Category Archives: Library Issues

Amazon, Zappos, and Libraries

So yesterday brought the news that Amazon acquired Zappos. For those not familiar, Zappos is a company that sells shoes (primarily, although they now sell other things) and is known for its nearly insane customer service. Seriously, they will do just about anything they can to make sure you’re happy, and are responsible for crazy customer service stories. This story about Zappos sending a woman flowers is maybe my favorite customer service story of all time. My other favorite thing about them is their “Pay new employee to quit” program.

As a result of the acquisition, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released this youtube video

Take a minute, and watch the video…it’s worth it.

So Jeff explains a bit about the deal, and why Zappos and Amazon are a good match. According to Jeff, he only knows these things:

  • Obsess over customers
  • Invent
  • Think Long Term
  • It’s Always Day 1

Why do I mention this on what is ostensibly a blog about library science stuff? Because I feel strongly that our future isn’t in content, really…it’s in services. No one does service better than Zappos. If we take Zappos customer service strategy (do anything to make the customer happy) and the four things that Jeff Bezos knows about running a company, how could we change libraries for the better? What can we do to be the Zappos of information?

Proactive reference

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about something I’m calling “proactive reference.” The way I’m thinking about it, proactive reference is the monitoring of the real-time web (Twitter, Friendfeed, Seesmic, etc) by librarians who answer questions relating to their area or specialty, whether subject or geographically based. Public librarians who answer questions by searching for mentions of their city, county, or library, and Academic libraries who monitor for mentions of their university are two examples, but are many more possibilities.

I’m doing a bit of it now, just to see how effective it is at marketing the library’s services and such. Is anyone else out there actively monitoring these communication channels right now? My instinct is that this is going to be a HUGE market in a very short time, and that libraries should dive in fast and get used to it.

Copyright Clearance Center = FAIL

Sometimes, it’s just nice to laugh at industries that are desperately attempting to hang on to their relevancy in a changing world. Exhibit A for today is the Copyright Clearance Center, and their interesting attempt to educate users about copyright via their Copyright Basics video. Let’s examine the ways in which CCC fails at modern web usage.

First: here’s the opening screen of the video


I think that’s enough said, yes? Among the nearly-unreadable text is the prohibition to “distribute copies of the Program to persons outside your company, or post copies of the Program on any public website (including any video sharing or social networking site).”  Yep, that’s the CCC…all about education. Wouldn’t want those non-paying people to easily get your content that explains why they should pay for your content. 

Second: To get a copy of the video to use internally, on a non-public server that is limited to only your employees, you have to fill out a form on this page. Or, you know, just look at the page source:


Where the FLV file is handily linked for anyone who might want to use it. 

If ever there was a direct example of how the modern web breaks copyright, the CCC just gave it to us. The answer, of course, isn’t to ignore the de facto standards for the distribution of video on the web, to limit the ability to share and distribute content, and to generally treat people who want to use your content like criminals. The way to make yourself valuable and heard is to share what you make as widely as you possibly can…something that the CCC can’t bring itself to do.  It’s really hard to participate in the modern conversation when your very business model is tied to archaic and irrelevant legalese.

Ebooks, copyright, and the University of Virginia

I’m in the middle of writing a book about Mobile Technologies and Libraries, and am researching libraries providing mobile-specific services of all sorts. I came across the University of Virginia’s Ebook Library, and decided to take a look at what they are offering. It’s a very old ebook collection, with the original Etext division starting in 1992. Here’s the part that made me scratch my head…it’s in their Access and Conditions of Use:

While many of these items are made publicly-accessible, they are not all public domain — the vast majority of the images, and a number of the texts, including all of those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library, for example, and a number of other texts are still copyrighted to their original print publishers and made available here with permission.

I have no qualms with the texts that are copyrighted by their original publishers, and that UVA got permission to use. My eyebrows raise at the bit about “including all those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library…”


I had my suspicions here…it’s not like the UVA Special Collections Department are writing books, right? After look around, I found this text: Po’ Sandy by Charles W. Chestnutt. Published in 1888 in the Atlantic Monthly in New York, it is clearly in the public domain in the United States. But there it is, in the front matter:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

Looking around just a bit, it looks like this shows up on all sorts of texts that UVA digitized. My favorite is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, completed in 1788 by Franklin but the particular version republished by UVA was published in 1909 by P. F. Collier & Son Company in New York. Also, without any doubt, in the Public Domain in the US. It also has the note:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

What gives UVA the right to claim copyright on these texts? They couldn’t have legally digitized them if they weren’t in the Public Domain at the time of their digitization, and changing the form of something doesn’t give you the right to claim a copyright, especially on the bits that make the work up. Even stranger, they aren’t just claiming copyright, but including a EULA!

