MLA Conference 2014, Day One (Wednesday), Part One

It’s that time again! This year, the Massachusetts Library Association conference is in Worcester, and once again the lovely and gracious Friends of the Library enabled some of our library staff (myself included) to attend. Here’s my round-up of the first three sessions I went to today, with more to come. Several conference-goers are also on Twitter (#masslib14).

Brand New You: How Libraries Use Branding to Establish Relevance and Engage Users

Anna Popp from the Massachusetts Library System presented on MLS’ experience developing their brand with Walter Briggs of Briggs Advertising. Popp convened a task force and established a clear decision-making protocol (essential, according to Briggs). Popp and Briggs explained that an organization’s brand is evolutionary, not visionary; it’s not the same as its vision or mission statement (‘it’s not what you aim to be, it’s what you are’).

MLS logoThe process involved brainstorming everything about the organization, then crossing out everything that wasn’t unique, with the goal of distilling it down to 3-5 words or phrases – the “brand mantra.” The brand mantra is an internal tool, and is not the same thing as a tagline (e.g., Nike’s brand mantra is “Authentic Athletic Performance,” not “Just Do It.”) MLS came up with “Uniting, Empowering, Library Enhancement.” The brand mantra is “the most important deliverable” from the branding process, more important even than the logo (at left). The logo’s job is not to show or tell what an organization does.

The tagline should be “evocative, inspiring, brief, lyrical” and have “integrity.” The (awesome) MLS tagline is “Stronger together,” which perfectly suits an organization dedicated to building a statewide community of libraries, empowering those libraries, and championing resource sharing.

Briggs finished the presentation by sharing some of his past work. I especially loved the Patten Free Library tagline, “More than you’ll ever know,” and the tangram-like logos (below) for the Curtis Memorial Library (both libraries are in Maine).

CurtisMemorialLibrary logoCurtisMemorialTeenCurtisMemorialKids

 

 

 

The takeaways from this session included: (1) Recognize what people bring to the table, (2) Establish role clarity – who will have an advisory role, who will have a decision-making role?, (3) Let people do their jobs, help when necessary, (4) Prepare to learn something about yourself, (5) Plan ahead, but be prepared for eventualities and opportunities. It may be hard to prove the ROI on a logo, but Popp mentioned the idea of “mindshare”: “in marketing, repetition wins.” Establish your relevance and constantly reaffirm it.

An Agenda for Information Activism: Internet Freedom and Press Freedom Today

Kevin Gallagher stepped up here in place of the original presenter, Josh Stearns, formerly of Free Press. Gallagher clearly knew his stuff, particularly the threat that government mass surveillance poses to journalists and society at large, and he did a good job on short notice. He wasn’t the most comfortable speaker, and his presentation jumped around a little bit; the audience wasn’t all familiar with some of the terms he used or the services he referenced. The presentation had no handouts or visual component (other than the trailer for the upcoming Aaron Schwartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy). However, privacy is something librarians care deeply about, and this program took a step toward convincing us all to do more research for ourselves, and think about what we can offer patrons, both in terms of tools and education. Here are a few points and links from the session (thanks also to Alison Macrina of Watertown Free Public Library):

  • When the government undermines and weakens Internet security standards for the purposes of surveillance and data-gathering, it makes us all less safe, not more.
  • There are library privacy laws in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Patron privacy and confidentiality is essential for the free pursuit of knowledge.
  • If the government can collect metadata on journalists’ communications, that exposes journalists’ sources, whose confidentiality should be protected.
  • Read the full text of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto by Aaron Schwartz on the Internet Archive.
  • “There is already a war” against whistleblowers, journalists, and activists (examples: Julian Assange, Jeremy Hammond, Edward Snowden, Barrett Brown, Jim Risen).
  • “We need a new Church Committee.”
  • Government agencies and private companies are collecting personal data and metadata. Be aware of what personal data private companies are collecting, and what permissions you are giving when you use services like facebook. See Terms of Service; Didn’t Read.
  • Use search engines that value privacy, like DuckDuckGo, or use plugins like Ghostery or services like Disconnect.me. Install Tails, an operating system that lets you use the Internet anonymously via TOR.
  • What can we (in libraries) do? Use more privacy and security tools (like https everywhere from the EFF). Use free and open software instead of proprietary software (“There’s a free and open alternative to everything”). Make sure patron privacy policies are up to date, and make sure we aren’t collecting any more patron information than necessary. If libraries are receiving federal funds that force compliance with CIPA, make sure you aren’t filtering any more than you have to – or, if possible, don’t accept the strings-attached funds. Host a “crypto party.” Support the USA Freedom Act, make FOIA requests. Remember the Library Bill of Rights.

