Ebooks, the future of research & cultural preservation by libraries

Closed stacks

I read this post from O’Reilly TOC this morning and I was glad that someone finally raised these issues that have been bothering me for some time. I almost posted about the same issues a few weeks ago, but was distracted. The post raises some real concerns about the preservation of knowledge for future research. For me it is wider than that and goes to cultural preservation for our communities. Is it right that for our e-content we should just rely on someone else to have a copy (like Apple or Amazon as the article suggests)?

I had been worried about this, because like many other libraries we have been e-preferred for some time now. Is it also right that cultural material we collected and provided for our own communities could be unavailable for them in the future because the e-content is no longer available via our library? I don’t think it is and I don’t think we should simply hope for the best, divest ourselves of this responsibility and rely on others doing it for us, like say the National or State Libraries and certainly not the publishers because it isn’t really their role and it really never has been. Don’t we have an obligation along these lines (i.e. cultural preservation) for those in our communities? I think the rush to e-preferred has possibly led us to a focus on the now, the most convenient, the most efficient, and the least expensive alternatives, but quite probably at the expense of our obligation to preserve knowledge and culture for future generations.

I had been running around asking everyone who was involved with ebooks a lot of questions about what happens when the providers go bust, when we cease subscribing, or in the case of other inconvenient but worrying events (like hacking, file corruption, etc.). I am told that it varies with different ebook providers. Some regard it as a lease of those ebooks, others allow you to download the content in their proprietary format or in xml, but this ultimately isn’t a solution. Encrypted formats offer a whole other dilemma. Many contemporary publications are in danger of disappearing, becoming untrustworthy or inaccessible in the future if we don’t seriously consider this issue now. My own view is that there is actually more to cultural preservation of publications than simply preserving the xml. Books have always had other features, like covers, layout, typography, illustration, decoration, way finding assistance, etc., that add to the reader’s experience. In our relentless hunt for efficiency and convenience I think we’ve progressively discounted the value of these features for our readers.

Perhaps this will be addressed by those talking about ebooks at the conference.

Books Are Not Dead!


From Unlikely Avian Taxonomies #3

Not for thith little black duck …

So here are some notes from a short talk I did last night for ALIA Sydney on The Future of Reading. What follows are really just some random thoughts, not a deep, definitive or comprehensive prediction. It is a bit like Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses: My theory, which belongs to me, is mine.

I started by talking about the books in my own library, many of which I’ve not yet coloured in. You can view those I think highly enough of to catalogue, here on LibraryThing.

The Web & rich media

Only this week I saw the “Howl” animation on YouTube and was amazed. I’d not yet seen the entire film nor read much of Alan Ginsberg’s writings, but I will now. In these clips James Franco reads Ginsberg’s poem and it is brought to life, illuminated by his voice, Carter Burwell’s music and Eric Drooker’s brilliant animation design. I think it is a great example of using the web at its best to encourage reading. From there I think it is easy to see how the web has restored reading and writing as central activities in our culture (vice sitcoms on TV) as Clay Shirky said in the Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Yes, parts of the web are ephemeral, but so too should be a lot of printed text. Just because it is printed on paper does make our reading material more valuable.

Aggregation & Disaggregation of content

I see and use a number of things that are all positive signs for the future: aggregators and personalised reader advisories (like Zite, Huffington Post, & FlipBoard – and sometimes I wonder how long they can survive as free services), piracy (Neil Young says it is the new radio for recorded music); and we could also talk about those authors who give away online books for free online  and then sell more print books accordingly, like Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin. Then there is the wonderful Interactivity we see in Zite (an app for iPads and iPhones) which learns what you like to read via voting up and down and your ongoing selection of subject matter and creators.

Disaggregation of content comes in here too because that is how aggregators work. They select and aggregate disaggregated content. Disaggregation has already happened in music (e.g. buy a song rather than whole album on iTunes) and is happening in some publishing (buy a chapter, article etc rather than whole book or issue). Some see it as a bad thing, quoting death of the book, loss of narrative form, negative effects on literacy, etc. but it can also lead to new forms of non-linear story-telling, plus it’s also not new. The great Victorian novels like those of Dickens often were serialised. I think disaggregation is particularly important for journalism now because over the last decade we’ve become more exposed to the variety of news sources that are now available to read via the web and hardly anyone is really going to continue to be satisfied by the one subscription to a particular news publisher (IMHO).

Revenue – new streams?

