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?
One of the things that I’ve been most often asked about the Librarybox project is “What’s it for?”. That’s an honest question, and I’ve had a host of answers: to help serve files to areas without wifi but with devices, to serve files to users in a controlled fashion that doesn’t involve wider Internet access, etc.
But an email I got just a week or so ago put everything into focus for me. Here it is, edited to protect the identity of the person writing and anonymize the location a bit.
I’m a foreigner living in [REDACTED], and volunteer twice a week to help low-income [REDACTED] learn English. English classes are obscenely expensive, so it’s becomes a means for the Haves to keep the Have-not’s out of more lucrative jobs and overseas educational opportunities. Helping really motivated people, who just can’t afford access to this sort of education is quite rewarding and enjoyable.
We get upwards of 100 people showing up in the park to practice every week, so I do quite a bit of running around. One of the issues is that because of the [INFORMATION CONTROLS], often access to very simple, innocuous study material is blocked (of course well-to-do families have VPNs so don’t have these problems). So at first I would print things out, and then when the group got too large, encourages them to bring USB drives- which was a bit time consuming, and I’m concerned might attract the wrong sort of attention. Lately I’ve been using Piratebox, because even the cheapest [REDACTED] phones have wifi. It’s better than the alternatives to date, but as you pointed out it’s not really meant for the purpose and can be quite confusing…
[HARDWARE DISCUSSION REDACTED]…I just barely managed to get Piratebox installed- I’m not very good at command line. Most of the people who would probably get the best use out of this also would have similar problems, anything that could be done to simplify the install procedure would be great. If LibraryBox could simply open to some sort of file structure- read only, with no links or chat like the PirateBox has. Then I could just load the USB drive up directly with relevant study material for them to download to their phones, and at the cost so low I’m sure that the use would become widespread.
This is something I truly believe in, and a little English can make a massive difference in the quality of life here for some. Also for a hungry mind not to have access to books… well you probably feel
about the same way about that as I do or you would not have started this fork. So if any sort of donation would help with the development costs- please let me know.
As a result of this email, I would like to publicly ask for help with the project. I think two things need to be done: the first is moving the LibraryBox fork up to the current version of Piratebox, something which I have the hardware to start testing soon. But once I grok how to make the customizations work, I think the next step in the project is a true fork…producing an IPK that is installable directly to LibraryBox, bypassing Piratebox altogether. I had been holding out against this, hoping to continue to benefit from the code being produced by the Piratebox team. Once LibraryBox starts being a separate install, it becomes more complicated to merge code. But the letter above sold me, and I am asking for help with this.
If you feel as strongly as I do about the free flow of information, the sharing of books, and the education of the disadvantaged, help me. In the next couple of weeks I hope to have the customizations done, and if you have any coding skills, or understand how to build IPK’s for install, help me make this easier for people like the author above. The idea that this project could be something that helps make lives better around the world…well, that has a way of inspiring me. I hope it inspires you to volunteer some time to help out.
If you have questions, ideas, or want to touch base to find out how you can help, use the contact form here.
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: Read the rest of this entry »
Here, in a time-lapse by Steven Alvarez, is 3 minutes of why we live here in Sewanee. Man, is it beautiful.
Client: University of the South
Music by Boy Named Banjo
24 hours on the campus of the University of the South.
The original page for the video is
There is no video in this video.
I shot 27,000 images in the course of 3 weeks. Around 5,000 appear in the finished video.
Everything was shot as Canon raw, converted in Adobe Lightroom and edited in Apple Final Cut Pro.
Motion control is with a Dynamic Perceptions Stage Zero Dolly.
Cameras were Canon 5D MK II, the MK IIIs didn’t fit into my workflow.
lens are all Canon
16-35mm L 2.8 model 2
24mm L 1.4
34mm L 1.4
50mm L 1.2
70-200mm L IS 2.8
300mm L 4
I was lucky enough to be the guest on the Dquarium Bibliotech podcast earlier this week, and had a great time talking to Kayhan, Erin, and Doug. We talked about library technology, the Librarybox project, ebooks, and more. Listen in, and if you have any questions feel free to drop them in the comments.
On two days in May I will be doing a workshop for ALA Techsource called Gadgets in the Library: A Practical Guide to Personal Electronics for Librarians. If you or your library is interested in managing tablets, ereaders, or other gadgets for staff or patron use, and if you’re interested in hearing about where I think gadgets in libraries are going in the next 2-3 years, spend 3 hours with me. I’ll help you get comfortable with gadgets and try to give you options for how to deal with them.
When: May 10th and 24th from 2:30pm until 4pm Eastern time
Where: Online! Listen from your desk?
Who: You! Or if you’ve got a handful of people that are interested, get a discount with the group rate.
Why: Because you want help with managing personal electronics in the library
How: Register here.