How We Doin’?: Public Libraries Using LibSat to Gather Patron Feedback

The Los Angeles Public Library uses LibStat.

The Los Angeles Public Library uses LibStat.

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) is providing LibSat from Counting Opinions to all Massachusetts libraries for a three-year term. All library directors have the login information, and can pass it on to any of their staff. From what we saw in this session, LibSat is a pretty incredible tool to gather continuous patron feedback about their library experience; data nerds in the room were audibly delighted.

This session began with the proverb “A guest sees more in an hour than the host sees in a year.” Patron feedback is valuable to libraries, offering reminders of how much people appreciate library services and staff as well as presenting opportunities for improvement; patrons who rate the library’s importance as high but their satisfaction with the library as low direct attention to areas for improvement.

LibSat offers patrons a choice of a short survey (3-5 minutes), a regular survey (5-7 minutes), and an in-depth survey (~15 minutes). Other than possible survey fatigue, there’s really no reason MA libraries shouldn’t be using this tool. The results could really come in handy when it’s time to prepare those annual reports…

Next up:

Working with and Managing Multigenerational Staff/People

Building Intergenerational Collaboration & Programs: Serving People of Different Ages

Last year’s (rather long) MLA posts:

4/24/13: Teaching Technology to Patrons and Staff & Afraid to Advocate? Get Over It! & Library Services and the Future of the Catalog: Lessons from Recent ILS Upgrades & Loaning E-Readers to the Public: Legal and Strategic Challenges

4/25/13: On Life Support, But Not Dead Yet!: Revitalizing Reference for the 21st Century & Authors, Authors, Authors!: Three Local Authors Strut Their Stuff & Analyze Your Collection & Print and Digital Publishing: How Are Publishers, Editors, and Authors Adapting.

Yearly wrap-up, 2013 edition

In the spirit of those sites that do a weekly wrap-up (like Dooce’s “Stuff I found while looking around” and The Bloggess’ “Sh*t I did when I wasn’t here”), here are a few odds and ends I found while going through my work e-mail inbox and my drafts folder.

How to Search: “How to Use Google Search More Effectively” is a fantastic infographic that will teach you at least one new trick, if not several. It was developed for college students, but most of the content applies to everyday Google-users. Google has its own Tips & Tricks section as well, which is probably updated to reflect changes and new features.

How to Take Care of Your Books: “Dos and Don’ts for Taking Care of Your Personal Books at Home” is a great article by Shelly Smith, the New York Public Library’s Head of Conservation Treatment. Smith recommends shelving your books upright, keeping them out of direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and dusting. (Sigh. Yes, dusting.)

The ARPANET Dialogues: “In the period between 1975 and 1979, the Agency convened a rare series of conversations between an eccentric cast of characters representing a wide range of perspectives within the contemporary social, political and cultural milieu. The ARPANET Dialogues is a serial document which archives these conversations.” The “eccentric cast of characters” includes Ronald Reagan, Edward Said, Jane Fonda, Jim Henson, Ayn Rand, and Yoko Ono, among others. A gem of Internet history.

All About ARCs: Some librarians over at Stacked developed a survey about how librarians, bloggers, teachers, and booksellers use Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). There were 474 responses to the survey, and the authors summarized and analyzed the results beautifully. I read a lot of ARCs, both in print and through NetGalley or Edelweiss, and I was surprised to learn the extent of the changes between the ARC stage and the finished book; I had assumed changes were copy-level ones, not substantial content-level ones, but sometimes they are. (I also miss the dedication and acknowledgements.)

E-books vs. Print books: There were, at a conservative estimate, approximately a zillion articles and blog posts this year about e-books, but I especially liked this one from The Guardian, “Why ebooks are a different genre from print.” Stuart Kelly wrote, “There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.” He continued, “The printed book…is astonishingly stable over time, place and reader….The book, seen this way, is a radically egalitarian proposition compared to the ebook. The book treats every reader the same way.”

On (used) bookselling: This has been languishing in my drafts folder for nearly two years now. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not overly snarky list, “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore” includes such amusing lessons as “If someone comes in and asks for a recommendation and you ask for the name of a book that they liked and they can’t think of one, the person is not really a reader.  Recommend Nicholas Sparks.” Good for librarians as well as booksellers (though I’d hesitate to recommend Sparks).

The-Library-Book-154x250_largeOn Libraries: Along the same lines, I really enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s essay “The Rules” in The Library Book. Mangan’s “rules” are those she would enforce in her own personal library, and they include: (2) Silence is to be maintained at all times. For younger patrons, “silence” is an ancient tradition, dating from pre-digital times. It means “the absence of sound.” Sound includes talking. (3) I will provide tea and coffee at cost price, the descriptive terms for which will be limited to “black,” “white,” “no/one/two/three sugars” and “cup.” Anyone who asks for a latte, cappuccino or anything herbal anything will be taken outside and killed. Silently.