I’m an optimist here too, but we might need to be patient. I don’t think we see a stable digital publishing market, particularly not for ebook lending and newspapers. As well everyone is still trying to protect and defend IP and ownership of content on a copying machine that now has global scale via outdated, unworkable and inappropriate models (e.g. Copyright law and DRM). Solutions will probably come from a range of options like micro payments, subscriptions, advertisements, application sales, premium upgrade options, renting like films, marketing associated product and memberships. Perhaps the publishing industry has a bit to learn from film and music? It does seem to be slow to react and evolve, and resistant to inevitable change


For Librarians, every year should be NYR, we must be more active in encouraging reading, get more involved, and should not just stop what has been happening this year after 2012 comes to an end. There are many great causes that need our support like the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.  Don’t stop now!

Books are not dead & neither are bikes 

Books and bikes are both great models that will survive. Just as bikes survived the motor car and aeroplanes, books too are really good at what they do. I think those of us in the reading industry (if you can actually call it that) need to understand deeply why the model and power of the printed word (and illustration!) will survive. There’s a lot more to books and reading than just efficiency of digital storage and the ability to transport 453 books with you on the tram or on holiday. Who cares that you can carry more than 400 books in your small Crumpler bag? Do we have the same experience with all ebooks? Do they form the same lasting relationships and remind us of holiday reads? Can you decorate a whole house or even one room with your Kindle? Do they capture the same attention? I’m not so sure.

Maybe some of the future for printed books will be as art and artefacts. A colleague at UTS Library Dr Belinda Tiffen says you only have to think of illuminated manuscripts or even coffee table books as art objects rather than (or as well as) just a means to convey text. So one possible future for reading could be that a lot of ‘ephemeral’ material could become purely digital (popular novels, etc.), and printed books could become more niche or specialised editions. We are also starting to see the emergence of ebooks as conveyers of design, more interesting typography, illustration, alternative endings and even interactivity with regard to story-telling, so the game isn’t up yet. (My thanks to Belinda for a few of the ideas I’ve used here!)

The future for reading is richer for the digital age. We have even more options and the old formats like books, newspapers and magazines will have to evolve to survive. That’s all!

The bookless library?

This article in The New Republic by David A. Bell is a pretty interesting read about the NYPL and its struggle for a slice of the future, albeit on a much larger and more public scale than ours:


Much of the ground covered in the article will be familiar to those of us interested in the subject matter, i.e. us and our institutions. It is a long read, but it covers issues including the place of books, ebooks, obsolescence of core library functions, “banishing” books from the library proper (to offsite storage), nostalgia for dead-tree books, Copyright & licensing, the consolidation of library spaces, access to knowledge, the evolution of digital formats and digitisation of text, acquisition, “curation” and building design. All in a climate of constant change. Ring any bells?

I do not think that we will become glorified internet cafes, but I do agree that change is afoot and we must change with it.

I enjoyed seeing a couple of things in the article, such as: libraries as communities; a nod to the library’s role in the collaborative consumption (of knowledge); and recognition that libraries are a source of crucial expertise, not least with regard to acquisition. David Bell recognises that libraries are “homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts” and recognises that special collections are to be treasured. He almost starts to imagine new roles for us, but stops short of recognising those large public libraries that have already taken such steps such as the British Library (and its BIPC), The State Library of Queensland (and The Edge) and some new programs led by the NYPL itself.

Bell says, and I agree, that the digital revolution is creating the need for more spaces of physical interaction and the easy access to online academic courses will not kill off the desire to rub shoulders with fellow students and professors. He goes on to encourage more partnerships between public libraries and universities and also to advocate spaces in libraries in which readers can organise appropriate activities themselves.

What is missing? I guess some explanation and understanding of the role that librarians have in properly curating their collections as experts. By that I mean researching, acquiring, describing & arranging, promoting, exposing and encouraging the discovery of library collections, no matter what format they are. Being more active in such roles establishes a valued role for the future that cannot be eroded by the march of online services. Also I think he deals with libraries as mostly keepers of text-based, largely monograph collections and therefore he fails to recognise that knowledge and culture these days is not just contained in books and journals. Increasingly, other richer and more engaging media formats are being used for storytelling, as containers of knowledge and for the sharing of ideas. Libraries need to understand this and part of that understanding is a new more proactive research and acquisition process that comes to terms with these new creative practices. Finally, I think he might have touched on our role in encouraging public debate of pressing social issues, in part because we provide access to the knowledge that gives a deeper level of understanding, but also because we are or should be active participants in some of the themes: coping in a digital age; the democratisation of knowledge and opening access to it; and being more sustainable in our daily lives.

Thanks to Hamish Curry @hamishcurry for alerting me to this on Twitter.

Let me know what you think if you get a chance.