8.24.2014

libraries and ebooks: a good fit, but a very bad deal, or why library users should just say no to ebooks

Do you ever borrow ebooks from your public library? Do you have any idea how your library adds ebooks to its collection, or at what cost?

The number of library customers who borrow ebooks is growing all the time. How many of them, I wonder, are aware of how their library gets screwed every time they do.

Even some library staff is unaware of the raw deal libraries are getting when it comes to ebooks. Library-themed journals, blogs, and conferences are filled with talk about digital technology and resources. Yet in this deluge of discussion, there is too little exposing - and opposing - the unfair and unnecessary economics of ebooks for public libraries.

Here it is simply. Digital access to a single title - one ebook - costs the public library $85. That $85 is good for only 26 downloads. And only one customer can borrow the ebook at a time.

Under this arrangement, publishers have the best of both worlds. For borrowing purposes, the ebook is treated like a single copy of a print book: only one customer can borrow one title at any given time. But for licensing purposes, the ebook is treated as a controlled digital resource that must be licensed and continually renewed.

Libraries already pay more than full price for print books. There's no volume discount, or non-profit discount. But in the case of ebooks, libraries pay exorbitant fees, anywhere from eight times to 500 times as much as the general public. A print book is available to a theoretically infinite number of library customers, until it physically falls apart. An $85 ebook is available for 26 downloads. After that, the library has the option of licensing it again - essentially re-buying it - for another $85, good for another 26 customers.

This is a blatant ripoff and a terrible use of public funds.

Canadian author and blogger Cory Doctorow has been instrumental in trying to focus attention on this issue.
While I was in Chicago, I sat down with some of the ALA strategists to talk about how libraries are getting a raw deal on e-books. When libraries want to buy an ebook from the publisher, they find themselves paying as much as five times the price you or I pay for the same book. Literally – librarians are paying $60-80, and sometimes more, to include current release frontlist titles in their collections. Each of these ebooks can only be lent to one patron at a time, which means that libraries are sometimes buying a dozen – or more – of these overpriced text-files.

Not only that, but libraries have to buy these books with DRM on them, and invest in expensive, proprietary collection-management software from companies like Overdrive in order to ensure that only one patron at a time can check out any given ebook. These ebooks come with restrictions that don’t appear on regular print books; they can’t be sold on as used books once their circulations drop below a certain threshold; neither can they be shared with another library’s patrons though standard practices like interlibrary loan, a mainstay of libraries for more than a century.

To add insult to injury, HarperCollins insists that libraries delete their ebooks after they are circulated 26 times. This has been pitched as having some parallel to the fact that many library books eventually disintegrate and have to be discarded. But this is both wrong and perverse. Wrong because the 26-circulation cutoff bears no relationship to how many times a book can circulate before it falls to bits. It amazes me to think that HarperCollins wants to frame its products as so badly manufactured that they can’t withstand being read 27 or more times. But beyond the factual problems with a 26-circ cap, there is the fundamental perversity of celebrating and importing the limitations of physical media into the digital world. It’s like insisting that electric bulbs be limited to outputting no more than one lumen of light, since that’s all a comparably-sized candle would manage. The fact that books don’t last forever is not a feature to be preserved through the digital transition: it’s a bug, and the sooner we eliminate it, the better.
The American Library Association, the parent organization of all North American library associations, formed a group called Authors for Library Ebooks (@Authors4LE on Twitter), which seeks to enlist writers to the cause.
Did you know that many ebooks are not available to most libraries at any price? Of those we can buy, libraries frequently pay 150 to 500% more than the consumer price, forcing us to purchase fewer copies for library readers to discover. As more books appear only in electronic form, the situation will become intolerable for our nation’s readers. . . .

The Authors for Library Ebooks campaign seeks to add author voices to those of librarians and readers in support of equitable access to digital content through libraries. There are many ways you can support this effort:

Sign on to the Authors Stand with Libraries statement.

Help us raise awareness of this issue with publishers, other authors and the general public.

Learn more about what’s at stake.
Art Brodsky, in an excellent piece in Wired, explains how the "collusion of large ebook distributors in pricing...contribute[s] to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots."
How do such restrictions reinforce the divide between haves and have-nots?

Imagine walking into a library or bookstore and needing three or four pairs of different glasses to read different books manufactured to specific viewing equipment. Or buying a book and then having to arbitrarily destroy it after say, two weeks. That’s just nuts. But it’s the current situation we’re in with ebooks. . . .

