Category Archives: Media

A Special Obligation to the Future

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing, and editing in the last few months that all revolved around libraries and the future of the Internet. It seems more and more obvious to me that there’s an opportunity for libraries as participants in the growing number of decentralized services on the Internet. These services are multiplying, and it seems to me that the future of communication is likely to be a better one if distributed services were more normalized on the Internet.

I’ve decided to share two essays about this topic. The first is
How Libraries Can Save the Internet of Things from the Web’s Centralized Fate over at BoingBoing, which is the highly edited and polished version of the much longer A Special Obligation to the Future over on Medium. Normally I wouldn’t share two similar pieces, but I feel like the shorter BoingBoing essay is the compressed and focused “official” version and there were things that I liked about the longer, more emotive original. So I’m sharing both here, and you can comment on, share, and critique either or both as you’d like.

I’m hoping these serve as conversation starters, and possibly as inflection points for thinking about the future of libraries in terms of their role as pillars of democracy and freedom. I’m going to be doing more work on this topic, speaking and writing and organizing over the next several months. If you’re interested in helping out and lending a hand, let me know.

And if you’re interested in decentralization in general, I highly recommend checking out Yochai Benkler’s work, especially Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power. Also recommended is Phil Windley’s Decentralization is Hard, Maybe Too Hard.

They are both right, decentralization is amazingly difficult to pull off. This is why it needs help in the form of library infrastructure, political capital, and skills.

Thanks especially to David Weinberger, who was instrumental in both the conception and the editing of this piece. Also thanks to everyone who read and commented on the piece as it developed, you are all awesome.

SXSW 2016

I attended my first SXSW conference this past week, and have been struggling about how to describe it. On one hand, I was able to find interesting things and have a great time. On the other, the conference felt so very desperate, like a marketing team and a brogrammer had a kid. It was a non-stop barrage of things that were really-well-known being well-known (Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot) and things that weren’t well-known trying desperately to be so.

Libraries and librarians were, as always, the saving grace in the midst of the chaos. I spent time with the Library IdeaDrop house this year, and all I can say is that they run a tight ship, full of interesting people and awesome events. I would be a part of it again in a heartbeat.

I wrote up my experiences for American Libraries, here’s the three-part story:

And here are all the interviews that I did with IdeaDrop this year:

SESSION 6 from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

Jason Griffey @ #IdeaDrop from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

Knight News Challenge from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

SESSION 8 from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

Copyright and Creators: 2026 @ #IdeaDrop from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

Digital Content and the Legality of Web Scraping from Idea Drop & ER&L on Vimeo.

Support Circulating Ideas

So my buddy Steve Thomas just launched a Kickstarter in order to have transcriptions made of his awesome podcast Circulating Ideas.  I shouldn’t have to explain why transcriptions are a fantastic idea for a podcast, but I will anyway:

  • It will make the content available to people with hearing difficulty
  • It will enable full-text searching of the podcast episodes
  • Transcripts will allow people to text-mine the content in interesting ways
  • There will be a book (A BOOK) of the podcast made

All of these are awesome reasons to back the Kickstarter, but I’m going to back it because I think that the work Steve is doing on Circulating Ideas is interesting and serves as an amazing time capsule of our profession. You should back it as well…supporting interesting library work is how, after all, we get more interesting library work into the world.

So listen below to Steve tell you about the Kickstarter in his own words, then click the link and go give him a few bucks. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

Go support Recirculated! 

BONUS: for those of you that read this far, here’s the two episodes of Circulating Ideas that I was lucky enough to be a part of:

Episode 19

Special Episode on the LibraryBox Kickstarter

LibraryThing vs Bookish

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Tim Spalding of LibraryThing, asking if I was serious about the twitter conversation we had:

He wanted some form of independent analysis of recommendations coming from LibraryThing and from Bookish in Bibliocommons catalogs. After exchanging a few emails, we came to the following agreement:

  • I would solicit and select 4 testers for the recommendation systems
  • The reviewers wouldn’t be told who had arranged for the review, nor who was paying them (reviewers were offered $200 for the effort) until after they had turned in the reviews and they were posted here
  • The reviewers would examine 7 different Bibliocommons catalogs and write up their thoughts, but there was no suggesting of the books they were to search for or anything like that…they had free reign to use the catalogs in questions to look for any books they wished.
  • Tim wouldn’t know who they were during the review, and not afterwards until the reviews were collected and this post went live
  • There would be no editing on his part of the reviews…what they said, they said. No picking and choosing to rose color anything.
  • I would collect and edit the reviews only in as much as needed to anonymize them.
  • Tim would get the names of the reviewers after this is posted in order to pay them, but he would have no way of knowing who wrote what among the reviews.

This was as good a protocol as I could put together quickly for a blinded analysis of the two systems. I can promise that as I write this, Tim has no idea who the reviewers were, nor has he edited the reviews below in any way. They are as independent a look at the two systems as I could arrange.

So what is posted below are 4 comparisons, in the voices of the reviewers, between the recommendations provided by LibraryThing and Bookish.

This was done as a consulting job, so in the interest of full disclosure I am also receiving a small payment for my work in doing this.

Now that these are public, I will be sharing the identities in both directions of this endeavor. Who wrote which review will remain anonymous, but both sides will be alerted in order to settle the accounts in question.

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.