On Weeding: It’s a truth often unacknowledged that libraries possessed of many books must be in want of space to put them – or must decide to get rid of some. Julie Goldberg wrote an excellent essay on this topic, “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!” I also wrote a piece for the local paper, in which I explain the “culling” of our collection (not my choice of headline).

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Libraries”: In an essay for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Australian Hugh Rundle wrote about the lack of incentives for public librarians to do research to test whether public libraries are achieving their desired outcomes.

Public Journalism, Private Platforms: Dan Gillmor questions how much journalists know about security, and how much control they have over their content once it’s published online. (Article by Caroline O’Donovan at Nieman Journalism Lab)

Media Consumption Assignment

Catching up on those blogs that I read regularly but not every single day, I saw this post from Dan Gillmore at Mediactive: “My Media Habits: One Day.” Gillmore teaches a course in media literacy at Arizona State University, and this was his assignment for his students (and himself):

For one full day, keep track of your own media consumption.  I don’t care if it’s reading a newspaper (in print or online), TV or radio program (broadcast or online), Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Twitter or anything else. Take notes. Then, do a blog post on your own impressions of how you get information and entertainment. For example, what are your main sources of news? Why do you trust them (if you do), and which do you trust more than others? Do you go to news organizations’ home pages or do you mostly read articles via links from other places, such as Facebook? A key question: What do you think you might be missing? Do you care? In general, I want you to explore your own use of media as a consumer. (We’ll look at media creation later on in the course.)

I decided I would do the assignment also. I chose a weekday that I was off work (November 8), and here’s what it looked like:

~9:30-10:30am: Checked e-mail, Twitter, Feedly (webcomics including xkcd, food blog Smitten Kitchen, etiquette blog Emily Post, friend’s blog post that included a link to a piece in Ploughshares Literary Magazine, which I saved to read later). Finished reading an interview (Neil Gaiman interviewing Lou Reed) that a friend had sent me a few days ago. I have a separate e-mail folder (Unroll.me) for newsletters, etc., and I get daily e-mails of headlines from The New York Times and Boston Globe there. I added photos to a blog post for work (about six-word memoirs) and published it (I suppose that’s creation, not consumption). Glanced at Facebook notifications, didn’t click any links or spend more than a minute on the news feed page. Also from Unroll.me folder: Goodreads with updates on what friends have read or added, Publishers Lunch newsletter. Did not check weather (I usually use weather.com), and was surprised by some hail later in the day.

substitutions

~12:30pm: Read a few pages of This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

~4:30pm: Used Amazon to look up the title of a book someone recommended to me over coffee; requested the book through my library catalog. Used Scrivener to figure out a typeface, then replied to a thread on Twitter; followed a link from Twitter and read an article from The Atlantic. Used Feedly to read the three most recent posts on Copyfight, skim the last few days of posts from Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing, and read the most recent three posts on Dooce.

~9:00-10:30: Read more of the Ann Patchett book; watched two episodes of 30 Rock (final season) from Netflix.

I’ll answer Gillmore’s questions one by one, starting with…

What are your main sources of news? nytlogo379x64

The New York Times and the Boston Globe, but primarily the NYT. Also, fairly often: the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian (UK), Slate, BoingBoing, Wired, TechCrunch, and NPR. If it is a local news event, I’ll check the Patch.

Why do you trust them (if you do), and which do you trust more than others?

Many of the publications I read online have a long history in print. I trust that the journalists used sound and ethical methods, the articles have been edited for copy and content, and the facts have been checked (though some error is inevitable, especially with the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle). Reputation is part of it, but consistent quality is also important.

Do you go to news organizations’ home pages or do you mostly read articles via links from other places, such as Facebook?

For the Times and the Globe, I get daily e-mails of the headlines. The Globe tends to be sports-heavy, but the Times includes the first three headlines of each section of the paper, so that gives a broader overview (on November 8, I noticed headlines about trans fats, health care, food stamps, and the Twitter IPO). I will occasionally click links from Facebook, but I’m not on there very much. I’m more likely to click a link from Twitter, where I follow a few friends but mostly literary sources (booksellers, librarians, publishers, authors, book bloggers) and related people/organizations (ALA-OIF, EFF, etc.).

What do you think you might be missing? Do you care? 

I realize that most if not all of my usual sources have a liberal slant (anywhere from moderate to pronounced), so I’m not getting articles from a conservative point of view (though I am seeing the liberal reaction to conservative views and actions). I tend to read multiple articles on the same topics over time; there are topics I will pass over entirely, and certain issues I follow closely.

