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.

Upcoming local events

There are two local events coming up that I’m looking forward to; the first is tonight in the Harvard Law School building, where authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser will be discussing their new book, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. Palfrey and Gasser also co-authored Born Digital, and I’ve seen Palfrey speak before on the subject of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA); he is intelligent and articulate.

The second event, at the Brookline Booksmith on June 8, is an author talk of a different sort. Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, will be appearing for her new book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir). As a fan of both blog and book, I am really excited to see her in person. If you haven’t heard of her before, I recommend reading her posts about Copernicus and Beyonce as an introduction.

Massachusetts Library Association Conference

I was lucky to be able to attend MLA today. I heard some great speakers and panels and met some inspiring (and friendly!) people. “The Future of Libraries: The Next Generation,” featuring six panelists who have only been librarians for five years, was excellent, and skillfully moderated by Maureen Sullivan. One of my favorite audience questions to this panel was “What is your hope for your profession that will keep you in it?”

The next panel, “The Future of Library Leadership,” featured participants in the 2011 New England Library Leadership Symposium (NELLS). All had insightful things to say and great examples of their leadership skills in action; all demonstrated the value of close relationships with professional peers. Though many NELLS participants were in management positions, some were not, proving that leadership is not just for managers.

I’ll go into both these panels in more depth in future posts; I’ll also touch on the “Reading Women” talk, Random House Book Buzz, and the closing keynote (Maureen Sullivan, Keith Fiels, and Molly Raphael). More to come!

“I can’t imagine not wanting to learn.”
-Jeremy Shaw-Munderback, “Next Generation” panelist

Real Good for Free

I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts over the past few years about e-readers, e-books, and the resulting tension between publishers and libraries. In the “Sparring Over E-Books” section of her article “Changing Policies on Digital Books Wreak Havoc on Libraries,” Jenny Shank repeats the publishers’ argument about “friction.” Essentially, publishers are fine with libraries lending books to patrons for free, as long as it is slightly more difficult for people to use the library than to buy books in a store or online. However, if it’s just as easy to borrow a book from the library as it is to buy it, then (the argument goes), sales will plummet.

Let’s backtrack to the days before online ordering, when buying a book meant going to a bookstore, and borrowing one meant going to the library. If you got a book from the library, you had to return it, meaning you had to make one extra trip; if you bought the book, you didn’t have to go back to the bookstore until you wanted to. An extra trip is a little extra friction, a little added inconvenience (assuming you aren’t the kind of person who goes to the library every week whether your books are due or not).

With online sales of both e-books and print books, it became much easier to buy books and have them shipped to you; frictionless, one might say (except for the friction of the money leaving your account). Now that libraries are also offering e-books – or at least trying to – some publishers are objecting that there ought to be some inconvenience introduced to the process, that it should be harder to borrow an e-book than to buy one. To these publishers I say: have you ever tried to borrow an e-book from a library? For most systems, “one-click” doesn’t enter into it.

But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend borrowing an e-book from a library is as easy as buying and downloading one from Amazon or Barnes & Noble (or one of the independent bookstores that offers e-books). People have been able to get books from the library for free for years. And has that caused the collapse of the publishing industry? No, it has not. (Remember: libraries buy their books from publishers! Libraries are customers, too. And libraries buy a lot of books.)

One book borrowed does not equal one lost sale. In fact, people who borrow are also people who buy; this is true of music as well as books, as Christopher Harris points out in American Libraries (“Giving Away Music Increases Sales…Just Like For Books”).

The title of this post comes from a Joni Mitchell song. “Real Good for Free” is on the album Miles of Aisles.

Happy birthday, Mom! via Google+

I live in Massachusetts; my brother and mom live in northern and southern California, respectively. And yet, all three of us were able to “hang out” together for Mom’s birthday, thanks to the group video chat that is Google Hangouts. Thank you, technology, for enabling the off-key singing of “Happy Birthday”!

In all seriousness, though, there is much talk about whether technology in general and social media in particular bring people together and foster closeness, or whether, conversely, they increase isolation and only foster shallow ties. I won’t speak about Facebook or Twitter (or Pinterest, or Instagram, or Tumblr, or…), but video chat – through Google Hangouts, Skype, or another service – is truly amazing. When you can’t be face-to-face, it’s the next best thing.