Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thinking about being an access point.

Jennifer Bartholomew started a discussion about this article in the Theological Librarians group on Facebook.

The article by Dan Chudnov is on the way social networking sites use individuals as access points. Jennifer (a fellow ATLA Wabash 2007 alum) asked for reactions. Here is my rather lengthy response to the article:

I agree that the power that technology has to connect us can also mask what makes us unique and human or in other words can turn us into commodities. One possible response to this would be to build even stronger walls between my actions, indeed who I am and the prying eyes of outsiders. I would be interested in listening to those who choose this, but it seems to me this type of chosen isolation is likely to become stifling. In the library world, for example we could do nothing with user data (or the user could act in ways that prevent data collection) which may help avoid seeing the people who use are resources as data points but would this make for a better library?

Another option, while perhaps not touching on Chudnov's deepest anxieties, would be to allow people to freely customize their data contribution and thus import some of the unique and human into what might otherwise be a sterile exchange of commodities. In Facebook it is interesting to watch people work hard to individualize their pages, even if many are unaware (or unconcerned) with how they are "giving themselves away" as Chudnov says. In libraries, I think we should investigate ways that allow the patron's interaction with the library to be more personal (more human). This might mean making spaces for patrons to interact with the information we provide and with each other in our online spaces. It might also mean presenting more information about ourselves as individuals rather than as an institution to our users as a first step toward humanizing their interaction with the library. Visual media I think could really help with this as pictures and video often come off more personable then lines of text.

Finally, I think it is important that we remember that information is not an end in itself, just as people are not ultimately access points or profit generating things. As theological librarians we believe God is not only to be studied but also worshiped. In a world that is eager to monetize all things, we need to be advocates for the significance of all the beautiful things that are good in and of themselves. The challenge is how to appropriate technology to further this advocacy.

Anyway those are my thoughts... What do you think?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Some more on ebooks

I thought I'd add a couple of more links to Cindee's discussion of ebooks below.

First is this helpful post from Tim O'Reilly on the economics of ebook publishing. He cautions against simply assuming the economic model that works for itunes will work for books, mostly because of the greater time commitment involved in reading a book vs listening to a song. Thus it may not be true that lowering the price of ebooks will drive up demand with significant enough numbers to justify the price cut. O'Reilly also shares lessons they've learned from distributing O'Reilly ebooks and suggests looking at cable companies packaging of different channels as a possible economic model for ebooks.

Second, I thought I link to this post on Jesus Creed where Scot McKnight asks his readers for their comments on the Kindle. The response is a mixed bag but I think it is worth hearing the different perspectives especially since they come from similar types of people that we are likely to provide service to in our library.

Finally here are more of my book marks on ebooks, ebook readers, and Kindle.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Changing How not What

Eric Lease Morgan has posted a lecture (in text form) he gave this month entitled Today's Digital Information Landscape. I find that his stuff is generally worth reading and this is no exception.

In the lecture he argues libraries don't need to change what they do but rather how they do it. ELM identifies the "what" that libraries do as "collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination." In the lecture he talks about specific opportunities afforded to the library community by XML, databases, indexes, computer networks, and more.

As I read this I wonder, do we really know or think about what we (academic librarians) do? We know how to do lots of things, acquire and catalog all types of material, circulate it, answer questions, etc. But when we are claiming serials or cataloging DVDs, what are we doing?

ELM writes that, "The catalog needs to be defined as the content needed by the students, instructors, and scholars necessary to do their learning, teaching, and research." He goes on do discuss the catalog as the place where collections and services connect. How we populate this catalog and the types of services we offer may need to change but finding and supplying the content needed by our community will not.

This leads me back to the topic of community. If we as librarians are not connected to what our community needs, both their information needs and their educational or instruction needs, we are left doing what we know how to do whether it is appropriate or not.

Finally, I also wonder if building community is part of what libraries do. Though we may think more pragmatically about our interactions with patrons, Stephen Abram for one argued that it is the uniquely human connections and the social network they create that makes libraries and librarians valuable.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Online community (part 1)

I was talking about online community the other day and how the library might foster it when I was asked what I meant by the word "community." I think it is a fair question and so I've started to think some about just what do we mean by online community and why should a library be involved in creating or building it.

Since I'm only starting to think about this, I'd love to hear your ideas or citations of helpful resources. Please post them in the comments.

