Category Archives: politics

Et tu, brute?

Other people have said more insightful and salient things about Penguin’s recent defection from Overdrive, but I didn’t want to let this one go without saying something. Penguin’s decision to pull all ebooks from Overdrive’s lending program is a huge disappointment (especially when you consider it in light of the fact that they make a crap ton of money from re-packaging public domain content). Their excuse for ending their Overdrive contract is beyond flimsy: They claim that Amazon’s addition to the Overdrive platform raises security concerns. They’ve stated that they might re-consider if lending didn’t go through Amazon’s site, or if patrons had to be physically present in a library to borrow ebooks. I fail to see how downloading a file and loading it via USB could possibly be more secure than loaning through the Amazon site.

It’s clear to most who are paying attention to this story that Penguin’s reasons are more petty than that. Amazon’s foray into publishing has pissed them off. They feel they’re losing control. They can’t handle the changing technological landscape, the changing publishing landscape. But these reactions are nothing more than scrambling, futile grasps for some kind of hold. They aren’t going to change things, and in the end, Penguin will still be forced to adapt, and the only people who will lose are those who always have: those who rely on libraries to access information. Not to mention the future of our cultural record, when libraries are no longer able to fulfill a crucial preservation function.

The fact is that the world of writing and publishing, selling and reading is different, and we can’t turn it around. Books are going to be published digitally, no matter how many people write impassioned diatribes against ebooks. Ebooks are the future of reading. But right now, we’re creating a world where access is being limited more and more to those who can afford it. Libraries have always played a key role in leveling that playing field, and we’re being prevented from doing that in a digital future.

That Penguin made this move just a week after a much anticipated meeting between the Big Six publishers and ALA head honchos just makes me feel powerless. As a librarian, I put my trust in ALA leadership to advocate for our needs, and the needs of our patrons. But it sounds like they went in there with anything but a heavy stick. ALA has a massive communications network, and a marketing budget. For decades ALA has spent that marketing budget creating Read posters and other pieces of propaganda that, frankly, serve more of a sentimental purpose than anything else. Why not use that budget to create a unified voice around issues that really matter, like this one? ALA could orchestrate an excellent patron education initiative around digital library issues. I feel like all they did was go into a meeting with the publishers and assure them that everything would be ok. Instead, we need people who are willing to fight.

Banned Books Week: A Defense

Another Banned Books Week is coming to a close, and once again, my RSS feed has been filled with arguments for and against this most well-known library tradition. I’ve always been a supporter of Banned Books Week, even organizing events around it for the Simmons College community when I was chair of the Simmons Progressive Librarians Guild chapter. But I’ve never heard a better articulation for why it’s still important than the one Andy Woodworth at Agnostic, Maybe gives in his recent post.

The ALA estimates that one in four book challenges in libraries goes unreported, and in these cases, the librarians dealing with these challenges are also unsupported. There are many reasons a librarian might choose not to report a book challenge, and some of them might be perfectly reasonable. But the worst of these reasons is fear: Fear of losing a job, fear of bad publicity, fear of loss of funding. In these cases, a librarian might choose to simply remove the item in question, without consideration for what the loss of that material might mean for the community. It doesn’t mean that’s a bad librarian, it means that’s a fearful librarian.

Banned Books Week exists so that we can bring attention to the reasons to stand up for your community, and your library’s collection. It exists so that, in the future, those librarians might be able to find more support than they thought they could expect. I think that’s as good a reason as any to continue holding Banned Book Week events every year.

Andy articulates this much more clearly than I, so please, go read his excellent editorial on Banned Books Week.

Michael Porter on Library Renewal and eResources

Michael Porter presented a session with a nice, attention-grabbing title at ALA Annual: “You Mean Libraries Will Be Able to Deliver Content Better than iTunes and Netflix?” The session wasn’t really about how libraries will deliver content better than commercial providers; it was more like a rousing exhortation to libraries to start re-thinking how we own, deliver, preserve, and manage our materials as we move ever onward into the digital era. He has some interesting ideas, and it was a great, lively presentation, I think Michael has a gift for lighting a very needed fire under librarians’ collective butts.