Also, nearly all of my media consumption is through the written word, whether online or in print (we get The New Yorker and Rolling Stone at home); I rarely see TV news, and only occasionally do I hear radio news (except for NPR’s weekly news quiz show, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” which isn’t exactly news itself). Though I wish I had time to read more in-depth, long-form journalism from international sources, I feel like I get a good enough overview from my daily sources and frequent nonfiction books.

LibraryThing vs Goodreads, redux

Back in April I wrote about transitioning from Goodreads to LibraryThing after Amazon bought Goodreads. The transition was a bit halting, but I have now more or less stopped updating my Goodreads account (though I still contribute to my library’s account for readers’ advisory purposes) and shifted all my activity over to LibraryThing.

Though both Goodreads and LT are social reading sites, they are different in a number of ways. For example, let’s look at the messages on their home pages, before sign-in. Here’s Goodreads:

goodreads_home_logo

And here’s LibraryThing:

LT_home_logo

Goodreads (“Meet your next favorite book”) is encouraging readers to find new books to read, through lists (“shelves”), ads, and other users’ reviews. LibraryThing, on the other hand (“A home for your books…A community of book lovers”) emphasizes its cataloging quality and its user community.

There are a variety of uses for social reading sites (and by no means are Goodreads and LibraryThing the only choices), but my primary uses are (in descending order of importance):

  1. Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read.

  2. Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read.

  3. See what my friends are reading and read their reviews.

I also appreciate the chance to get the occasional early review copy (I’ve gotten one or two from Goodreads over the past six years, and at least four from LT over the past year), and the serendipity of connecting with authors (more than once, authors on Goodreads have contacted me after I’ve written a review of their book: one ended up attending a book club meeting, and another gave a presentation at the library).

So, how do the two sites compare? Let’s go point by point.

Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. I’m certainly able to do this on both sites. Goodreads has “read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read” shelves, whereas LibraryThing has “to-read” and “currently reading” collections (everything else is, by default, “read”). I like Goodreads’ “date added” sorting option, but I like that LibraryThing offers different display styles.

LY_styleoptions

Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read. One of LT’s aforementioned display styles includes reviews – so you can see all your reviews at a glance, rather than having to click into each book’s record. You can also click directly into the review to make any edits. There is no way to skim all your reviews in Goodreads.

See what my friends are reading and read their reviews. Goodreads has a clear advantage here, because most of the people I know who are on a social reading site are on Goodreads. I’m not that interested in reading strangers’ reviews, but I do like seeing what my friends are reading. Fortunately, I still get e-mails from Goodreads with updates that include friends’ reviews.

goodreads_greenbuttonIn terms of function, then, the sites aren’t all that different. Though I’m committed to LT now, I still don’t find it as intuitive or user-friendly as Goodreads (though, like most LT users, I’m not a fan of Goodreads’ dreaded green button).

LibraryThing organization

Even after a few months of using LibraryThing, I still don’t navigate it effortlessly. The font is absolutely tiny, which leads to a cluttered appearance. Searching within your library takes a second or two longer than I’d like to return results (yes, I’m impatient). The organization also takes some getting used to – the Home tab shows your most recent books, but if you click into a book’s record from there, it just shows metadata and other users’ reviews, not your review or when you started or finished the book; that information is under the Your Books tab (this is where you can choose your own display style).

There’s a separate tab to Add Books, and when you search, there’s usually only one edition of the book, whereas Goodreads lists all of them (hardcover, paperback, mass market, audiobook, various publishers, etc). However, if you put in the ISBN of the specific edition you’re looking for, it will show up.

The other tabs – Groups, Talk, Local, More, and the mysteriously named Zeitgeist (“more information than you require,” indeed, though it’s probably useful/interesting for some) – I don’t use often, though I probably should look at the Local tab more often to see what’s going on. It’s customizable too, so you can choose your favorite bookstores, libraries, or other literary venues to see what authors might be in town. The More tab includes the link to Early Reviewer books.

Stats are accessed from the Home tab; I don’t look at stats that often, just a few times a year, but LT presents them pretty creatively. For instance, my library (which, to be fair, includes books on my “to-read” shelf as well as those I’ve read and am currently reading), if stacked book upon book, would be slightly taller than the Great Pyramid, slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. The value of its weight in gold would be $22,173,471. Goodreads data, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward – number of books read in a calendar year, number of pages read, etc. I wish LT had these types of numbers as well.

Overall, I’m not thrilled with LibraryThing, but I’m going to stick with it because it isn’t owned by Amazon, which means my personal data isn’t being harvested (at least not so rapaciously and overtly). Perhaps some of the things that irk me about it will change, and more of my friends will join over time. Till then, it does what I need it to do.