By their use of these ebooks, texts and images, users agree to follow these conditions of use:

  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be used for any commercial purpose without permission from the Electronic Text Center.
  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be re-published in print or electronic form without permission from the Electronic Text Center. However, educators are welcome to print out items and hand them to their students.
  • Users are not permitted to download our ebooks, texts, and images in order to mount them on their own servers for public use or for use by a set of subscribers. Individuals and institutions can, of course, make a link to the copies at UVa, subject to our conditions of use.

Really? Is UVA asserting rights here that they just do not have? Not permitted to republish? Only if there is a copyright concern…which I think that UVA is asserting incorrectly here. It’s possible that there is some piece of copyright law that they are leaning on for these claims, but on the face of it, this seems like over reaching. Can anyone explain to me how they could possible have legitimate copyright claims on things that they didn’t create and are beyond the time limit for copyright protection in the US?

LITA Election Endorsements

I would like to offer my personal endorsement of the following candidates for LITA offices for this election cycle:

Aaron Dobbs and Maurice York for Councilors at Large. Both Aaron and Maurice have worked behind the scenes for years to improve the way that LITA does things, and I think having them on the Board will help move LITA forward. I know both of them well, and have worked with both at a national level with LITA, and would be thrilled to see them as members of the Board.

I would also like to endorse Karen Starr for Vice-President. Her personal statement says “The innovators and leaders of tomorrow are the LITA members of today. It is refreshing to work with a dynamic group on the national level who care, who want to define that future and who come together to work on what the big picture should look like.” I believe that the time has come to define our future.

Please remember to vote, and I hope that you take my recommendation to the polls!

This endorsement represents my personal opinion and is in no way reflective of any committee, interest group, or other unit of LITA or ALA.

Movers & Shakers 2009

I am overjoyed to be included in the Library Journal 2009 list of Movers & Shakers. More important than being on the list, for me, is the incredible set of other people that are on the list. To be included in any list, anywhere, with:

  • Sarah Houghton-Jan
  • Chad Boeninger
  • Michael Porter
  • Lauren Pressley
  • Pam Sessoms
  • Jaap Van De Geer
  • Geert Van Den Boogaard
  • Erik Boekesteijn
  • Jenica Rogers-Urbanek
  • Dorothea Salo
  • and, of course, Karen Coombs

Wow. I am thrilled and a bit overwhelmed. I’m desperately looking forward to reading up on those people on the list that I don’t know…

I have one bit of a correction: in the article, it says “Their commitment to sharing information about cutting-edge technology led to LITA BIGWIG.” That’s not actually true, unless they left out the word “them” between “led” and “to.” BIGWIG is the original brain-child of Karen Schneider and Clara Ruttenberg. They decided that it was time for LITA to focus on blogs and wikis as a part of the organizational structure back in 2005 or so, and BIGWIG was instantiated under their oversight. It was, however, Karen, Michelle, and myself that moved it into the sort of tech breeding ground that it has become. The next overseers will, hopefully change it as appropriate for the times and needs of the organization.

In any case: I am thrilled, and thanks to anyone and everyone who recommended me for this honor. Now to cross my fingers for that Shovers & Makers award…

Inherit the Wind

There has been a conflation of blog posts and news stories that have really set my brain on fire this week, starting with an amazing post and comment discussion over at Walking Paper by Aaron Schmidt.  Then there was a quick email conversation with Michael Porter about the future of libraries if we don’t get ahead of the digital content curve and fast. On top of all that, someone pointed me to the  amazing “future of education” slideshow that I linked to yesterday by Dr. David Wiley. And now David Lee King puts together this amazing post about The New Normal, which links out to yet more stories about how the Music Industry and other once-solvent American institutions are undergoing change so radical as to make what comes out the other side almost unrecognizable.

In the midst of all this, at MPOW we are building a new library. So I’m thinking a LOT about several different time horizons. How do I plan for the realities of opening a new library in 2-3 years, but still allow for what I see as the likely outcomes for collections, services, and such in 5, or 10, or 20 years? This is a non-trivial problem…while no one can really tell whats coming, we have to remember that we are creating the future every day.

