Category Archives: Media

Adobe Digital Editions and infoleaks

Eliminate DRMThe online library world exploded today over the revelation that Adobe Digital Editions, software that is required for many library-focused eBook services, evidently leaks like a sieve when it comes to our user’s information. The TL:DR version of the story is that ADE appears to be sending in plain text to Adobe’s servers information such as: the book you are reading, title, publisher, which pages you have read and which page you are currently on. Much longer discussions about the leak and potential fallout here:

Andromeda and Galen then both went on to touch on some of the core problems with this leak, focusing on the conflict between Adobe’s action and the ethics of librarianship, and the possible role that ALA may have in bridging the gaps in libraries’ knowledge of these actions.

There are a few things I wanted to emphasize about this situation. The first is that several of the reports have noted that earlier versions of Adobe Digital Editions didn’t seem to “spy on its users” in the way that the most recent version (version 4) does, and recommend using earlier versions. The truth of the matter is that of course the earlier versions are spying on users…they just aren’t doing it in as transparent a manner as the current version. We need to decide whether we are angry at Adobe for failing technically (for not encrypting the information or otherwise anonymizing the data) or for failing ethically (for the collection of data about what someone is reading). It’s possible to be angry at both, but here’s a horrible truth: If they had gotten the former right and encrypted the information appropriately, we’d have no idea about the latter at all.

I think that Andromeda has it right, that we need to insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession. It is possible, technically, to provide these services (digital downloads to multiple devices with reading position syncing) without sacrificing the privacy of the reader. For example (and this is just off the top of my head) you could architect the sync engine to key off of a locally-hashed UserID + BookID that never left the device, and only transmit the hash and the location information in a standardized format. This would give you anonymous page syncing between devices without having to even worry about encryption of the traffic, as long as you used an appropriate hash function. I would prefer this approach, because (as mentioned above), if the entire communications stack is encrypted, it’s a black box for anyone attempting to see inside and verify what the vendor is actually collecting. There are answers to this as well (encryption keys that the vendor never sees at all, for example, and are totally local to the user’s device a la Apple’s latest security enhancements).

There are technical solutions that satisfy our ethical concerns. We need to insist that our vendors care enough about our ethics that the technical answers become a market differentiator. We need to insist that this is important and then we need to make them listen.

The Journal of Library Administration

On Feb 14, I got an intriguing email from Brian Matthews about a special edition of the Journal of Library Administration he was editing. It was a request for a chapter for an edition of the journal called Imagining the Future of Libraries, and the Brian’s pitch to me was enough to make me very interested:

[Brian]I’d love for you to contribute an essay around the topic of technology. Beyond most digital collections. Beyond everyone and everything mobile— what unfolds then?

I mean, if I have a specialty, this is it. I love nothing more than I love a good dose of futurism, and told him so. My one concern was the Journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, and the fact that I refuse to sign over my copyright on work I create. I’m happy to license it in any number of ways that gives the publisher the rights they need to distribute the work, but I won’t write something for someone else to own. From my reply email to him:

[Me]…there are definitely some details that I’d love to know before I commit. Just to check, this is the same Journal of Library Administration that’s published by Routledge/Talor & francis, correct? What is their author agreement like? I’m pretty dedicated to OA, and wouldn’t be willing to agree to any publication restrictions beyond something like a very short exclusivity clause.

Brian replied with a link he found to Taylor & Francis’ author agreement, which I read…and then responded, a bit more pointedly:

[me] I’ll be blunt: there is no situation in which I’d sign copyright over the T&F…or, frankly, anyone. I’m very happy to sign a license of limited exclusivity (say, 30-90 days) for publication, or license the work generally under a CC license and give T&F a specific exemption on NC so they can publish it. But their language about “Our belief is that the assignment of copyright in an article by the author to us or to the proprietor of a journal on whose behalf we publish remains the best course of action for proprietor and author alike, as assignment allows Taylor & Francis, without ambiguity, to assure the integrity of the Version of Scholarly Record, founded on rigorous and independent peer review. ” is just…well, bollocks.

I am very interested in the topic, and I’ve got a ton to say about it…would love to write it. But we’d have to work out the copyright issue.

Brian’s response from a week or so later indicated that the combination of speed of production (the deadline for the chapters was May 1) and the lack of communication from Taylor and Francis meant this wasn’t going to work out for me to be involved. I was bummed, but totally understood and let him know that I’d love to work on something else with him when the stakes were different.

