Tag Archives: access

Books in libraries, books in shops

Some folk don’t like the Dewey Decimal system*. It doesn’t work well with the more casual library user, so the argument goes, because the granularity of information it provides isn’t intuitive to people who don’t have that sort of mind-set.

Hence the decision of a public library in Arizona to do away with Dewey and replace it with a broader topic-based cataloguing system, more akin to that of bookshops. And cue debate by bookworms and library types over the rights and wrongs of the decision.**

What this highlights is that we have access to too much information for any single linear cataloguing system to handle sufficiently. Neither Dewey nor  subject sections can handle both topical cross-referencing and precise atomised location of knowledge. for example.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, is another argument in favour of the Google Books project. Once books are detached from their physicality, the inherent problems of finding something on a shelf becomes irrelevant. With a decent search engine, you can locate exactly what you want, or browse more broadly – whichever suits you best.

And despite childish pseudo-protests from publishers who seem to have misunderstood the entire issue, more institutions are opening up to the idea. The Big Ten US universities (which are actually twelve in number, for some reason) will be letting the Google people get their mitts on significant chunks of their library collections, with the intent of creating “a shared digital repository that faculty, students and the public can access quickly.”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the death of the physical book is incredibly close, but it can be seen on the horizon. The problem isn’t dead-tree technology, it’s the distribution mechanism. We’re now very accustomed to getting the information we want as soon as we need it, and libraries cannot always meet those demands.

Nor can bookstores, for various reasons – many of them profit based, which has led to the pseudo-monoculture of big-chain bookstore shelves. It’s a situation that has encouraged the MD of Edinburgh’s Birlinn Press to buy up a series of indie bookstores in an attempt to revive the industry, a quixotic move that (much as I’d love to see it work) doesn’t seem likely to succeed.

The future of books is in digital catalogues and print-on-demand technology. There’ll still be a need for libraries with good stock, and for shops with full shelves to browse. But until libraries and shops can cater to every possible customer’s every possible request – quickly, cheaply and efficiently – they’re going to lose users to services like Amazon and Abe. Sad, perhaps, but also true.

[* Not me – I love Dewey, being a natural born sucker for taxonomic systems. The proprietary nature of it frustrates me, though, and is a major source of its bugs and inability to move with the times … but that’s a whole different rant.]

[** Much of the debate seems to miss the point that the really important function of Dewey is to allow the library staff to quickly locate a book on the customer’s behalf – a task that becomes exponentially harder with loose-category shelving. But that is yet another different rant.]

DRM – what’s dumb for music is dumb for books, too

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, I caught another slice of wisdom from Eric Flint of Baen Books on the subject of piracy (though not the sort with ships and cutlasses, mind) and the genre fiction market:

“You literally can’t penetrate the obscurity of the book market. You’d have to spend every waking moment reading book reviews—and even that wouldn’t suffice, because the book reviewers themselves, all of them put together, can’t keep up with the production of new titles.”


“In short, the book market is just about as opaque as any market there is. I might mention, by the way, that this is not the least of the reasons that the fears of authors that they’ll get “pirated” are almost always just plain silly. With the exception of a tiny percentage of very well-known authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the real problem authors face is that only a very small percentage of their potential customers have even heard of them—so how likely is it that the ravening hordes of electronic pirates are out there plundering their titles?”

And a little further on:

“In the real world, the only authors—or musicians, by the way—who get “pirated” in any significant numbers are ones who are already famous and enjoy top sales. (And all the “piracy” is likely to do, even then, is simply boost their sales. See my next essay for a further discussion.) The great problem faced by all authors—musicians are in a very similar position—is the opacity of the book market. The entertainment market in general, actually, even movies. Compared to that problem, all others are fleas standing next to mammoths.

It is therefore absurd for an author or a publisher to support DRM, when DRM not only makes the market still more opaque, but—worse yet—it removes the best tool any author has today to penetrate that obscurity, at least a little.”