I agree with David on most of his points, but some of it bears repeating. Here are the sort of “talking points” that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the last month or so.

  • It isn’t likely that any major national newspaper will still be in print in 5 years.
  • Magazines will almost certainly follow…their collapse may be more slow motion because they have a different advertising base, but it will come.
  • Hardcover books are next to go. They are, in effect, just publicity engines.
  • After that, I’m betting that the slowly-dwindling dead-tree printing that is done becomes, essentially, a beskpoke process where there are paper-fetishists who purchase “books” for their sensory natures. But 99.9% of publications will be digital.

In addition to this 5-10 year spiral, we have the parallel procedures of the major content providers hoping to rent the future to us digitally. Ebook models have been unilaterally horrific, insisting on DRM that only punishes the hopeful consumers of the printed word. Digital video and audio on a consumer level are starting to come around, with the iTunes store being the last major consumer provider of digital audio to go DRM free. Consumer video is slowly moving from a subscription-subsidized with advertising model like cable to a free-streaming, a la carte, advertising based model like Hulu, but even there content creators are still fighting the inevitable by insisting that only they get to decide where media can live.

Content providers have insisted on holding tight to a model of selling their wares where content is scarce, connections are hard, and communication is expensive. We live in a world, however, where content is ubiquitous, connections are trivial, and communication is essentially free. These two worlds cannot coexist, and library vendors from Overdrive to OCLC must change their models. If they don’t, they will die as certainly as newspapers, magazines, the recording industry, television, and printed books.

Where does all of this leave the library? As the analog dies and the digital rises, unless we get in front of the content providers and claim our place at the digital table, we run the risk of being increasingly marginalized. There are places for us in this new world, but we need to make them, to carve them from the bytes. Stewart Brand’s comment that “information wants to be free” has never been more true, but just because it wants to be free doesn’t mean it doesn’t need caretakers.

The title of this post is inspired by a quote from Eric Hoffer, who said: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” In this brave new world, libraries and librarians must be learners. If not, we run the risk of inheriting not the information-rich digital world of the future, but the wind.

Philosophy of Librarianship 2009

As a part of the reappointment process at UTC, we’re required to be reviewed yearly by the Reappointment and Tenure Committee to ensure that we’re on the path to Tenure. One of the pieces of paperwork that they ask for is a Philosophy of Librarianship statement. I’m not sure how common this is with other academic institutions, but I thought that if anyone was wondering what something like this looked like, well, here’s mine.

Philosophy of Librarianship 2009

ALA and YouTube followup

My post from last week on the ALA presidential debates and YouTube seems to have struck a cord with some librarians, and I’m somewhat pleased with the results. At the same time, I definitely am guilty of what Karen Schneider says: “…he spent too long explaining how ALA isn’t “getting it” and not enough time talking about what’s right about this project.” This is completely the case. I did pick on the details of the announcement, without clearly saying “BRAVO!” to the ALA and more specifically (again, as Karen pointed out) to the Jim Rettig presidential task force that is continuing to do good things for the ALA. I do think that this is absolutely where the ALA needs to be going. But just because they picked the right destination doesn’t mean that I can’t critique their driving skills. :-)

With that said, I’m overjoyed that the ALA changed the rules to allow for non-member question submission! Thank you, thank you, thank you to whomever took that forward to the powers-that-be, and to all the non-members who might want some clarity on what the ALA is good for: here’s your chance to ask the presidential candidates your questions. Don’t waste the opportunity.

The other part of my suggestion, that anonymous submissions be allowed, wasn’t changed in the submission policies. Karen even says, in her post:

Besides, what would an “anonymous” YouTube film look like? Hand puppets? Mr. Bill? (”Budgets slashed, oooooooooh noooooo!”) Anyone who really had a burning question they couldn’t ask themselves could always find a friend willing to do it. I’ve fronted questions for people in all kinds of situations.

True that people could always find someone to front their question, but why should that be necessary? There are a million ways to do an anonymous question….not all videos have to be talking heads. A voice over a video of book stacks would work just fine, and creating a sock-puppet YouTube account is, needless to say, a trivial matter. Again, I ask: If these videos are being screened before being responded to (which they are) then why does identity matter?

I’ll admit this is a particular obsession of mine, but anonymous speech is important and necessary for the freedom of speech to be a real thing. Any time that I see the capacity for anonymous speech being held back for no particular reason that I can discern, I’m predisposed to push for it.