easy-to-use tools provided by blogs and other online communication technology.

The technology is essential for enabling this kind of activity broadly, but the true value comes from what many people have been inspired to do with the technology. “Citizen journalism” isn’t a pretentious synonym for “blogging”. Rather, it describes ways in which ordinary people provide news, analysis and commentary to the community at large, using relevant journalistic principles, but outside established, professional media channels. The blog is one common medium that now makes this work easier, but it’s not the only medium for the work.

Collectively, citizen journalists cover many beats that the traditional media do not and cannot, due to limited time, resources, and interest. Through the Internet they can reach any other online reader who finds their work of interest. They aren’t limited to readers who live in a limited area or who pay for a subscription to their service. They do not replace professional journalists (though they may be threatening to some of them). Rather, savvy journalists and news organizations find ways to improve their own work by building on the work of their non-professional colleagues.

It occurred to me that a lot of what I’ve observed and encouraged online for the past fifteen years could, along similar lines, be characterized as “citizen librarianship”. The term’s not new; it’s been used, for instance, in discussions on rebuilding New Orleans. The practice it describes goes back considerably further than that: Lots of people, inside and outside of established library organizations, have been collecting, describing, organizing, making accessible, helping people find and use, and preserving information of all kinds. They’re serving constituencies that are potentially much larger than that of any purely physical library. It’s becoming increasingly easy for people to do this work online, with the various digital tools that are available or in development. And collectively, these citizen librarians have the potential to provide much more in the way of both collections and services than professional librarians can on their own.

I’m not claiming that everyone who uploads their pictures to Flickr or tags some web sites in is a librarian, any more than everyone who blogs is a journalist. But the more that people adopt principled methods for collecting, describing, and doing all the other things I list above with information, as a service for their communities, the more they’re acting as librarians. And the more the things they build function as libraries.

It’s not just individuals, of course, that are creating these new libraries and library-like services. Big corporations are doing it too (sometimes to much publicity). And many non-profit organizations, including many established libraries, are putting up new libraries and library services online. Many of these new sites, though, are still powered largely by the particular individuals who thought them up, or by lots of independent individuals that collectively build them up.

All this activity has seriously disrupted libraries, and disrupted the way that many library constituents perceive them. In some circles, there’s been notable pessimism and concern that libraries may now be obsolete. The new libraries and services may be threatening to some librarians and libraries that don’t adapt, just as bloggers may threaten the livelihood of some news purveyors that don’t adapt. But I believe that savvy library professionals can and will find ways to improve the services they offer by building on the work of their non-professional colleagues. Going the other way, I believe that the “citizen” and other non-professional librarians can increase the usefulness of their collections and services through adopting principles and practices that librarians have developed over the years. And I think there’s a lot more that people in both camps can do to share their work and expertise.

Or, to put it another way, the future of libraries, if they are to best serve their communities, must include understanding and building up “everybody’s libraries”. And here I mean “everybody’s libraries” both as a collective group, and as a concept. I’ll explain what I mean by the concept, which I’ve chosen to title this blog, in Part 2.

Posted in citizen librarians, meta | 1 Comment