What to read and how to read it: RSS feeds and library blogs

When Google Reader announced it was shutting down, I considered several options and chose to migrate to The Old Reader. The migration took a few days because of heavy traffic, but once that was done and I started using it, I liked it a lot; it was the most similar and therefore least disruptive change.

However, right around the time I went to NELLS, The Old Reader was having some issues and it looked like it was going to be down for quite a while. To their credit, they’re doing everything they can to make The Old Reader sustainable in the long term, but I didn’t want to be without my RSS feed for that long.

feedly-logo1-640x297Instead of looking back at my first post on the topic (see link in first paragraph), I went ahead and chose Feedly. If I had looked back at my own research, I probably would have gone with Newsblur, but I’ve been fairly happy with Feedly. It’s easy to organize your subscriptions into folders and move the folders around; there are a number of view options; the app for the tablet is good. The left-hand sidebar menu tends to disappear (to give more room to what you’re reading), but reappears when you float over it.

But the RSS tool is only the how, not the what. The what, of course, is the content itself, and since NELLS I have added a few more blogs to my “Library Blogs” folder, including friends and fellow NELLS participants Anna at LCARSLIBRARIAN and Sarah at librarysarie. (Those links go directly to their posts about NELLS.)

A few of my other favorite library blogs:

  • Brian at SwissArmyLibrarian: SwissArmyLibIn addition to the always-interesting Reference Question of the Week, Brian also writes clear, concise, thoughtful posts relevant to the public library world. He has a lot of experience as a librarian, but I think his blog would be interesting for library patrons as well as other librarians. Plus, he works in Massachusetts, so if you’re in New England there’s a good chance you’ll see him in person at a conference. Say hi!
  • Sarah at LibrarianInBlack: Opinionated, honest, and unafraid to stand up for herself and her library, Sarah is the director of a public library in California. As she says on her “About” page, “I am a big technology nerd and I believe in the power of libraries to change lives.  Combined, they make a fearsome cocktail.”
  • Jessamyn at Librarian.net: Jessamyn writes from Vermont about libraries, technology, politics and government (she covered the Kirtsaeng v. Wiley case, for example). A great writer, relevant and interesting content. LibraryLoon
  • Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon: the pseudonymous Loon writes about issues within library school and academic libraries. I enjoy her opinionated style as well as the substance of each post. She recently linked to Meredith Farkas’ piece, “Managing the ‘whole person,'” which I highly recommend, especially to NELLS folks. Meredith’s blog is another good one for those interested in academic libraries and instruction in general.
  • Julie at Perfect Whole: Julie is a librarian, reader, and writer who until recently wrote twice-monthly essays, published on the first and 15th of the month. This schedule has been suspended recently but there are plenty of thoughtful, well-crafted essays as well as the occasional current post.  Her “I can’t believe you’re throwing out books!” essay sparked a lot of conversations about weeding.
  • Linda at ThreeGoodRats: Linda is one of my co-workers (we both write for the Robbins Library blog) and ThreeGoodRats is where she reviews the many, many books she reads. Her reviews are neat, to-the-point, honest, helpful (if you’re trying to decide whether or not to read that particular book), and insightful. She also has a Sunday knitting feature that will knock your (handmade) socks off. YALSATheHub
  • Young Adult blogs: I enjoy the unique review style at Forever Young Adult, though I don’t read 100% of the content. Some of their reviews are now featured on Kirkus. They also write TV show recaps. YALSA’s The Hub is another YA blog I browse (Anna of LCARSLIBRARIAN writes for them sometimes). There is a high volume of content so I don’t read everything, but a recent favorite post is “Too Many Trilogies.”

So those are a few blogs I make a point of reading. What are your favorites? And what have you found to replace Google Reader (assuming you were using it in the first place), and are you happy with it? Comment below!

Password creation and user experience (UX)

File under: Something is Wrong on the Internet.

We have passwords for everything. We have passwords for e-mail, for online banking, for social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest…), for our phones, for our debit cards, for photo sharing sites, for online magazine and newspaper subscriptions, et cetera. Every company with a website wants you to create a login and password, so they can (a) start collecting information about you, and (b) inundate you with tailored advertising.

But I’m not writing about the necessity of these multiple login/password combinations (or lack thereof); I’m writing about the annoyance and frustration that results from each company and service having different requirements for creating a password. You know: it must be between 6-15 characters (or 8-12, or 6-20), it must be a combination of letters and numbers (or letters, numbers, and special characters), you can/cannot use spaces, it is(n’t) case sensitive…and so on.
password_tips

Obviously it’s wise to use different passwords for different sites. That way, if (for example) your Facebook account gets hacked, the hackers don’t automatically have your password to your Amazon account, your bank, etc. However, remembering dozens of passwords is tricky, and writing them down or saving them someplace online presents problems too (though I’ve heard good things about the password manager LastPass).