Sadly, pricing changes the game for library access altogether because ebook distributors have radically changed the pricing from that of regular books.

Take the example of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book, Cuckoo’s Calling. For the physical book, libraries would pay $14.40 from book distributor Baker & Taylor — close to the consumer price of $15.49 from Barnes & Noble and of $15.19 from Amazon. But even though the ebook will cost consumers $6.50 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, libraries would pay $78 (through library ebook distributors Overdrive and 3M) for the same thing.

Somehow the “e” in ebooks changes the pricing game, and drastically. How else does one explain libraries paying a $0.79 to $1.09 difference for a physical book to paying a difference of $71.50 just because it’s the electronic version? It’s not like being digital makes a difference for when and how they can lend it out.

In another wrinkle: Random House jacked up its ebook prices to libraries 300 percent last year, and HarperCollins limits the number of check-outs per ebook. This means libraries have to lease another “copy” when they reach a certain threshold … as if the ebook had died or something. In fact, that’s the problem some authors have with ebooks — not just that they earn less money on them, but that “They never degrade. They are perpetual. That harms writers directly,” as historian and novelist David O. Stewart has observed.

These authors don’t mind the high prices charged to libraries because they don’t even like libraries to begin with. Stewart has called libraries “undeniably socialist” because books can be loaned out (for free!) many times, costing writers money from presumably lost sales. This is the same justification book publishers use for their distorted ebook pricing.

But that’s just wrong. Most physical books in libraries aren’t tattered and worn out, particularly hardbacks. And just because an ebook may last forever doesn’t mean it will be read. Reader demand changes with the cultural context: When The Help was at the top of the Times’ fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks in 2011, readers had to wait weeks for copies to come back to their libraries; but now, 39 out of the 79 copies of the book in my local library system are available for checkout.

There are some enlightened authors, like Jodi Picoult and Cory Doctorow, who have joined the Authors for Library E-books campaign, which adds author voices to those of librarians and readers in support of equitable access to digital content. As their site notes, not only are many books not even available to libraries at any price, but those that are can only be purchased at 150 to 500 percent more than the consumer price — “forcing us to purchase fewer copies for library readers to discover.”
Once I learned how ebooks were gobbling up library budgets, I wished the library world had turned its collective back on ebooks altogether. I would rather see the entire ebooks budget spent on print resources, or even on DVDs and videogames. That would certainly bring more resources to more people, which is part of our mission. But that ship has sailed. Libraries cannot afford to be perceived as antiquated or anti-technology, and library customers deserve access to all available formats. The problem is not ebooks: it's publishers and distributors - and overly restrictive digital-rights management.

Way back when, when wmtc featured "we like lists" posts, there was a post called "it was the best of lists, it was the worst of lists". We identified both the good and the bad in the same thing. One of those lists, courtesy of M@, was about ebooks.
I like that:

1. They tend to be cheaper.

2. There's an opportunity, currently being somewhat fulfilled but possibly to improve, for authors to be better compensated for their work.

3. The democratization of publishing is possible in the way that the democratization of music happened in the last 10 years or so.

4. They really are very convenient to buy and read.

5. Every book can be available to every internet-connected person on earth.

But:

1. I like the tangible properties of books.

2. I love browsing bookshelves, both in stores and in people's homes. Browsing virtual bookshelves doesn't even compare.

3. Book prices have not stabilized. Currently many e-books cost more than their trade paperback equivalents, not less. There is no good reason for this.

4. I find flipping through reference books a great way to find things I didn't know I wanted to learn; I find flipping through any book a good way to get a sense of whether it's worth reading or not. There is no equivalent in an e-book.

5. I can't figure out how to sign electronic copies of my books.
I agree with everything on this list, although I have grave concerns about a democratization movement that depends on access to and comfort with technology, since those are not democratically distributed.

But for me personally, I wouldn't care if I never read another ebook again. The only advantage I find is the ease of carrying them around: they lighten the load on my shoulder or in my backpack. Other than that, I agree with the more than 60% of young readers surveyed in the UK: I prefer print books.

I get 100% of my news and other reading online - no broadcast or cable TV, no print newspapers, no print magazines. But when it comes to books, I prefer print. And when it comes to libraries, I prefer our budgets not be held hostage to profit-driven digital-rights-management schemes.