Besides talking about the bigger picture of the library’s role in a digital content environment, I thought his narrative of how he got involved in ALA and started to make things happen in the areas he cares about was very inspiring. For everyone who thinks ALA is a big, unfeeling organization that cannot be moved, talk to Michael. He shows that ALA will respond if you push hard enough.

ALA formed a presidential task force, EQUACC (Equitable Access to Electronic Content), to investigate digital content and how its use is being restricted for libraries. (There’s some interesting stuff on the timing of this task force’s creation; it was underway and beginning work when the whole HarperCollins debacle happened, but hadn’t released any information. ALA’s delay in response was noted by many, and when EQUACC did release their report, it kind of looked like it was in response to the HarperCollins situation…at least from my admittedly small perspective). EQUACC delivered their report to ALA the day after this presentation (I have not read it yet). Their report details some very specific monetary requests they are making of ALA to begin work on problems around access to digital resources. They want to look at accessibility issues, conduct an environmental scan, deal with PR issues around e-content, and create a permanent place in the organization for these issues.

The EQUACC website has a forum that, at this point, is a bit sparse. Like any online community, it will only be built if people get in there and build it, and this could be a great place for this kind of conversation. Ultimately, though, I think it’s kind of dead in the water. People are already having these conversations on blogs, FriendFeed, Twitter, etc. ALA expecting people to have them all over again in a new place is kind of unrealistic, I think. Maybe better to aggregate comments and blog posts on these issues in one place?

Michael also talked about a few organizations who are starting to work in this area, including the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the Harvard/Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Digital Public Library of America project. Interestingly, he had some guarded comments about the DPLA project, including that their top-down, very monied approach doesn’t seem designed to be part of a collaborative, networked library world. One organization, COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Associations) has actually asked the Berkman Center not to use the name Digital Public Library of America because it is not, in fact, a public library. I, too, thought the DPLA project was a little strange when I first read about it. I remember thinking, “Wait, who are these people and why aren’t they working in collaboration with existing projects like Hathi?”

Here are some more general notes I have from the session; as with the rest of my ALA posts, I will be trying to pull all of this together into something coherent and meaningful in the end.

  • People will continue to access electronic content at exponentially increasing rates, and not just books and journals but music, video, games, interactive applications, and things we can’t even imagine now. Our current business models aren’t designed for this kind of content and distribution and they won’t continue to work. We need new solutions.
  • Libraries have a lot of power IF we begin to work together, and consider ourselves an aggregate organization rather than single, isolated libraries. Regional consortia have a lot more power than a bunch of libraries working alone, and it will become more and more important for us to band together in groups like this. Our best opportunities are going to come from new organizational structures like consortia, from new vendors and new partnerships.
  • Libraries need a our own distribution infrastructure like iTunes and Netflix, and it would be best if we build it ourselves.
  • We should be building archives of digital content, but we’re currently held back by restrictive copyright legislation, litigious publishers, and our own fear. If we could band together to fight restrictive copyright and litigious publishers, we’d have a better chance of winning.
  • We can’t rely on for-profit corporations to build our archives of digital content because they have no business reason to preserve after the content stops making money.
  • There are some major hurdles in the way of libraries owning, distributing, and preserving e-content, and the biggest is that the law is against us right now. The people who make the content don’t necessarily want us to have it. There was some conversation about creating new publishing models, and organizations like GlueJar and Library Renewal are doing some really interesting things in this area, but that doesn’t change the fact that the content our users want most isn’t being offered to us in ways that work for our organizations or our patrons.
  • Partnerships with publishers will be key, and we need to start thinking about how we should approach them. We have more power as a collective: if libraries as a whole, or even large library consortia, rather than individual libraries here and there, approach them, there is more incentive to listen. We need to think about what we can offer them. As it stands, they have no interest in working with us, especially large trade publishers (university presses might be more open to partnership). What can libraries give publishers in return? We need to start thinking of this so that we have something worthwhile to approach them with.
  • I think we can approach publishers either as good cops or bad cops: We can offer them something beneficial (statistics? marketing? events?) or we can threaten them with bad publicity. Or both? I’m generally not a fan of negative tactics, but in some cases you have to fight with what’s going to work.