My current approach is to use a “stem,” a combination of letters and numbers, and attach a different prefix or suffix that is easy for me to remember, depending on the site or service I’m using. Inevitably, though, a set of password requirements comes along that causes me to have to tweak my formula in a way that ensures I will not remember it in the future, and so I’ll have to send myself a password reminder and re-set it the next time I want to log in.

UNLESS, before prompting me with the “Forgot your password?” link to send that reminder, the site simply provided its password requirements (e.g. the “Password Tips” image above, which is from the Starbucks website). Then I’d be able to remember, or at least make a very good guess, as to how I’d modified my usual password, and not have to go through the process of re-setting my password again and again.

This is a tragically simple fix that would improve user experience so much, and yet almost no website does it. Yes, The Internet, that’s a challenge.

unless_lorax

Image from Tumblr via Google Image Search. Copyright most likely held by the estate of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) or Random House. Obviously I neither created nor hold the rights to The Lorax, the publication of which preceded my birth by at least a decade.

 

The Sleeping Policeman: DRM is not harmless

doctorow_cory_republica_2013The title of Cory Doctorow’s recent talk at the re:publica conference in Berlin, “It’s not a fax machine connected to a waffle iron,” is a phrase I heard him use at an event for his recent book, Homeland (the follow-up to Little Brother) at the Harvard Bookstore in March. Indeed, the two talks shared a theme as well as some overlapping material, but I believe it’s worth writing about again. (I’ve provided the approximate times of the video for quotes, if you want to jump right to that section of the talk.)

Doctorow explained digital rights management (DRM) in simple terms, then said, “From the beginning it was a fool’s errand. This is a break once, break everywhere exercise in futility that can’t prevent copying” (~10min30sec). Those who create DRM know that it doesn’t stop copying, but that it’s a speed bump (“sleeping policeman,” in Britain). However, “the speed bump is between the people who want to do the right thing and their enjoyment of the media….The speed bump is only there if you’re doing the right thing” (~11min/~12min). DRM will be broken by those who are tech-savvy, and will frustrate users who aren’t, even when they’re trying to use the product they purchased in an “approved” way.

Doctorow continued, “It’s impossible to talk about technology questions without examining and weighing legal code at the same time as we consider software code” (~14min). The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), established in 1967, “made it illegal to reverse engineer or interoperate with any technology that had any DRM in it” (15min30sec). This has had the chilling effect of reducing innovation; products are designed to be resistant to user modification (this is called “robustness”). Therefore, “digital rights management effectively bans free and open-source software” (~18min40sec).

“Why does it matter if you can’t interoperate with a system?” Doctorow asked rhetorically. One answer is, because it kills innovation (~19m). Take DVDs and DVD players, for example: “DVDs have been out since 1996. And not one feature has been added to them since 1996….You are legally allowed to watch your DVDs. Period….And that is what you get when you add DRM to any technology” (~21min30sec/~23min).

But interoperability “is only the first-order casualty of DRM.” The most dire consequence of DRM is (the loss of) transparency (~23min20sec). Devices come pre-loaded with “anti-features” that instead of saying “yes, Master,” say “I can’t let you do that, Dave” (~23min45sec). Lest we find these anti-features on our devices and simply put them in the trash, they are hidden from us:  they are “designed to lie to you” (~25min).

And that, Doctorow said, is the true cost of DRM. “When you add DRM to a system, you create a legal requirement for opacity, and an injunction against reporting weak security….Computers have the power to liberate us or to enslave us. When computers don’t tell us what they’re doing, they expose us to horrible risks. And when the law prohibits third parties from finding out what our computers are doing, and telling us about it, those risks are magnified” (~28min/29min30sec).

Computers, Doctorow pointed out, are ubiquitous. He gestured to the audience, “Everything in this room has a wireless interface. You are basically in a microwave oven now” (~33min40sec). And he warned against complacency: “We [the tech-savvy] can break DRM, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless” (~36min15sec). DRM and other ways that our technology is designed to work against us instead of for us have serious consequences. “People who believed that computers and networks could solve problems also saw that they had the potential for terrible oppression” (~37min). The internet is “the nervous system of the 21st century, where everything we do today involves the internet and everything we do tomorrow will require it” (~39min20sec). “We can build a network that is part of our freedom or part of our oppression….I want a free and fair world….There is no way to fight oppression without free devices and free networks” (~45min30sec/~44min20sec).

Quotes from the Q&A

The first person referred to the story Doctorow had mentioned about Barnaby Jack’s identification of a security flaw in implanted defibrillators: “I wouldn’t want to attach my heart to the internet.”