8.19.2014

revolutionary thoughts of the day: kareem abdul-jabbar, the new yorker, howard zinn

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has an excellent essay in Time, something only a big-name writer can get away with in the mainstream media. Abdul-Jabbar names the stark truths behind the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. And the mere fact that this appears on Time.com is reason for hope.
This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

And that’s how the status quo wants it.
Solidarity with Ferguson in Times Square, NYC

The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

One way to keep these 50 million fractured is through disinformation. PunditFact’s recent scorecard on network news concluded that at Fox and Fox News Channel, 60 percent of claims are false. At NBC and MSNBC, 46 percent of claims were deemed false. That’s the “news,” folks! During the Ferguson riots, Fox News ran a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the bold caption: “Forgetting MLK’s Message/Protestors in Missouri Turn to Violence.” Did they run such a caption when either Presidents Bush invaded Iraq: “Forgetting Jesus Christ’s Message/U.S. Forgets to Turn Cheek and Kills Thousands”?

How can viewers make reasonable choices in a democracy if their sources of information are corrupted? They can’t, which is exactly how the One Percent controls the fate of the Ninety-Nine Percent.
This excellent essay from The New Yorker recognizes what's coalescing beneath the so-called riots.
In the eight days since Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old, was killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, what began as an impromptu vigil evolved into a sustained protest; it is now beginning to look like a movement. The local QuikTrip, a gas station and convenience store that was looted and burned on the second night of the protests, has now been repurposed as the epicenter for gatherings and the exchange of information. The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such as Thursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton.

Solidarity with Ferguson in Howard University, Washington DC
The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.
Last year, I made a list of these disparate, but related events.
The Occupy movement

The uprising in Wisconsin

The Arab Spring: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries

The Quebec student strikes and demonstrations

Walmart workers organizing and striking

Fast-food workers in New York City organizing and striking

Ongoing mass demonstrations and general strikes throughout Europe

Miners in South Africa on a wildcat strike

100 million people striking in India

The Chicago teachers' strike

The global environmental movement

Idle No More
Some of these now seem bittersweet. The Arab Spring cycled into militarism and repression, but that story is still being written. Other movements - like low-wage workers organizing in the US - have burgeoned and thrived. Now we add Ferguson, Missouri, and the solidarity demonstrations we're seeing all over the world.

I remind myself that no one can predict the future.
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.

Howard Zinn

8.18.2014

in which i attain the holy grail of librarianship: the permanent, full-time job

Meet the new permanent youth librarian at the Mississauga Central Library.

I've been in this position since January, but on a temporary or contract basis. Two big things had to happen in order for this job to post as permanent, and they were completely out of my control: two other people also had to get permanent promotions. If either of those people didn't get their permanent positions, my contract would have ended. I would have gone back to being a part-time library assistant (which would have been a huge hit both financially and in terms of responsibility) and tried for another contract librarian position.

In the last few months, both those people came through with their promotions. When I congratulated them, it was also - mostly? - happiness for myself!

Finally, a few weeks ago, my position posted as permanent. "Full-time permanent," in this context, means being eligible for benefits: paid vacation, paid sick time, extended health, pension, and so on. It also means the security of knowing I won't work as a library assistant in our system again.

Only one-third of staff in our library system is full-time permanent, and that percentage is shrinking all the time. So whenever a full-time, permanent job posts, there's a lot of competition.

I interviewed last week, and I got it.

This is the final piece in my Big Life Change that began with applying for graduate school in 2009. I'm sure I'll have other librarian jobs as my career progresses, to keep things interesting. But in terms of the career and life transition: this is it.

8.17.2014

mini-garden update: the eggplant arrives


I grew this! It's eight inches long, and three more are on the way.

What's ordinary to you veteran gardeners is still miraculous to me. Gardening on a small scale is easy, fun, and very rewarding.

Next stop, eggplant recipes.

libraries with pride of place

Central Library at National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City
While I wait impatiently to post some exciting news, please enjoy these photos of amazing libraries all over the world.

I've seen six on this list: New York Public Library, Butler Library at Columbia University, Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at University of Toronto, Trinity College in Dublin, Central Library at University of Mexico (from the outside only), and Los Angeles Central Library.

Library photos from BuzzFeed.

8.12.2014

depression is to sad as cancer is to pimple (a few thoughts after the death of robin williams)

Reading a news story about Robin Williams' death, I saw a tweet from Jimmy Kimmel. It said, in part: "If you're sad, tell someone."

Depression is "you're sad" the way cancer is a pimple. And telling someone doesn't make it go away. For severe depression telling someone is... well, it's nothing.