In business and economics, there is a concept that is often expressed with the phrase “Commoditize your complement”. A complementary product is has some form of necessary connection to the product in question…the usual example is automobiles and gasoline. As Joel Spolsky puts it:
A complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Gas and cars are complements. Computer hardware is a classic complement of computer operating systems. And babysitters are a complement of dinner at fine restaurants. In a small town, when the local five star restaurant has a two-for-one Valentine’s day special, the local babysitters double their rates. (Actually, the nine-year-olds get roped into early service.)
All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.
Thus the concept of commoditizing (making available uniformly and interchangably) your complement. If you can decrease the cost of your complement, you by necessity increase the cost of your product. Microsoft learned this very early, and went on to great success, making hardware (the complement to it’s product, software) a commodity product…it didn’t matter if you bought from Dell, or Gateway, or Asus, or IBM, or Lenovo, or…the list goes and on. Those companies struggled to make money in a market driven to complete interchangability, while Microsoft made billions on software. A reversal of this strategy, as Marco Arment has pointed out, is Apple is attempting to commoditize software via its iOS and Mac App Stores, because its product (where they make their profit) is the hardware.
My questions to the library world: What is our product? What should we be commoditizing in order to make our product more valuable? The concept isn’t just about money, it’s about market values, even when the market in question isn’t measured in dollars but in reputation, importance, and community value. What should we be pushing to commodity so that our business becomes more valuable to our communities?
I have my theories, but want to hear yours.
On Monday, April 23rd, I’ll be the guest on the BiblioTech Podcast, talking about technology, gadgets, LibraryBox, and whatever else the gang decides to ask. As soon as it’s done, I’ll post the link to the audio here.
I’ve got a few things going on this Spring that I felt I should promote here on the blog, just to tie together some interesting content that people might be interested in. So here’s a quick look at what I’m either doing or working on over the next few months.
This coming Monday, April 16th, I will be speaking at the Southern Illinois University LIS Spring Symposium about the Post-PC Era, which should be a lot of fun. I’m always excited to meet with new librarians, so this should be fun.
Coming sometime this month is Gadgets & Gizmos II: Libraries and the Post-PC Era (link forthcoming), a Library Technology Report from ALA TechSource that is a followup to my 2010 LTR on Gadgets and Personal Electronics. In it, I take a look at how the world of personal electronics has changed in two years (TL;DR version: A LOT) as well as some new tech that libraries are either just starting to implement (3D printing) and some trends that I see coming in the next couple of years (health and other personal data tracking, drones).
The thing that I am maybe most excited about is that this is the first Library Technology Report that will be Creative Commons Licensed. It will be published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which is a big experiment for ALA publishing. I intentionally asked to allow derivatives, because I’m very curious what might spring from that. I’m also very interested in how a CC license will effect sales of the LTR…most LTRs rely on subscription sales for the vast majority of their volume, but I wanted to try to reach as many people as possible. But it still makes ALA Publishing a bit nervous, I think, to have the CC on it, at least if you judge from the amount of time it took to get it ok’d.
And then finally, I’ll be doing a webinar for Techsource based on that very same tech report, a 2 day online workshop on May 10th and 24th titled “Gadgets in the Library: A Practical Guide to Personal Electronics for Librarians“. The workshop is going to be a great mix of practical advice for the management of tablets and eReaders (and other personal electronics…leave a comment if you want me to cover something specific!) and a look at some of the newly-affordable hardware coming down the road in the next year or so.
In June I’ll be attending the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, and will be meeting with various LITA groups, as well as the Library BoingBoing/LibraryLab Members group. I’m also hoping to catch up with the LITA CodeYear IG, which has some cool things starting to come together. Exciting stuff happening at Annual, I hope you’ll come join me!
What is LibraryBox? It’s my newest hack, a hardware and software project that takes the “pirate” out of PirateBox to produce a tiny, battery-powered, linux-based, anonymous file server capable of serving arbitrary types of digital files to anyone with a wifi-enabled device.
But, you may ask, what is it for? It’s for any situation where you need to distribue digital files but don’t have or don’t want Internet access. LibraryBox is based on a fork of the PirateBox project, using the TP-Link MR-3020 router, an 802.11n router that is capable of running on a USB 5 volt power source. This means that for about $40 and some time, you can have a file server that fits in your pocket. I loaded my demo unit with the top 100 Public Domain ebooks from Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, and hooked it up to an iPad battery pack that will run it for 16 hours.
This means I can be a walking digital library, giving people access to eBooks anywhere I happen to have the LibraryBox. These could be used in a million different ways, from bringing eBooks, Audio, even movies to areas with digital devices but without Internet access to just being a personal file server for conference slides or other resources.
More information, including pictures and such, are all up on the LibraryBox website. The code is all licensed under the GPL and is available on Github. Several people have looked at the project, and I’m hoping that others will see the value and help me make it better. There’s lots of improvements possible, and I (and hopefully many others) will be working on making the process easier and better for users.
I'm Jason Griffey, a librarian, technologist, writer and speaker. This is my personal/professional blog, but I also write Release Candidate (focusing on future tech) and for the ALA TechSource blog. Visit my homepage for more.