In response to another question, Doctorow made an analogy between the regulation of drinking water in London and the regulation of computer networks: “It should always be legal to blow the whistle. It should always be legal to know things about your water….We should regulate water with the gravitas of something that is literally life or death, not just for us, but for everybody in the world whose  destinies we’re intermingled with. And this is true of networks and computers…” (~54min30sec)

Another question concerned the youngest generation, and how they might contribute. Doctorow said, “I really firmly believe that a sense of agency, control, and the right to tinker is at the core of raising a generation that will not allow their computers to become tools of oppression” (~58min30sec). He mentioned two tools that allow kids to create rather than consume: Popcorn, a video remixing tool from Mozilla, and Scratch, a simple programming language from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. (Of course, once you’ve created content, you have to be aware of how and where you’re sharing it; if you’re using a platform such as facebook or tumblr, what are their terms of agreement? And around we go again.)

Watch Cory’s talk here, or by clicking on the image at the top of this post.

Choose Privacy Week

ALA_ChoosePrivacy_186x292-BThis week (May 1-7) is Choose Privacy Week. Today being the 7th, I’m a little late to the game, though I do read articles, blog posts, and infographics about privacy all year round. Two recent examples are Fight for the Future’s great infographic about CISPA, and the EFF’s annual “Who Has Your Back?” report about which companies protect user data from the government.

At ChoosePrivacyWeek.org, ALA has links to a curated collection of videos on the topic of privacy. Visit the Video Gallery to explore; so far I’ve only watched “Facebook Killed the Private Life” featuring Clay Shirky, which at just over four minutes is a good jumping-off point (“Social networks are profoundly changing the definition of what we consider private”). The Choose Privacy Week documentary (see below) is also a good place to start; at 23 minutes, it’s an excellent and thought-provoking overview of the topic, including commentary from Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, as well as many librarians.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the orange shape on the poster is – lamb chop? Video game controller? – it is a birds-eye view of a person walking.

Privacy is such a huge topic, there are many different aspects to it. But watching the documentary, I was reminded of an article I read in the Guardian a while ago, “Why ebooks are a different genre from print.” I have heard enough rhapsodizing about the smell of books vs. soulless electronic devices, but this article puts that argument aside in favor of a few real and important differences between print books and e-books. Author Stuart Kelly writes, “There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.” If you’re reading on a Kindle, you’re telling Amazon what you’re buying, what you’re reading, how long you spend on each page, where you stop reading, what you highlight, and where you make notes. Amazon has also shown it has the capability to “disappear” legally purchased books from your device, and also the capability – though I don’t know if they’ve used it yet – to make changes to books you already “own,” like pushing publishers’ corrections to your first edition file.

ALA_ChoosePrivacy_186x292-AThat is only one small example of how our privacy is eroding, sometimes without our awareness, sometimes without our consent. In light of this erosion, the Choose Privacy Week documentary I mentioned above is definitely worth watching. As I watched, I couldn’t help scribbling down quotes:

“Facebook is a conditioning system to teach you to undervalue your privacy…[it] rewards you for foolish disclosure.” -Author Cory Doctorow

“It is not for us to judge why a person wants to know something.” -Librarian Sarah Pritchard, Northwestern University

“Do not put anything on the web, at all, ever, that you would not want anybody, be it your mother, your boss, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your girlfriend’s mother, to see.” -Author Neil Gaiman

“Privacy is one of the greatest privileges that we have. Privileges, rights – both.”

People who are “in the public eye all the time,” whose private lives are documented in magazines, tabloids, and the internet, who can’t go anywhere without being accosted by paparazzi, reporters, or fans. Fame often comes at the cost of privacy, and yet so many of us put personal information on the internet where it is available to anyone who cares to look. It’s not just “you and a screen,” it’s you and the whole world. So ask yourself: What is your privacy worth?

ChoosePrivacyWeek

Amazon buys Goodreads

I experienced that sinking feeling as soon as I saw the link, even before I clicked on it: http://techcrunch.com/2013/03/28/amazon-acquires-social-reading-site-goodreads/. The full headline from Tech Crunch is “Amazon Acquires Social Reading Site Goodreads, Which Gives the Company A Social Advantage Over Apple.”

My immediate and unconsidered reaction is that this can only be bad news. Goodreads is a site I have been using since 2007: the user experience is excellent, the communication from the company is of high quality and transparency, and they seem trustworthy and reliable in the way that they handle their users’ information (unlike, say, facebook, which has made a number of massive missteps where users’ private information is concerned).

Amazon, on the other hand, mines its users’ data voraciously: they know not just what you’ve bought, but what you’ve considered buying, and what other people who bought the thing you’re looking at bought. If you have a Kindle, they know not just what you’re reading, but what you’ve highlighted, where you’ve made notes and comments, where you’ve stopped reading, where you’ve lingered – far more than I, for one, really want them to know. (Part of the reason I don’t have a Kindle.)

