(Note: I've been away of late, mostly working on some of my own projects. But I thought it might be of interest if I shared a few articles that relate to some of what I'm getting involved with these days. )
We are all feeling varying degrees of pain over the current state of the book. And the insanity (something never found in short supply) continues to roll, with endless arguments and counterarguments between advocates of open access, and the entrenched business and political elements within the publishing industry.
Fortunately there's some constructive and intelligent voices attempting to get the attention of any who are willing to listen. The following three articles are well worth your time if you're a reader.
The first two are by designer and publisher Nick Disabato. Nick offers an analysis and set of recommendations for how a more intelligent and forward-looking approach to publishing standards offers hope we may eventually work our way out of the problems e-books have caused for all parties concerned.
Publication Standards Part 1: The Fragmented Present
by Nick Disabato
ebooks are a new frontier, but they look a lot like the old web frontier, with HTML, CSS, and XML underpinning the main ebook standard, ePub. Yet there are key distinctions between ebook publishing’s current problems and what the web standards movement faced. The web was founded without an intent to disrupt any particular industry; it had no precedent, no analogy. E-reading antagonizes a large, powerful industry that’s scared of what this new way of reading brings—and they’re either actively fighting open standards or simply ignoring them. In part one of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato examines the explosion in reading, explores how content is freeing itself from context, and mines the broken ebook landscape in search of business logic and a way out of the present mess.
Publication Standards Part 2: A Standard Future
by Nick Disabato
The internet is disrupting many content-focused industries, and the publishing landscape is beginning its own transformation in response. Tools haven’t yet been developed to properly, semantically export long-form writing. Most books are encumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM), a piracy-encouraging practice long since abandoned by the music industry. In the second article of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato discusses the ramifications of these practices for various publishers and proposes a way forward, so we can all continue sharing information openly, in a way that benefits publishers, writers, and readers alike.
The third article
comes to us from New Zeland and is by O'Reilly author and business advisor Nathan Torkington. Nat was invited to address "the National and State Librarians of Australasia on the eve of their strategic planning meeting." While there, he made this
cautionary address that (IMHO) hit all the key points about why so many public library systems are facing the dilemma they currently are, along with some recommendations about how to address it.Note: this address is also available as a PDF download. See the full article for links. If you love your local library: Download it. Read it. Pass it around. Discuss it.
Libraries: Where It All Went Wrong
by Nathan Torkington
It was my pleasure to address the National and State Librarians of Australasia on the eve of their strategic planning meeting in Auckland at the start of November this year. I have been involved in libraries for a few years now, and am always humbled by the expertise, hard work, and dedication that librarians of all stripes have. Yet it’s no revelation that libraries aren’t the great sources of knowledge and information on the web that they were in the pre-Internet days. I wanted to push on that and challenge the National and State librarians to think better about the Internet.
I prefaced my talk by saying that none of this is original, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I merely wanted to bring the different strands together in a way that showed them how to think about the opportunities afforded to libraries for the digital age.
Bill Gates and Microsoft were caught flat-footed by the take-up of the Internet. They had built an incredibly profitable and strong company which treated computers as disconnected islands: Microsoft software ran on the computers, but didn’t help connect them. Gates and Microsoft soon realized the Internet was here to stay and rushed to fix Windows to deal with it, but they never made up for that initial wrong-footing.
At least part of the reason for this was because they had this fantastic cash cow in Windows, the island software. They were victims of what Clayton Christenson calls the Innovator’s Dilemma: they couldn’t think past their own successes to build the next big thing, the thing that’d eat their lunch. They still haven’t got there: Bing, their rival to Google, has eaten $5.5B since 2009 and it isn’t profitable yet.
I’m telling you this because libraries are like Microsoft.
At one point you had a critical role: you were one of the few places to conduct research. When academics and the public needed to do research into the documentary record, they’d come to you. As you now know, that monopoly has been broken.
The Internet, led by Google, is the start and end of most people’s research. It’s good enough to meet their needs, which is great news for the casual researcher but bad news for you.
Now they don’t think of you at all.
Oh yes, I know all the reasons why the web and Google are no replacement for a healthy research library. I know the critical importance of documentary heritage. But it’s not me you’re talking to at budget time. It’s the public, through the politicians.
They love public libraries, in our country at least. Every time a council tries to institute borrowing fees or close libraries, they get shot down. But someone tries, at least once a year. And England is a cautionary tale that even public libraries aren’t safe.
You need to be useful as well as important. Being useful helps you to be important. You need a story they can understand about why you’re funded.
Oh, I know, you have thought about digital a lot. You’ve got digitisation projects. You’re aggregating metadata. You’re offering AnyQuestions-type services where people can email a librarian.
But these are bolt-ons. You’ve added digital after the fact. You probably have special digital groups, probably (hopefully) made up of younger people than the usual library employee.
Congratulations, you just reproduced Microsoft’s strategy: let’s build a few digital bolt-ons for our existing products. Then let’s have some advance R&D guys working on the future while the rest of us get on with it. But think about that for a second. What are the rest of us working on, if those young kids are working on the future? Ah, it must be the past.
So what you’ve effectively done is double-down on the past.
Then when someone asks “why do we tip all these millions into this?” or “doesn’t Google do that already?”, your relevance is your answer.
You must do this. Libraries are the homes of critical thought, of long-term cultural preservation, and of democratic access to knowledge. This can’t end with the Internet.
Food for thought. And taking action.