I think there are some really interesting ways we can move forward in this area, but we have to collaborate to do it, and we have to be clear about what we need and want. Right now a lot of libraries are taking whatever they can get because they want to offer content to their patrons in the formats people want. And I completely understand that need, but I also think we might be undermining our long-term needs and goals.

There is certainly a lot to think about here, and I’m glad we have people like Michael who are passionate about these issues, who are thinking of solutions, and who are so excellent at getting other people engaged, too.

Library Renewal (the non-profit Michael and a few other folks started up to advocate for libraries’ rights in a digital age)
EQUACC (the ALA task force that was started thanks to Michael’s poking and prodding)
Libraryman (Michael’s bloggity)

More thoughts on ebooks, and preservation

I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write up a polished piece on ebooks and my growing reservations, but I wanted to get a few thoughts out of my head in the midst of the madness that is my life these days. My growing reservations are really around one of the most important, but least known or understood, aspects of librarianship: preservation.

When I say least known or understood, I don’t mean among librarians. I mean among the general population, although considering how little I’ve seen this issue raised in discussions of ebooks, I’m starting to wonder if librarians have forgotten about this crucial part of our mission as well. Preserving the cultural record has been part of the purpose of libraries since libraries began. I think it’s important that this preservation occurs in a non-corporate, non-profit-oriented environment. I think it’s desperately important that we have institutions charged with keeping copies, even when they are deemed insignificant or unprofitable. Preserving is equally important, to my mind, as providing access.

When we first started providing e-journals, it became standard practice to license content from commercial providers. That was ok, because we were often still receiving the print, and we had our print back issues. We were still able to preserve, while we provided better and easier access to our patrons. But what happens when journals stop appearing in a print format? What happens when we decline to receive those print copies? All we are left with is the electronic copy, the copy we do not own. We are now relying on a commercial provider to preserve those journals, and to continue to provide access. The work of preservation has been taken out of our hands, and all we are left with is the role of providing access.

I’d like to see something different happen with ebooks, and I’m not entirely sure I will. When I got my Kindle for Christmas I was so excited, and I love to read on it. I love to buy books for it; the instantaneous nature of it is just awesome. But there is a little voice in the back of my mind, that keeps getting louder everyday, that says, “You don’t own that book. You just paid to use it for awhile.” As an unrepentant book hoarder, this bothers me. I don’t want it to be this way, but I’m afraid I have no choice. The voices of individual consumers, of libraries, of those who believe in free access, our voices are teeny tiny in the halls of lawmakers compared to the booming voices of corporate bodies who want to find more and more ways to make money.

If libraries band together, we might have a voice big enough to be heard. We could, if we work together, be a real counterweight to commercial providers and licensors. And we have to, because it is part of our mission to preserve the cultural record. We won’t be able to fulfill that mission if all we are doing is licensing content from corporations. I think we have a real legal force in arguing the preservation aspect of our work, and to find ways through restrictive copyright laws that will allow us to preserve digital copies of works, but we aren’t going to solve this issue until we advocate for ourselves. We have to do that collectively. And we have to do that now. ALA needs to pick up the ball on this one, and this election season is the perfect time to let those people running know that we expect this of them.

We can’t just be talking about number of check outs or whether we can circulate Netflix DVDs and Kindles. We need to be talking about our ability to preserve resources that we are only borrowing.

