Tag Archives: library

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.]

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.

Friday Photo Blogging – the Royal Naval Museum Library

Yes, FPB is back after a two-week hiatus, wh00t! Thanks to those of you who emailed about its absence last week – I’m flattered by your interest in my personal ramblings, but I’d suggest that you may need to get out more. I can recommend Second Life as an alternative, if leaving the house is unappealing – I know how you feel sometimes.

So, here’s what I’m surrounded by in my new workplace:


There are original documents and manuscripts going back over two centuries. I’ve only been here a month, and I’m already developing a genuine interest in British Naval history. It’s hard not to, really – once you start to look at it, the history of the Royal Navy is almost impossible to separate from the history of Britain itself, not to mention the modern world. Although I can’t see myself abandoning science fiction for the C. S. Forester novels just yet …


I’ve already been roundly mocked for my abortive efforts at chronicling Eastercon, for which I offer little in the way of apology – I was far too busy hanging out, talking science fiction and generally having a high old time of it. A lesson learned – cons are too full of stuff to do to seriously contemplate getting a decent amount of work done. They’re also good places to pick up new novelty illnesses, as both I and my good buddy Shaun discovered – that’s one of the reasons there was no FPB last week.


Cons are also great for encouraging you to part with your hard-earned cash for desirable books. I’ll not list everything I bought, but the two highlights (and high price tags) were John Clute’s Scores and Parietal Games, a collection of criticism by (and of) M. John Harrison. Heavy stuff, but well worth it – to be consumed in small doses, like a fine brandy or somesuch.

Incoming reading material is in no short supply at the moment. My place on the Orbit mailing list seems to have kicked in, which has resulted in a number of packages arriving at varying times of the morning over the last few weeks. A lot of it has been, to be fair, not really the sort of thing I’m interested in (teen vampire romances and fantasy doorstops), but this morning’s shipment included Marianne de Pierres’ Dark Space, which looks like it might be pretty good. I’ve still not read anything by her yet, so that may be a good place to start.

Stuff has also winged its way across the Atlantic from the good folk at SF Site, despite being mangled by the Canadian postal system, and I now have a copy of the Night Shade Books’ Best SF and Fantasy of the Year anthology to attack when time permits. Given the fact that I’ve not finished the stuff they sent me last month, it may take a week or so for me to get to that …

Furthermore, the evil overlords of the new Scalpel Magazine have sent me Chris Roberson’s Set the Seas on Fire. I quite liked Paragaea, and I’ll be interested to see what Roberson does with his characters in a different setting.

Added to all the above, I’m also receiving an average of seven CDs a fortnight, along with all the usual things – so my postman loves me to bits. I can tell – he keeps waking me up before seven so he can see me wearing the oh-so-fetching towel-and-scowl combo …


Well, there you have it. You may notice I’ve not mentioned much besides books – that’s because, with the exception of a couple of great gigs over the last few weeks, I’ve not been doing very much else except try to shake off the con plague (plus some lingering psychological baggage). Of course, I have been adventuring in Second Life, but as you’ve been paying attention you already knew that, right?

So. It’s Friday. It’s still quite sunny (although a brisk chilly wind from the southeast indicates that may not be the prevailing situation in a day or two). My day-job graft for the week is done, so it is time to obey the callings of powers far mightier and and more imperative than those of mortal man.

In other words, time for The Friday Curry. Have a good weekend, folks.

UK libraries update

Remember my despairing posts about the decline of UK libraries? Thanks to Tim Coates, a man who has campaigned against the decay of the service to the point of losing his livelihood and home due to being blackballed by the industry, here are some figures that illustrate the number of books that UK libraries have loaned out, compared with the amount of money spent on the services, and the percentage of that amount spent on books over the last decade: Continue reading UK libraries update