Tag Archive for Libraries

Happy New Year

Since the New Year is always a time for endings and beginnings, I thought I’d share an image I snapped recently at the Monroe County Public Library here in Bloomington, Indiana.  It’s of two old library check-out cards — the type that, when I was young, used to be slipped into the front covers of books and stamped with due dates.

My favorite part has to be the warning about a ten cent penalty in the event the patron loses the check-out slip. It’s also intriguing to see that the latest due date appearing on the top card is from 1982. I wonder if it was from an unpopular book, or if the MCPL began computerizing around then. I should have asked.

If you’re wondering where I found these cards, the answer may come as something of a disappointment. They were in the children’s room, where they were being used as scrap paper for youngsters to practice writing. (At least they hadn’t been thrown away, I suppose.) I’m not much of a nostalgic, yet some part of me still wishes they’d been on display showing visitors — especially those raised in the computer age — the history of libraries and librarianship. It’s interesting to think about how a record keeping device that was once important enough to carry a penalty for loss, however small, is now discarded on purpose. Change isn’t inevitable, but it sure is relentless.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I’ll see you again early in 2011 with some exciting news.

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Scholarly Journal Publishing

My latest essay, “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing,” is now out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(1) (March 2010), pp. 3-25.  In my opinion, it’s probably the single most important journal essay I’ve published to date.  Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores the changing context of academic journal publishing and cultural studies’ envelopment within it. It does so by exploring five major trends affecting scholarly communication today: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. More specifically, it investigates how recent changes in the political economy of academic journal publishing have impinged on cultural studies’ capacity to transmit the knowledge it produces, thereby dampening the field’s political potential. It also reflects on how cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are at odds with its political proclivities.

Keywords: Cultural Studies; Journal Publishing; Copyright; Open Access; Scholarly Communication

I’m fortunate to have already had the published essay reviewed by Ben Myers and Desiree Rowe, who podcast over at The Critical Lede. You can listen to their thoughtful commentary on “Acknowledged Goods” by clicking here — and be sure to check out their other podcasts while you’re at it!

Since I’m on the topic of the politics of academic knowledge, I’d be remiss not to mention Siva Vaidhyanathan’s amazing piece from the 2009 NEA Almanac of Higher Education, which recently came to my attention courtesy of Michael Zimmer.  It’s called “The Googlization of Universities.”  I found Siva’s s discussion of bibliometrics — the measurement of bibliographic citations and journal impact — to be particularly intriguing.  I wasn’t aware that Google’s PageRank system essentially took its cue from that particular corner of the mathematical universe.  The piece also got me thinking more about the idea of “algorithmic culture,” which I’ve blogged about here from time to time and that I hope to expand upon in an essay.

Please shoot me an email if you’d like a copy of “Acknowledged Goods.”  Of course, I’d be welcome any feedback you may have about the piece, either here or elsewhere.

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A Big Week for Books (Week in Review)

I’ve been racking my brain for the last several days trying to figure out what to post next here on The Late Age of Print. The problem isn’t there there’s a lack of material to write about.  If anything, there’s almost too much of it.  And the fact that there is so much reveals one simple truth about books today: however much they may be changing, they’re hardly a moribund medium.

Consider, for example, Wednesday’s debate in the New York Times, Does the Brain Like E-books?”  The forum brought together writers and academics from a variety of disciplines (English, Child Development, Religious Studies, Neuroscience), asking them to weigh in on the question.  Most intriguing to me is Professor Alan Liu’s contribution, in which he distinguishes between “focal” and “peripheral” attention.  E-books, it seems, dispose readers toward the latter type of engagement.

In some ways the distinction Liu draws harkens back to the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading.  The intensive mode refers to the deep reading of a small amount of texts, often multiple times, while the extensive mode designates a more cursory type of engagement with a significantly larger amount of texts.  The claim among book historians is that the coming of print ushered in a new age of extensive reading, which in turn  set in motion a mindful, but ultimately thinner, relationship to books and other types of printed artifacts.  Could it be that in emphasizing “peripheral” attention,  e-books are not breaking with but rather carrying on the legacy ushered in by print?

Next, Fast Company reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Google’s latest big announcement.  The search engine giant (it seems silly to even call the company that anymore) will be launching an online e-book store called Google Editions, beginning in early 2010.  What’s great about the service is that the e-titles won’t be device-specific, as in those created for the Amazon Kindle.  The initial launch will include a half-million e-books, and presumably more will be added as the months and years go by.

I’m still trying to determine whether the the texts that Google will make available via Editions will include those that the company has scanned for its Google Books project.  If that’s the case, then talk about the privatization of a public resource — practically all of the volumes having been housed originally in public libraries!  And even if that’s not the case, isn’t it strange that the company will essentially be subsidizing its book scanning efforts by hocking electronic texts published by the very same outfits who are suing them for scanning?

Finally, we have an intriguing post from Nigel Beale over at Nota Bene Books: Authors Claim Google’s Ability to Track Readers Puts Privacy at Risk.”  Evidently the Electronic Frontier Foundation is contesting the proposed Google Book settlement, on the grounds that the search engine giant cannot protect the privacy of individuals who choose to read e-books through its burgeoning service.