Our conversation lasted just a couple of weeks, from Feb 14 to Mar 1. Imagine my surprise today when I saw a tweet from Meredith Farkas that said the editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration just resigned because of T&F practices.


Turns out that Brian himself seemingly broke the news in a blog post. From that post:

“A large and growing number of current and potential authors to JLA have pushed back on the licensing terms included in the Taylor & Francis author agreement. Several authors have refused to publish with the journal under the current licensing terms.”

“Authors find the author agreement unclear and too restrictive and have repeatedly requested some form of Creative Commons license in its place.”

“After much discussion, the only alternative presented by Taylor & Francis tied a less restrictive license to a $2995 per article fee to be paid by the author. As you know, this is not a viable licensing option for authors from the LIS community who are generally not conducting research under large grants.”

“Thus, the Board came to the conclusion that it is not possible to produce a quality journal under the current licensing terms offered by Taylor & Francis and chose to collectively resign.”

Between this, and Chris Bourg’s blog post about this event, it sounds like the editorial board had been working for some time to convince T&F of how much they needed to change their expectations for author licensing. Since their requests seemingly fell on deaf ears, they took the only step really offered them, and withdrew from their positions.

I applaud them this decision. I fully understand that I speak from a position of privilege, as I have the ability to turn down writing opportunities such as this without it effecting my career negatively, and that what I’m about to say is said from this same position, but: No scholar should be producing work, whether that work be the creation of content, editing of content, or other, for entities which insist that they are doing you a favor by taking away your rights or the rights of those you represent. I could not in good conscience write a piece that I would have very much enjoyed writing for a publisher that was intent on depriving me of my ownership of that selfsame work. And I am incredibly pleased that the editorial board came to that same conclusion, and that they could no longer support said deprivation.

Brian: if you would still like my participation in that collection, and you find another outlet for it that does respect author’s rights, I’m all ears. To the editorial board, and especially to Damon Jaggers: Bravo! Let us hope that all of you move on to journals that respect the makers of the work they rely on.

State of the Union 2013 Tag Cloud

State of the Union 2013 Tag Cloud

Above is the weighted tag cloud of the text of President Obama’s State of the Union 2013 address. This is part of a series that I’ve done over the last 7 years, starting way back in 2007, as part of a visualization of what is on the minds of Americans. It’s fascinating to see what changes over the years, and what stays steady. Check out  200720082009,  2010, 2011, and 2012 linked for your convenience. The issues are stark as you look across the years…from security and terrorism to jobs and the economy over the last 7 years.

Circulating Ideas Ep. 19

I was very pleased to be the guest of Steve Thomas on his podcast series Circulating Ideas this past week. There’s a whole host of great episodes of the podcast, and I highly recommend diving into the back catalog. My conversation with Steve ranged from which sci-fi technology I’d most like to have to how and why I built LibraryBox, and many points in between. There are way worse ways to spend an hour. :-)

Listen in here, or head over to Circulating Ideas itself for a downloadable copy, or subscribe in your favorite podcatcher.

The power of in-house technologists

Really great write up of the internals of the tech team for the Obama campaign over at The Atlantic. Librarians and educators should read it as an argument for why it’s important to have technologists on your team directly, and not just rented out.

But the secondary impact of their success or failure would be to prove that campaigns could effectively hire and deploy top-level programming talent. If they failed, it would be evidence that this stuff might be best left to outside political technology consultants, by whom the arena had long been handled. If Reed’s team succeeded, engineers might become as enshrined in the mechanics of campaigns as social-media teams already are.

Heresy and Patron Data

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years thinking, writing, and speaking about ebooks. I’m on the Board of Directors of Library Renewal, a group dedicated to finding ways to make the ebook experience a good one for libraries, publishers, and authors. And I’ve spoken all over the US and Internationally about eReaders and how digital content changes libraries. So what I am about to suggest is something that has been rattling around in my head for some time now, and I feel like it’s something that I’d love to hear other thoughts about.

So as the Joker said in The Dark Knight Returns:

When we look at how libraries, pubishers, and authors all interrelate vis a vis electronic content, specifically ebooks, the models that are largely being forwarded are straightforward economic models. The rights-holders have content, we want content, we pay them for content. Most of the disagreement comes down to the details: how much are we paying, and what rights do with have to the content that we are paying for. The majority of “new” models that are being trumpeted in libraryland, like the Douglas County Public ebook model, are just differently-arranged ways of doing exactly the same thing…which, admittedly, gives different outcomes on the two contentious fronts (cost and rights) but isn’t actually new in any significant way.