In a PaidContent article, “Amazon acquires book-based social network Goodreads,” Laura Hazard Owen writes, “Goodreads has served as a fairly “neutral” hub for readers until now — a place where publishers and authors can market and promote their books without being tied to a specific retailer. Until 2012, Goodreads sourced all of its book data from Amazon, but it then decided that the company’s API had become too restrictive and switched its data provider to the book wholesaler Ingram. “Our goal is to be an open place for all readers to discover and buy books from all retailers, both online and offline,” Goodreads told me at the time of the switch. While being an “open place for all readers” may still be Goodreads’ goal, it’s now clearly tied to promoting books for sale on Amazon.”

Below is a screenshot I took today, 3/28/13. You can see the page for Homeland by Cory Doctorow; there’s the cover image, a blurb (usually provided by the publisher), the cataloging data (publisher, publication year, language, format, etc.), and below that, my review, because I was logged in at the time I took the screenshot and I’ve read and reviewed Homeland (I recommend it).

 

goodreads_getacopy

Between the book info and my review, it says “Get a copy” and there are three buttons. The first one goes to Barnes & Noble; the third one goes to WorldCat, so you can find the book in a library near you, wherever you are in the world (very cool!); the middle one, “online stores,” has a drop-down menu, which includes the following retailers in this order: Kobo, Indigo, Abebooks, Half.com, Audible, Alibris, iBookstore, Sony, Better World Books, Target.com, Google Play, IndieBound, and last of all, Amazon. (If you click “more” after that, it takes you to a page where you can compare booksellers’ prices for used and new editions.)

goodreads_dropdown

 

I don’t know what else will change once Amazon is in charge of Goodreads, but I bet Amazon moves up that list from the bottom. Will Goodreads even continue linking to other booksellers? I hope so.

There is an open letter on Goodreads now from the founder, Otis Chandler, rhapsodizing about bringing Goodreads to the Kindle. There’s a press release on Amazon where VP of Kindle content Russ Grandinetti talks about Goodreads and Amazon’s “share[d] passion for reinventing reading.” All of it makes me more wary than excited, but we’ll see what happens.  Meanwhile, I’ll be backing up my data more religiously than usual (if you have an account, you can export all the content you’ve added to Goodreads from the import/export page).

Calling all researchers: timeline of the end of repair

During the major blizzard in February (dubbed Nemo), my digital camera stopped working. When I turned it on, the lens would extend, then retract; it would do this a few times and then give a error message to turn it off and back on again. This did not solve the problem, so I began wondering if I could get it repaired, or if I would have to replace it. This repair-or-replace question made me think of a timeline I had seen, which I will describe:

Physical description: It was a black-and-white timeline (though it could originally have been in color); I had it on an 8.5×11″ paper, which I had to blow up onto multiple pages in order to see all the small print properly.

Content: I’m not sure what the earliest year represented was, but the timeline extended through the present and into the future. It showed when repair stopped being a viable option for everyday objects like clothes, shoes, toasters, and radios; when built-in obsolescence, or planned obsolescence, made it cheaper to buy a new item to replace the old one, or simply impossible to repair the old item.

Question3I wanted to find this timeline again. I started with a Google search, using a variety of keywords (repair, replace, timeline, obsolescence/obsolete, chart, technology, etc.), and then switched to a Google image search. I couldn’t find it, so I looked through my grad school notebooks, thinking maybe it had been a handout from one of my classes. It wasn’t there, so I reached out to grad school friends and professors, none of whom specifically remembered what I was trying to describe (though some said it sounded cool), or could help me find it.

Next, I reached out to the Swiss Army Librarian, an ace reference librarian in Chelmsford, MA. He spent a generous amount of time helping me try to dig up the timeline, consulting print and online materials, but we still haven’t found it. However, we found a number of other cool resources along the way:

  • the Consumer Reports Repair or Replace Timeline - access to the timeline itself requires a subscription to CR, but you may well have access through your local public library, as many libraries purchase subscriptions. (If you happen to live in Arlington, MA, click here.)
  • an article from The Economist by Tim Hindle called “Planned Obsolesence” from March 23, 2009
  • the book Made to Break: technology and obsolescence in America by Giles Slade, which didn’t have the timeline I was thinking of, but it makes interesting reading. (It will probably make you angry.)
  • a very long piece from Adbusters by Micah White called “Consumer Society is Made to Break” from October 20, 2008, which includes a clip of (and link to) a short film called The Story of Stuff, and a reproduction of Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” which contains the following rather incendiary proposal:

“I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”

For those who are now fascinated and/or infuriated by the whole concept planned obsolescence thing: if you research further and find that chart, please let me know!