I’ve been raising similar concerns recently in my speech about the Amazon Kindle. The device automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information is subject not 4th Amendment/search warrant protections but can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

Whew.  What a week for books indeed!

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Books: “An Outdated Technology?”

From the annals of VERY BAD IDEAS comes this story in today’s Boston Globe. Cushing Academy, a prep school located in western Massachusetts, has decided to dispense with its library of printed books — more than 20,000 volumes in all — and switch over entirely to digital media resources. The change was prompted in no small part by Headmaster James Tracy, who is quoted in the article as saying, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

To fill the void, Cushing is spending about a half-million dollars on large, flat-screen data displays, laptop hookups, Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers — oh, and a $12,000 cappuccino machine. (I went to public school. The cappuccino machine seems a little — how should I put it? — indulgent to me.)

If you’ve read Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not one of those knee-jerk bibliophiles who believes the printed page is a sacred thing. I do plenty of e-reading and e-research myself (I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t find value in the “e”), plus I’m not so short-sighted as to believe that print is the only, or even the best, conveyor of information and ideas. But with that said, Cushing’s abandonment of its traditional library resources seems like an ill-considered move to me.

First, it upsets the balance of the whole “media ecology.” There’s a famous media historian and theorist by the name of Harold Innis, who differentiated between what he called “time binding” and “space binding” technologies. The former help to facilitate the endurance of words and ideas, while the latter help to facilitate the extension of messages quickly, across vast geographic distances. For this reason Innis suggested that printed books lend themselves well to the building and maintaining of tradition, a tradition grounded in an engagement with objects that are the material bearers of the past. Electronic media, on the other hand, he saw as more instrumental technologies of transmission. They are less about the creation and preservation of a community across time than they are about its expansion into and across new territories.

Whether or not you agree with Innis, it’s clear that different media do different things; each medium has different strengths. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to foster as robust a media ecosystem as you can, rather than drive certain “species” toward extinction?

My other concern (as readers of this blog well know) is the compulsion schools and other institutions are beginning to feel to switch over to proprietary e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle. What concerns me more than anything is the fact that, at least in the case of Kindle, you’re dealing with what Jonathan Zittrain calls a “tethered appliance.” Amazon keeps a record of your bookmarks, highlights, notes, and more on its server cloud. How is the imaginative life of reading affected when you can no longer be sure that another isn’t reading over your shoulder?

Cushing Academy just gave away 20,000 printed books. They’re not getting them back. This is an object lesson in what not to do in the digital age.

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Library 2.0…the Report

Late last week, I promised to report on the “Library 2.0″ Symposium at Yale Law School, in which I participated on April 4th.  I arrived at New Haven with a lovely Keynote presentation to accompany my essay on “Kindle and the Labor of Reading,” only to discover that my laptop had died!  Well, thank goodness for backup — which is to say nothing of the goodwill of Ted Byfield, my session moderator, who just happens to be a Mac/Keynote user.  Whew.  In any event, I expected to issue my Symposium wrap-up this past Monday or Tuesday, but the death of my laptop resulted in my having to push back the schedule a bit.  Thanks for your patience.

All that’s just preamble, I suppose, to my saying that it was a fantastic event through and through.  It brought together an extraordinary group consisting of librarians and library administrators, from places ranging from elite private universities to small rural communities; high-powered practicing attorneys (one who even litigated the Google book scanning case–representing the publishers) and equally high-powered law professors; digital library innovators; and a few humanities professors, like me.  Kudos to the planning committee for making a concerted effort to forestall what so often happens at symposia like these: group think (or the compulsion to engage in it).

What was fascinating to me was to hear about how librarians are navigating a shift in their profession, from their maintaining chiefly archival responsibilities to their increasingly becoming information managers.  (Laura DeNardis, the Executive Director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, opened the event with a hilarious video documenting representations of librarians in the popular media, which only threw into relief the degree to which the library profession has so profoundly changed.)   It was also intriguing to hear about the types of new archival problems that get posed within digital contexts, which raise all sorts of questions about privacy, propriety, and responsibility.  My co-panelist Michael Zimmer, for example, discussed the ethics of libraries’ retaining patron borrowing, web browsing, and search information in an age in which “the library” is becoming as much a physical structure as a digital, database-driven “back-end.”

Another theme that reared its head again and again was academic publishing — especially the legal, economic, and scholarly pitfalls that result from the over-concentration of the scholarly publishing industry.  I’ve written on the subject before – from the vantage point of cultural studies — and so I was fascinated to learn what the world of scholarly journal publishing looked like from a library perspective.  Long story short, it doesn’t look good, save for the important Open Access initiatives that have appeared in recent years, which themselves raise all sorts of conundrums about opting out and re-publication.  My favorite moment?  When one conference participant showed a PowerPoint slide depicting concentration in the journal publishing industry, with a gargantuan sphereoid “Elsevier” appearing in red in the middle, as though it were gobbling up all the other companies around it.  She said that she’d shown the slide before, and that it had come to be known colloquially as the “death star” slide.  How apt.

