Blogs and the post-paper library

17 January 2012

My title this week is a little provocative. I’m unconvinced of the imminent, or even eventual, complete death of all ‘dead tree’ publishing. Much, however, will move to electronic and just as we in wealthy nations say we live in a ‘post industrial’ economy even though there is plenty of industry happening in our countries, so too we will soon enough move to a ‘post paper’ publishing norm.

I find myself reading and talking a lot about ebooks lately. Librarians have been struggling to work out how to move from a system based on lending and storing physical information items (books, magazines, compact discs etc) to one based on lending electronic files (ebooks, audiobooks, music, video). The biggest problem we face is that treating an electronic file the same as a physical item is inherently nonsensical.

A cup of ocean

As I have noted previously, the physics of electronic files and modern computing means that every time you move a file you make a copy, and every copy is a perfect copy. If you can make hundreds, thousands or millions of perfect copies for a marginal cost of zero, then lending someone a copy doesn’t make any sense. It’s rather like sitting in a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and offering to lend someone a cup of sea water.

This is an ‘inconvenient truth’ for authors, the publishing industry and particularly copyright lawyers. When making a copy is as easy as clicking a mouse, and distributing something electronically without making a copy is physically impossible, any system for encouraging creativity and the dissemination of ideas which is based on restricting copying is ....well, let’s be polite and say it’s unsustainable.

What does this mean for libraries? At the moment, it means a big fight with publishers. Publishers recognise that treating electronic files as if they are physical items is ridiculous, but they also recognise that it is the only way they can maintain the status quo in publishing and, for many of them, it may be the only way they can stay in business at all. The biggest fear for publishers is that because ebooks are so easy to copy and distribute, essentially for no cost, if they allow anyone except key partners like Amazon and Apple to distribute their books then they will soon find themselves bankrupt. As Fast Company reported recently, even using Amazon itself is enough of a problem. Publishers have been extremely reluctant to allow libraries to do anything with ebooks other than treat them just like physical books, with virtually none of the advantages of ebooks being allowed. The demands of publishers are ridiculous. The problem is that they are also highly rational.

Red herrings

Is this all just a distraction from our real mission? I’m beginning to think so. Confused by the past necessity to store and organise physical paper objects, and fearful of being ‘left behind’, librarians have allowed ourselves to become distracted. We should forget about storage and lending for a few moments, and think about what it means to freed from their grasp.

When people talk about what they love about libraries or why they value them, they are almost never talking about the ability to search and retrieve information. The slippery slope we are now upon began when librarians misconceived their role as search and retrieval experts and then freaked out when Google arrived. We were never particularly good at search and retrieval. I recall going to the State Library of Victoria a few years ago and requesting a particular government report from several decades earlier. The State Library of Victoria is a closed stack reference library, so I didn’t question whether the report would be where the catalogue said it would be. Alas, the staff couldn’t find either of their two copies. If the SLV can’t perfect it, what chance does your library have?

What libraries really excel at, and what has always excited people about them, is their browse and discovery service. This is what librarians should be concentrating on in new, exciting and uncertain times. It is the ability to discover and make connections between information and ideas that lies at the heart of public libraries. This is where the value really lies - and it doesn’t require you to even necessarily have a collection. What it does require is more than just a computer and a search engine. Google might be able to organise the world’s information, but we still need librarians to help us make connections between the various things we are reading, watching, noticing and saying.

Missing the blogs for the ebooks

A good illustration of how past practice is blinkering librarians is the way we consider blogs as part of the library’s collection of resources. Generally speaking, we don’t. But why? Why are we so obsessed with post-paper idea packages in the form of ‘ebooks’, yet we ignore post-paper idea packages in the form of ‘blogs’? Whilst we wrestle with magazine subscription agencies and journal database vendors to work out ways to make their content available to our patrons, we ignore what’s under our noses and available for free. A blog is often no different to a journal - you can even search the ‘back issues’.

In 2010 Pew research released a paper, widely reported, that claimed the rise of Facebook means blogging is over. Far from ending, however, the Age of the Blog may well just be starting. Just last month The Economist ran an article about how Economics blogs have influenced the actions and discussions of central bankers, professors and economists, and will continue to do so. Economics blogs are taking on the role formerly played by journals - but with a wider range of views available, and much faster publication time.

What we’re really seeing here is not the beginning of the end for blogs, but rather a slow change in focus. Whilst ‘personal’ blogs were originally prevalent, the serious, considered (and longer) posts are now becoming more popular. As these resources grow, librarians need to be alert to opportunities to make their patrons aware of the riches available. Simply Googling some keywords won’t necessarily find you the blog, or the collection of blogs, that you are looking for. More importantly, you might be looking for a journal or book, not realising that what you want is actually located in a series of blogs.

The paperless book, the paperless journal

The genius of the blog as an invention, and its likely longevity, is borne out by the fact that some people are currently trying to re-invent it.

Todd Sattersten is busily experimenting with Every book is a startup. This project is supposed to be an attempt to find a new publishing model in the electronic age. Sattersen explains in a post at World Media Trend.

The project is meant to poke at the boundaries of traditional publishing. The book was created around the idea that new material will be released over time, culminating in a finished work early in 2012. Readers are encouraged to constantly give feedback about the material.

New material released over time, with readers encouraged to give constant feedback. Sound familiar?

Elsewhere, the focus has been not on books, but rather on scientific journals. The great discussion in scholarly publishing at the moment is around ‘open access’ publishing and how science can be rescued from the Bizarro-World of commercial scientific journals, where scientists pay the journal to be published, then provide their services for free to review other articles, before paying a hefty fee to access the articles after publication.

Once you start to question the model, however, inevitable questions arise, like why some journals are still published in physical form only, why it all takes so long, and even whether articles need to be published together with others in a regular journal edition when they could be posted online as they become ready for publication/sharing.

Some have provided long explanations of what is wrong and what scientists are looking for, some have explained why scholarly publishing doesn’t work any more and how Google doesn’t really help, and some have suggested new tools like Twitter may be the solution. There are even academic papers written about it. All complain about how long it takes for articles to be published, retracted and amended. I would suggest that what these authors are looking for is simply a robust online publication environment, and a bunch of good librarians to help them make connections and find new information. What they’re really wanting is peer-reviewed blog posts, but they’re trying to complicate matters.

These are simple examples of what librarians could do in a post-paper word - there are plenty more. In ignoring the rich information world of blogging, librarians miss an opportunity to provide guidance, connections and new ways of seeing.

Interactive curation

The future for public libraries is not collection but curation of information sources - not in the simplistic manner of a account, but in a robust and personalised way. When our members ask for recommendations or assistance we should be able and willing to direct them to a range of publications from physical books and traditional journals to whole blogs, individual posts and even perhaps Twitter accounts and the like. Just because ‘its all online’ doesn’t mean people won’t need help to find it or know about it. The need to organise information in a meaningful way doesn’t diminish in a post-paper environment, and neither does the desire to discover new ideas. Curation and assisted discovery will take new forms as we bring together speakers, hands-on learning, online information and interactive storytelling. Librarians who ignore these opportunities are unlikely to have a future. Those who embrace them now should expect an exciting one.

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