The endless complications of smut in the library

I’ve seen this story pop up a few times over the last few days, about Barbara Ann Wilson, the librarian who is suing her library, the Birmingham Public Library, for tolerating a sexually hostile work environment. Wilson says that patrons view sexually explicit materials and sexually harass her, and that the Library management and the City of Birmingham have done nothing to stop it. This story encapsulates a lot of the complex issues around access and censorship in libraries these days: There are filters on the computers to protect children from viewing obscene materials, but they must be disabled if an adult requests it. (Not to mention the fact that filters are generally useless.) Libraries aren’t meant to be in the business of telling patrons what they can and cannot access, but general human decency tells me, at least, that viewing hard-core porn in public is kind of skeevy and wrong. However, I don’t think it should be illegal, and I don’t think librarians should be able to determine what is right and wrong in terms of access to materials. The employee feels she’s working in a hostile environment (and frankly, if I were being groped at work, I would, too!). But I can’t help by feel initially skeptical and a bit irked by Wilson’s case.

It seems off to me that the Library wouldn’t work with employees to eliminate the kinds of seriously abusive behaviors Wilson has experienced. I want more information about how Wilson tried to work with her employers to fix this situation. How was it brought to their attention? What kinds of plans were put in place to try to deal with it? If the library management were completely indifferent, well, perhaps they deserve to be sued. But I’d be surprised to find that the library didn’t try to work with her at all to solve the problem. Libraries are in a tough position around these issues: We have to preserve access while protecting our employees and other patrons. I guess I want to know what steps were taken before Wilson decided she had no other option than to sue the library. I realize that I probably sound like a victim-blaming asshole, and I want to be very clear that I don’t think it’s at all acceptable for Wilson to be asked to put up with a work environment that includes physical and verbal assault. I’m just saying I want to know what the library did before she sued to try to fix the problem.

I also can’t help but be put off by the language, at least in the article I linked to above, about these porn-viewing patrons. Wilson’s lawyer is quoted as saying, “The downtown library is located near a big city park and near a bus station…For whatever reason, they get these people in the library—they don’t have other places to be.” First, the euphemistic way of talking about the homeless population is just annoying. Second, I hate the way this lawyer makes this unspoken connection between the homeless patrons and those who are harassing Wilson. Nowhere do they explicitly say, “Yes, these are the people causing problems.” Instead, the lawyer preys on people’s discomfort with homelessness and broadens homelessness to include all kinds of socially unacceptable behaviors, saying, ‘oh, these people are here, you should keep your kids away.’ I don’t know who the people are who have groped and made lewd comments to Wilson, but I’m vastly uncomfortable with the casual way this article connects the homeless population with the patrons who are harassing Wilson.

I don’t want to be irked by this story. If someone is being sexually harassed at work, it is the responsibility of the employer to put a stop to it. Period. Is a patron’s viewing of pornography in the library considered sexual harassment? I don’t know. I feel instinctively that no, it’s not. I might not like it but according to my librarian code of ethics, patrons are entitled to view whatever they want. Is a patron grabbing a librarian considered sexual harassment? Saying sexually explicit things to her/him? Absolutely, and it should not be tolerated. So, I guess what I really want to know is whether Wilson’s case is primarily about patrons viewing porn, or about patrons physically and verbally abusing her. Because that makes a difference to me, and in how irked I feel about the case.

And maybe it’s just my stupid idealism shining through when I feel annoyed by this story. I like to think that, as librarians, we’re all in this ship together, employees and employers both. We all have to deal with these kinds of issues, and I want to believe that good librarians will work together to try to solve the problems instead of dismissing employees fears and concerns, or resorting to legal action to make our employers hear us. Naive? Yes, yes I am. But I still want more information before I can jump on Wilson’s side wholeheartedly.

Brief segue into politics, and some stuff about books to make you happy

I used to blog about politics all the time. But after the 2004 election, I lost my taste for it. Campaigns seemed to be existing in this bubble of spin and dishonesty, far removed from facts, from the information people needed to make informed choices. It seemed that what candidates talked about had no meaning. And you know, it still seems like that, so I still don’t like to write, or read, about politics that much, despite having strong and passionate feelings about governance.

But there are still some people writing about politics from a critical, factual perspective: CJR Daily. CJR Daily is the blog of the Columbia Journalism Review, and their pieces focus more on critically parsing the media, and what the media are saying about economics, the candidates, and politics in general. But through their media critiques, they offer solid, historically-based, spin-less information about health care, the candidates and their records, the economy, legislation, and government. And as such, I really wish more people read CJR as their main source of news.