I'm assuming Kimmel meant, if you're depressed, seek help. Yes. Good advice. But Robin Williams did seek help. He was in treatment. So was David Foster Wallace when he killed himself. So was... I could go on.

Severe depression is often untreatable. That's the terrible truth.

Today I'm thinking of a friend I've lost to mental illness. And I'm thinking of everyone I love who lives with the absence that suicide leaves behind.

I'm thinking of my friends who struggle with depression but are winning their battles. Please keep fighting.

8.10.2014

amnesty international urgent action network, writing for rights all year round

I knew working full-time would mean cutting back on activism. What time I can squeeze out, I'm investing in my own union, where I have much to contribute and feel I can really make a difference. I still belong to the War Resisters Support Campaign, of course, but it's been a long time since I've been able to attend weekly meetings.*

Still, I knew there was more I could do, if only from my computer. I recently took a step that will add a bit more relevancy to my life, something that seems fairly easy to do and can have an impact: I've joined Amnesty International's Urgent Action Network.

You may remember - or perhaps you've participated in - Write For Rights, a big Amnesty International letter-writing push that coincides with International Human Rights Day. I've participated in WfR a few times, and this year was contacted by someone from Amnesty Canada's Urgent Action Network, inviting me to join. I had just started my full-time job and was feeling overwhelmed with change, so I expressed interest but asked if she could contact me again later on in the year. 

She's obviously got her act together, because she did. And this past week, I joined.

The Urgent Action network is made up of 165,000 volunteers in 55 countries. You receive information on a case, and are supposed to respond within 24 hours (or as soon as possible). You can receive one case per month, or one case every-other month. Amnesty supplies writing guidelines, information about the case, and a sample letter from another past case. You write and send your own letter, based on the information you receive. Letters are supposed to be polite, short, and factual. 

If you're comfortable writing letters, it's not all that time-consuming. I see no reason why I can't crank out one decent letter each month. I told the contact person if I find I can't keep up, I'll cut back to every-other month. Amnesty offers a lot of support and is very sensitive to the demands on all our lives; if you need a month off, or want to write less frequently, you just say so.

I'm trusting the good people at Amnesty to use strategies that work. One thing's for sure: we know that evil thrives in darkness. A few hundred letters can show that the world is watching.



* My first two years of grad school, I always scheduled classes on meeting days, and the University of Toronto is conveniently located for meetings at the Steelworkers Hall. But in those days I had "only" (ha!) school plus one job. Once my library job came through, something had to go, and unfortunately that meant WRSC meetings. I would come back in the summer and during my school breaks. Then once I started working more, I had to cut that out, too. Dislike!

the courage and compassion of dr. willie parker, the last abortion doctor in mississippi

"The Pink House", the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.
The owner painted it pink so it would stand out, in defiance.
I've thought a lot about heroes, that tremendously overused word, about who my heroes are and why I love them. Moral courage, as you may know, is my highest value. Now, reading this story in Esquire about Dr. Willie Parker, the last abortion doctor in the state of Mississippi, I realize there's another ingredient shared by all my heroes: an abundance of compassion.

Dr. Parker, a committed Christian, embodies both physical and moral courage, refusing to run despite the knowledge that others who tread this path have been murdered. Dr. Parker fills a vital health and social need by performing abortions in Mississippi. But he does more than that. He offers compassion (along with education) to every patient.

Dr. Parker not only wants women to decide for themselves whether and when to bear children. He wants to help free them of the guilt and shame that they've internalized from the surrounding anti-abortion culture. He is very smart, politically; he understands what really drives the anti-abortion movement.
One result: In 2012, America's teenage girls had an average of thirty-one births per one thousand. In Canada, the number was fourteen. In France, six. In Sweden, seven. The difference is that those countries promote contraception without shame. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion, the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."
This is a tremendous article, which Esquire released online in advance of the print edition, because of the recent court ruling blocking a Mississippi anti-abortion law. I hope you will read it in its entirety: The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker, by John H. Richardson.

8.09.2014

photos from france, may 2014

Giverny
I have been avoiding the photos I took on my trip with my mom in May. I suspected they were going to be pretty crappy and I didn't want to see them. But finally I did go through them, got rid of the worst offenses, and posted the rest on Flickr for safekeeping. I'm not happy with them, but... oh well.

If you're curious: they are here. There are some nice photos of my mom, and I'm even allowing a few of me to stay up, as intensely camera-shy as I am.