“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.


Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

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)

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?


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).



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.)



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).

Cory Doctorow at the Harvard Bookstore (or, Cory Doctorow gave me a high five!)

20130304_twitter_repliesThe first thing I noticed, looking around at the other audience members before the event began, was that there were more men in the audience than women. If you have ever book to an author event before, you’ll realize this is unusual. But of course, Cory Doctorow isn’t just an author; he’s also an activist, the co-editor of Boing Boingand an all-around nerd hero (see xkcd comics featuring him here and here). Plus, the Harvard Bookstore is a stone’s throw from Harvard and just two stops from MIT on the red line.

Doctorow started off by complimenting the Harvard Bookstore as “one of the most awesome-sauce dispensaries in the northeast,” and saying that he wasn’t actually going to read from his new book, Homeland; there was an audio clip of him reading online (Internet Archive), and there were other things to talk about.

homeland_doctorowFirst, he outlined the case of Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District (PA), wherein the school equipped its students’ laptops with spyware and took pictures of the students in their rooms at home, unbeknownst to students or their parents. The school denied wrongdoing.

Next, Doctorow talked about the German Chaos Computer Club’s (CCC) discovery and cracking of government spyware, which was not only illegal but also, apparently, dangerously easy to hack.

Then there was the case of spyware on rent-to-own laptops. Allegedly, the spyware was installed in order to prevent theft – one of the same reasons there was spyware on the students’ laptops in Lower Merion – but of course it was used more nefariously than that.

Next, Doctorow moved on to those long, impenetrable Terms of Service we all sign, which he called “weird” and “totally objectionable.” Signing a contract with an employer is one thing, he said, but since when have consumers signed contracts with manufacturers?

Now, of course, it’s almost impossible not to. Do you use facebook? iTunes? Online banking? Twitter or Tumblr? Then you might have a vague memory of scrolling through a vast amount of fine print to get to that “I Agree” button so that you can use the service in question. (Ed Bayley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation proposes that the buttons should read “I Agree” and “I Have No Idea What This Says.” Read the white paper, “The Clicks That Bind.”)

We might all skim and disregard the Terms of Service or Terms & Conditions, but under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), breaking ToS/T&C “isn’t a little illegal, it’s a lot illegal” (Doctorow’s words, not the legislation).

The scary part is that even though most people don’t read before agreeing, it’s still a legally binding document (though there is some question about the enforceability), and breaking the agreement is a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). After Aaron Swartz’s suicide, two years after being charged under the CFAA, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced “Aaron’s Law,” which would amend it.

Doctorow then segued into speaking about the late Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and activist; Aaron was involved with the development of RSS, the Creative Commons, and reddit (he also wrote an afterword for Homeland). By now, most will be familiar with the JSTOR debacle, but before that, Aaron was involved with an attempt to liberate U.S. legal documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database. For a relatively short overview of that case, see the New York Times article from February 2009; for more in-depth (and fascinating) explanations, check out Steve Schultze’s article (February 2011) and Tim Lee’s piece on Ars Technica (February 2013).

Lee points out, “The documents in PACER—motions, legal briefs, scheduling orders, and the like—are public records. Most of these documents are free of copyright restrictions, yet the courts charge hefty fees for access” (reminiscent of the way that government (i.e. taxpayer)-funded science research ends up behind paywalls). What Aaron did was help Schultze with the code to download a high volume of documents from PACER during a free trial; with those documents, RECAP (“turning PACER around”) was born. RECAP is still going strong.

Aaron was also involved in leading a grassroots campaign to fight the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill was defeated when, as Doctorow put it, “Congress realized that as hard as it is to get reelected without campaign finance, it is really hard to get reelected without votes.”

Finally, there was the JSTOR case. JSTOR is a database that contains a tremendous volume of research, much of which was funded directly or indirectly by the federal government. However, this research resides behind a paywall. Aaron had access through MIT, and downloaded a vast quantity of articles. The government cracked down, with federal agents charging Aaron under the CFAA. Two years later, facing jail (“You’re gonna put me in jail for 35 years for checking too many books out of the library?”), and seeing no other way out, Aaron committed suicide.

Doctorow emphasized the importance Aaron’s cause: that people have the right to access information, whether or not they happen to be affiliated with an institution of higher education. “We never know where the next great thing is going to come from,” he said. “This isn’t GOING to be a matter of life and death, it IS a matter of life and death….This is the beginning of the future.”

Doctorow referred to computers and the internet as “the nervous system of our world. The world is made of computers…We put our bodies in computers [e.g. cars]…we put computers in our bodies [e.g. headphones, medical equipment]….We’ve gotta get this right….And it matters. It matters a lot.” He is concerned, to say the least, about regulating this technology and making sure it is secure. (A recent article about NASA highlights the danger of collecting personal data and failing to protect is closely.) Doctorow said, “I’m not interested in how something succeeds, I’m interested in how it fails.” His sincere and urgent concern doesn’t prevent him from using colorful, humorous language to make his case: “We regulate them like…a fax machine attached to a waffle iron.”