Just to give you a taste of why I think CJR is so awesome, here’s a piece deconstructing the comparisons between the Obama-Ayres relationship and the McCain-Keating relationship: Ancient History. Bachko points out why one of these relationships matters and one, frankly doesn’t. And if you dig back through CJR’s archives, you’ll see that they are strictly non-partisan. They point out when the Democrats eff things up, too.

And since I’m sure you’re all pretty sick of politics after last night’s appalling and ridiculous excuse for a debate, here’s something fun: I finally got every last one of my books into LibraryThing! Ok, ok, I’m sorry, I do realize that’s pretty much fun for me alone. To make it up to you, I’ll recommend reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. The book has won several awards, so it’s not real secret that it’s pretty great. But I was completely taken with the narrative style. Ackerman’s story is a true one, but she captures it almost as a novel. The tone shifts back and forth from narrative to reporting, but in a way that works beautifully. It’s a form unlike anything I’ve read before, and I thought it was remarkably well done.

And for those of you who chimed in on Facebook offering me reading recommendations, I’ll let you know that I am smack in the middle of Sense and Sensibility, and am, of course, loving it. Oh, how I adore Jane Austen.

Thanks to ReadWriteWeb (how did I only just start reading this blog?) for bringing to attention–this is a great site that pulls together tons of information on the US Congress and offers users a variety of ways to stay up-to-date about their Congressional representatives and all the (probably nefarious) activities going on in Washington. I haven’t had a chance to really delve into the site yet, but on my perusal, I thought, “Now this is the kind of site all that Web 2.0 hoopla is really good for.” It would be a great addition to any Research/Reference Guide on US Politics, methinks.

You cannot escape the consumer culture

Not even at the library, apparently. At least not in certain counties in England anymore. What I don’t understand is why the plan seems to be so ill thought out. The Policy Director, Guy Daines, says they used to give advertising bookmarks, and he’s concerned about the work of putting ad inserts into all the books, or whether the ads will remain timely if someone doesn’t check out the book in awhile. Um…so why not just continue to give advertising book marks? They pretty much meet the same ends, and can be given at the circulation desk. And bookmarks are actually useful, and in a way, less offensive, even if they do have ads on them. Is there a particular reason to go with inserts instead of bookmarks?

And yeah, it rankles me that libraries have to resort to putting ads in books to stay afloat (granted that that is the situation). Is this already happening in libraries in the US?

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars

I will admit that prior to September 11, I paid very little attention to America’s counterterrorist efforts, or even, really, to politics. Seems surprising, considering what a junkie I’ve become, but my youthful politics tended to revolve more around issues of women’s equality and anti-capitalism than foreign policy.

Of course, I’m still a feminist and an anti-capitalist, but it’s almost impossible not to pay attention to foreign policy, especially Middle East affairs, these days. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the history of American involvements in the Middle East is paltry, or rather, it was until I read Steve Coll’s excellent book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Coll’s exhaustively researched and detailed narrative covers American covert involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia over the last 35 years, revealing decision-making processes, relationships between key players, factions and their supporters, and a picture of near endless warfare.

Coll’s well-written portraits of the key players in the region are some of the most compelling things about the book. The same people have been orchestrating events in the region for several decades, and after reading Ghost Wars, I read the current news with a much better sense of who these people are, and what their relationships are to each other. Coll manages to piece together a comprehensive picture from the many convoluted bits, to reveal the mistakes and miscalculations that resulted in the attacks of September 11, and more significantly, to place our current actions within a greater historical context.

I will likely never agree that the United States makes the right decisions in our foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Reading this book did nothing to dispel my sense that foreign policy is a too deadly game played by men whose only drive is to be the strongest one in the room. So many of the mistakes that were made, and that continue to made, stem from a national character among our politicians and policy makers that isn’t going to change anytime soon. But at least now I have a more thorough understanding of each step in that game, and of all the players making them. And this book will hold a place near the top of my list of recommendations for quite some time.