That is, of course, the O’Reilly / Doctorow “piracy as progressive taxation” argument, but here it’s coming from someone who knows the industry of which he speaks from the beancounting end. And the music industry comparison is timely, what with plunging CD sales and corporate panicking making headlines. They’re failing spectacularly; publishing would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Further evidence from O’Reilly, via Doctorow (ZOMFG! H4X! k0nsp1r4cy!), in the form of a case study of sales and download figures for a non-fiction title whose free availability became a Digg headline:

“…what’s most striking (apart from the huge scale mismatch, in terms of the number of people accessing the content through the free online version), is that when the downloads spiked in January of this year from about 8000 a month to nearly 30,000 after the book’s free availability was noted on digg, we didn’t see a correspondingly sharp decline in sales. Of course, neither did we see any evidence that free availability of the book spurred sales. And as noted above, there is a sharp drop at about the time the download data starts that is likely unrelated to the downloads, even though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that downloads had some effect.”

This is of limited relevance here – because popular fiction is a different kettle of fish to obscure geek tomes on the future of telephony, and because this is a case where a free, easy and perfectly legal source for the electronic version was made available. But even so, it’s worth noting that there was no sharp decline in sales.

Of course, the best way to nullify piracy, as Flint and O’Reilly have both said before, is to make the stuff freely available at source. Publishers have been reticent about this, which is probably no surprise – the economics of abundance is a pretty new phenomenon in creative works, after all – but the problems being experienced by the record labels should be sufficient impetus to start planning ahead.

And the options are there – even Google, those filthy copyright-infringing bookscanner types, are holding out a hand to publishers by offering them the chance to have branded portals to the content of theirs that Google makes available:

“Publishers can tailor the index of their search engine so that only books published by them show up in the query results, Google said Friday. As in the main Book Search site, these result pages give users the option to link to online shops that sell the listed books.”

Sure, Google gains from this. They’re not stupid. But publishers stand to gain, too – and while playing King Canute as your business dwindles might be a glorious stand for what you’ve always believed in, it’s ultimately an empty display if you’re in the business of getting good reading material in front of the eyes of readers. Go with the flow; it’s easier to adjust your stroke if you’re not swimming against the tide.

Fan-fic and profit; Google and the public domain

Those who were interested by the conversation between myself and A. R. Yngve on fan-fic may want to take a look at a post on Scalzi’s Whatever that shares some data from an exhaustive trawl through the licence terms of FanLib, a new start-up that has some very bizarre (and potentially exploitative) attitudes to ‘fan-created content’:

“…the company pitches the FanLib fanfic experience to content creators, and in doing so reveals that they don’t actually understand how fan fiction works in the slightest, they’re under the mistaken impression that they’re going to be able to control how stories get written, and that most fanfic writers will be pleased to have their work subsequently hijacked by others.

For example, on page 3 of the .pdf file, in the “Managed and Moderated to the Max” heading, FanLib touts to media folks “a customized environment YOU control,” in which “players must ‘stay within the lines'” with “restrictive terms-of-service,” a “profanity filter” and “full monitoring & management of submissions.” And here’s the kicker: “Completed work is just 1st draft to be polished by the pros.” “

With that sort of situation, I can totally understand (and indeed support) authors being against fan-fic – and I expect the fan-ficcers themselves won’t be too keen either. With the amount of negative attention FanLib has accrued in the last week or so, I can’t see it being a project that gets very far without collapsing into nothingness … or being sued into a radioactive puddle of legalese.


Related to that is the news that Google have responded to accusations that they have set up exclusivity deals with the institutions whose book collections they have scanned by allowing the public to see the contracts they use – now that is transparency.

Cory Doctorow isn’t entirely satisfied, however, and points out that Google are still betting on a different kind of exclusivity – i. e. themselves as the exclusive gateway to material that is meant to be public domain:

“I’m still disappointed that Google puts restrictive notices on their public domain works (these aren’t licenses, just “polite notices”) that tell what you’re not allowed to do with these books. I know they’re worried about their competitors getting ahold of those documents, but that’s the deal with the public domain: it doesn’t belong to you, period, it belongs to all of us. Just because you scan a public domain book, it doesn’t confer the right to control it to you.”

I can’t see Google holding a virtual monopoly on that material forever – if only because some hacktivist type is bound to find a way to scrape the content and set it free. But this does highlight one of the thornier issues around public domain materials, in that the delivery system may not be as free as the material it contains. This particular debate is going to be around for a good few years yet, methinks.