It can all seem like an overwhelming problem, too large to tackle, too impossible to change. But the campaigns against SOPA (and PIPA) were powerful; they proved that people do care about their rights, and about the worst case scenario consequences un-thought-out legislation can have on the internet and other technology. There has been an outpouring of support for Aaron’s cause since his suicide (he also had strong supporters before his death). The open access (OA) movement is gaining power in higher education, especially as journal prices continue to skyrocket and become unaffordable for even the Harvard Libraries. And awareness is growing as consumers begin to wonder who really owns the content they produce (on facebook, twitter, etc.) and the digital products they buy (or are they really only licensing?). One thing you can do, Doctorow said, is “refuse to use technology that takes away your freedom.”

littlebrotherOther gems from the evening:

“Information doesn’t want to be free. If anything it wants us to stop anthropomorphizing it.

Referring to smartphones: “A police tracking device that happens to make phone calls.”

“Don’t talk to cops without a lawyer present.”

After the energetic and inspiring talk, Doctorow stayed around to sign books. I hadn’t read Homeland yet, but I read its prequel, Little Brother, and I told him that I’d recommended it to many people in my capacity as a librarian…at which point he gave me a high five.

The science of working together

At the launch event for Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, the authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser gave an overview of interop and provided several relevant examples. Though they began years ago on a theoretical level (does increased interop lead to increased innovation?), interop is a deeply practical topic.

“Interop” here is short for interoperability, defined as “the ability to transfer or render useful data and other information across systems (including organizations), applications, or components.” The authors decided that this initial definition, however, could be broadened into “the science of working together” on many layers: institutional, human, data, and technological.

Though it may sound abstract, there are many good examples of how interoperability is important in daily life. Solutions to big societal problems depend on interop, said Palfrey and Gasser. They talked first about “smart cities,” which depend on sharing information: between police, firefighters, and ambulances, for example, and between various forms of transit (does your bus pass also work for the subway and the commuter rail systems?).

Next they talked about open platforms, such as Facebook, which made its API available so that anyone could build an app. However, this interconnectedness has a down side: many points of connection means more vulnerability to privacy and security breaches. (This is also true of credit cards – another example of interop – which are vulnerable to identity theft.)

Facebook is an example from the private sector, but the public sector can drive interop as well, by regulation and legislation, as Europe has done for standardized cell phone chargers.

Naturally, one of the areas in which I am most interested is that of libraries. Libraries, said Palfrey, are facing two large interop problems: preservation of knowledge over time, and the lack of an open standard for e-lending.

The first issue has to do with reformatting; over the past decade or two, data has been stored not just in print, but in a whole variety of other ways, including floppy disks, microfilm, microfiche, CDs, and on computers in a variety of formats, some of which are no longer readable because the software necessary is no longer in use. Libraries must be vigilant to make sure that the information they have is preserved in an accessible form.

The second problem is one that has been in the news more or less constantly for a few years: there is no open standard for e-lending. Instead, there are a lot of proprietary formats that are not interoperable at all (e.g. you can’t read a kindle book on a nook device). “This is crazy,” Palfrey said. “Why is this [print book] still better technology?”

I hope and trust that, in the next few years, an open standard for e-lending will develop. In an ideal world, both libraries and individuals would be able to buy and lend any e-book, which could be read on any device.

Fingers crossed.

Hand over your password? Er…no.

Every week I get an e-mail from LinkedIn with the top five articles of the week. Usually these are along the lines of “what makes a remarkable boss,” “how to be a great employee,” “what interview mistake are you making?” etc. But this week there was a link to an article called “Job seekers getting asked for Facebook passwords,” and yes, this is exactly what it sounds like.

If you, like any smart person, have your Facebook or other social media site settings set to “private” so that only the people you want to see your profile and other information can see it, it turns out you may be asked in an interview to hand over your login and password. To me, this is an outrageous violation of privacy and an unreasonable request – it is simply over the line. (More reasonable requests that potential employers might make include asking you to “friend” someone in Human Resources. Or, if you have your profile set to “public,” you can safely assume they’ve looked at it before they called you in for the interview.)

What legal recourse do you have to say no? Is this like the Fourth Amendment where they have to establish probable cause? On the other hand, if you refuse, that job opportunity might be lost to you, and in this economy, who can afford that? Well, giving anyone else your login information is a violation of the Facebook terms of service, but right now that’s the only obstacle in these invasive employers’ way. The ACLU has protested the practice, and some states – Maryland and Illinois – are working on legislation to forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks, but private companies could continue it.

This touches on a larger issue. I was horrified to read about this practice, and even in an interview situation where I really wanted or needed the job, I think I would say no if asked for my password to Facebook (let alone e-mail!). It’s not that I have anything to hide, but rather the principle of personal privacy that’s at stake.

The whole idea of privacy may be eroding; it seems to be less important to “Millennials”  (just Google “Millennials + privacy” – some articles about how savvy they are at protecting it, others about how their views on it are simply different from traditional views of personal privacy). From personal observation, it seems that teenagers and those in their early 20s are less protective of their personal information – and with so much of it available online, it might seem like a hopeless effort to keep any information private.

However, for a potential employer to ask you for personal information that you have deemed private seems beyond the pale. (It may also allow them to find answers to questions they are not legally allowed to ask in interviews, such as your age, marital status, or religion.) They already have your resume, your cover letter, your application, as well as whatever they have gleaned from what is publicly available online; they can contact your references and ask you questions in an interview; they can even give you a drug test (with your consent). Is it really necessary to hand over your passwords as well? I think not.