Let’s just hope that the library — a tremendous public resource — doesn’t end up getting consumed by Elsevier or some other evil empire.

P.S. “Library 2.0″ was blogged and Twittered, essentially in real-time, so follow the preceding links if you’d like a more “granular” view of the event.

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Library 2.0

Just a quick note to say how excited I am to be heading out today to the Library 2.0 Symposium, hosted by Yale Law School.  The organizers have graciously invited me to present a version of my work-in-progress on the Amazon Kindle e-reader, which is an outgrowth of The Late Age of Print. The piece is called “Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling,” and the latest draft is hosted here on my wiki site: http://striphas.wikidot.com/kindle-the-labor-of-reading-worksite-v2-0.  Comments are of course welcome and encouraged.

I plan on posting some sort  of report about the Symposium early next week, so be sure to check back then.

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What Publishing Can Learn, Part III

This is the third and final installment in a multi-part series reflecting on how the publishing industry might connect better with readers.  You can read part I, on The Da Vinci Code, by clicking here.  Part II, on Oprah, is available here.


III.  What can the publishing industry learn from Netflix?

In the realm of video, I’m fast becoming a fossil.  I’m not still spinning VHS tapes, thankfully, although in the age of Blue Ray even my DVD players are beginning to seem like (I love this euphemism) “legacy technologies.”  No, I’m a fossil because I persist in renting videos from a local video store, while almost everyone I know subscribes to Netflix.

Since 1998, Netflix has emerged as one of the leading DVD rental outfits in the United States.  It has quickly distinguished itself from — and gained extraordinary ground on — its competitors by challenging video rental’s prevailing business model.

Instead of relying on a vast network of physical storefronts, à la industry leader Blockbuster, Netflix interfaces with customers exclusively online.  With infrastructure consisting mostly of computer servers and regional warehouses, Netflix is a far more capital-efficient operation than its competitors.

The company’s other key innovation has been to replace the traditional video store membership program with a subscribership.  For a flat monthly fee, Netflix delivers any in-stock DVDs you’ve requested straight to your door through the mail — postage paid, both ways.  An added bonus is that there are no late fees.

With over 10 million customers and more than a billion DVDs shipped thus far, it’s no wonder why Netflix has garnered so much attention.  What might the publishing industry learn from the company’s success?

This probably seems like a bizarre question to ask.  After all, when was the last time you or anybody you knew rented a book?  And why would you even want to, given the preponderance of bookstores and public libraries?

It turns out that so-called “rental libraries” used to be a mainstay of U.S. book culture.  They filled an important niche, especially during economic hard times.

The Waldenbooks chain (now owned by Borders) got its start that way, back in 1933.  Founders Lawrence W. Hoyt and Melvin Kafka believed in books, but in the throes of the Great Depression, they decided against opening a retail bookstore.  The pair saw books as something of a luxury, and reasoned that few people would be willing to part with what little money they had to purchase these non-essentials outright.

Like the founders of Netflix, Hoyt and Kafka bucked industry trends.  They decided to set up shop in a department store in Bridgeport, CT, where they leased floor space in the hope of reducing fixed capital costs.  And instead of selling books, they rented them out for three cents per day.  By 1948, Hoyt and Kafka had opened as many as 250 rental libraries in department stores spanning from New York to Maine.

The rental library business declined after the Second World War.  Rising wages and fuller employment meant that rental culture could once again give way to consumer culture.  Waldenbooks followed the trend by introducing retail book sales in 1945, and abandoning book rentals in 1957.

Given the current economic downturn, the rampant fears of plummeting book sales, and the slashing of public library budgets, now seems like an opportune time in which to revisit the book rental option.  A 21st century book rental outfit might look to the early Waldenbooks for inspiration.  It would do better in the long run, however, were it to model itself on Netflix.

The online book rental experience — call it “Netboox” — might go something like this.  You log on to the website, where you’re immediately greeted by name.  If you’re a new customer, then you’re invited to sign up for an account — which is free, although you will be asked to choose from among three different monthly rental plans.  The plan prices are scaled according to the number of books you expect to check out at any given time.

Netboox allows you to search for specific authors, titles, and subjects.  Powerful algorithms aggregate your past selections with those of other customers, and the site makes personalized recommendations accordingly.  Ordering is as easy as finding a selection and clicking the “RENT” link appearing on screen.  User-generated book reviews and other interactive features round out the picture.

Most of Netboox’s infrastructure exists behind-the-scenes, like Netflix.  Its distribution facilities contain none of the amenities of a retail bookstore or public library; they are nothing more and nothing less than large warehouses teeming with books, conveyors, and workers busy filling orders.  And in contrast to many public libraries, new releases and bestsellers are always in ample supply.  Netboox’s capital-efficiency means that an extraordinary back-list is available, too.

Could it work?  I’ll leave that up to the entrepreneurs to decide — but be warned: shipping books is a whole lot more expensive than shipping DVDs!  Nevertheless, history shows that something along the lines of Netboox has worked in the past.  Perhaps it may work again today.

Have you rented any good books lately?

–in loving memory of anne

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