In an economic system, when one side of an equation (libraries) want something from another side (rights-holders), there is an exchange of value that takes place wherein both sides agree that said value exchange is fair in both directions. Libraries pay money for content…this is, at its base, just a value exchange between libraries and publishers.

Libraries don’t want a free ride as far as ebooks are concerned. Every single librarian that I have spoken with is perfectly willing to continue to pay for content. Unfortunately, the economics of libraries are such that when we want more rights (the ability to check out ebooks to any number of patrons simultaneously, or the right to ILL ebooks, etc) we don’t have the ability to exchange our typical economic instrument (money) for them. Think about Amazon and their ability to put the Harry Potter books into their Lending Library…freely available to anyone with an Amazon Prime membership. Libraries would kill for the right to do this, but Amazon is the one that can write the check. If we had tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at publishers, we could dictate any rights we wished. But we don’t.

So the question that’s been bugging me is: what else do we have, besides cash, that is of value to the rights holders and could be traded for more of what we want. Libraries generate value in enormous numbers of ways, but what do we have that publishers might want that would give us some bartering ability?

Some librarians have started looking at these value-exchanges in a new way. Toby Greenwalt, a librarian at the Skokie Public Library, started asking what the value was to the publishers of the awards that the American Library Association gives out for childrens and young adult titles, and Andromeda Yelton followed up with a look at how those awards related to the ability for libraries to lend those books electronically. Here’s something that the ALA does, which appears to be significant value to publishers, with no visible complimentary exchange of value going the other direction.

Finally we get to what I’ve been thinking of as my heretical idea. Because when I think about what other thing of value that libraries have that could potentially be traded to publishers in order to get an equivalent set of value back from them in the way of ebook rights, I keep coming back to one thing:

Information. Information about our patrons, information about our circulations of individual books, and demographic information about our users and what books they read.

I know. A lot of librarians just stopped reading, or perhaps began clutching the arms of their chairs a bit too tightly. Patron information! The holiest of holies in library land, the Thing Which Must Not Be Shared! One of the core tenets of librarianship is that the borrowing history of the individual is sacrosanct. And for very, very good reasons…it doesn’t take a paranoid person to see the ways in which reading histories should be kept private, from the teenager looking for information about sexuality to the individual checking out a book about chronic illness (you wouldn’t want your insurance company to know that, now would you). As the saying goes, “show me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”.

But this information is valuable. Publishers would love to know more about their readers, as it helps them to make better decisions about what to publish, how to market, and what sorts of books that a given population is more likely to buy. The amount of data that libraries could have in this realm is enormous, and could be a huge lever with which to move the playing field that we are all currently on regarding ebooks.

I am very aware, there are huge problems with this idea. The data in many cases is actually non-existent (libraries are very good about dumping this data so that it can’t be used by law enforcement or others in negative ways against readers). In order to maintain any sort of patron trust, there would have to be serious thought given to sanitization of the data, stripping of individually identifying information, and more (and yes, I am aware that stripping of individually identifying information has been shown to be basically useless…I retain some hope that there is a way to do it that isn’t). It is also the case that with the rise of cloud-based ILS systems that this information is going to be more available than ever, and centralized on servers that are out of library’s control.

But if we want the next decade to be a good one for us, libraries and librarians need to put some serious thought into what our other value-creation areas are, and how we can begin to identify and trade on those against the rights-holders. Because our money is getting thin, our prices are going up, digital is likely to kill our existing model completely, and we need new ways to think about these things.

What else do we have? What sort of leverage do we have that we aren’t using? What can we bring to the negotiating table that we haven’t yet?

A shot across the bow

If you had any doubts that Amazon’s Lending Library was eventually going to compete with public libraries, here’s where your doubts get shattered. From Amazon’s homepage today, on the announcement of all 7 Harry Potter books entering the Kindle Lending Library program:

With traditional library lending, the library buys a certain number of e-book copies of a particular title. If all of those are checked out, you have to get on a waiting list….the wait can sometimes be months.

With the Kindle Owners Lending Library, there are no due dates, you can borrow as frequently as once a month, and there are no limits on how many people can borow the same title…

The full image of the announcement is included after the click: Continue reading A shot across the bow