The OED has its usual plethora of suggestions including, fellowship, communion; life in association with others. I've also begun to think of examples of community that might be helpful in this context. One example is sitting around a dorm room with fellow students discussing, laughing, and questioning what we are studying - this seems to me a learning community in action. Another positive example is meeting a professor over lunch and talking about classes and their connection to life. Should we try to replicate these kind of experiences online? What other, perhaps unique expressions of learning communities might exist online?


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Working with the Facebook Generation

I got an email announcement about a forum at ALA Midwinter that sounds relevant to our task force. It's called "Working with the Facebook Generation: Engaging Student Views on Access to Scholarship." Probably none of us are going to ALA Midwinter, but maybe there will be information about the forum afterwards. It sounds like they're going to do a podcast. Here is their website if you're interested in reading more about it:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on ebooks, part 2, the Kindle

In addition to my earlier comments about ebooks in general, I wanted to make some comments about the Kindle, Amazon's new reader. I really haven't looked at it carefully until today, primarily because I'm happy with my current ebook arrangement, and partly because of the $400 price tag.

But when I'm commenting on ebooks, it seemed like an oversight not to look at the Kindle, so I went to Amazon and started reading up on it.

The first thing I noticed is that it's sold out. Completely. You can get on a waiting list, but devices ordered today will not be available before Christmas. That tells me that it's sold better than even Amazon dreamed of. Maybe this will be the thing that convinces people ebooks are here to stay, after all.

Another of the first things I checked is the availability of books, and despite the way Amazon is promoting their arrangements with publishers and the amount of content they have available, I've not yet found a book available for Kindle that's not available in other ebook formats. The Harry Potter books aren't. Neither are recent books by Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, or Tolkien. For the record, as I understand it, this has to do with individual authors rather than particular publishers. For example, to date, the Tolkien estate has flatly refused to let any of Tolkien's works be made available electronically.

In other cases, it's just the way the author's contract was written.

(Note: this doesn't contradict my earlier comments concerning the prevalence of most bestsellers being available in ebook format. There have always been a few authors whose works aren't in electronic format, for whatever reason. My point is that, as yet, Kindle doesn't appear to be offering any books that haven't already been available electronically.)

Over nine hundred people have left reviews for it, but the average is three stars out of five. Of those, 372 gave it four or five stars, 272 gave it only one star, and the others gave it twos and threes.

Having skimmed the one star reviews, what becomes apparent isn't a problem with the Kindle, but a problem with Amazon's review system, one authors have long known about: people leave 'reviews' not because they've read the book/tried the product, but because they have an ax to grind. In this case, most of the one star reviews have been left by people who clearly haven't purchased one, and don't intend to so. The ax in this case appears to be DRM. People are angry at the thought of not being able to lend the books out. It's a fair complaint, but not relevant to the Kindle, per se, and I'm not sure it's not as much a backlash against the music industry as anything else.

To a certain extent, publishers benefit from people being able to lend books, since at least some of the time, that results in the person who borrowed the book either buying it for themselves, or buying the next book by the author. But on the other hand, people have to accept that if no one pays for something, whether it's an mp3 or a book file, then the musician/author doesn't get paid, and since they have to eat, too, eventually, no more books or music get made.

Another recurring complaint in the one star reviews, which I think is valid, is that Sprint's coverage is so limited that large sections of the country can't use the device anyway. Apparently, if you live out of major metropolitan areas, or away from the interstate system, there's no point in buying one.

What of the three star reviewers? Most of them obviously own one. A lot of the negative comments focus on the poor case, while others note that reading books on it is wonderful; reading newspapers and blogs, less so -- in part due to having to pay for things that are free on the web, and in part due to the lack of graphics. (Particularly where newspapers are concerned.) At all review levels, people complain about not being able to read .pdf documents on it.

I wonder, though, if people who are complaining about buying newspapers that are normally 'free' on the web realize that most newspapers don't put all their content on their website? That to see the whole thing, you have to read the print version?

I did see one reviewer who noted that the format that Amazon uses is essentially the same as that of Mobipocket (one of the current ebook readers.) Mobipocket has both free books (i.e., out of copyright) available as well as books covered by their DRM, and apparently it is possible to transfer DRM-free books acquired through Mobipocket to the Kindle.

This interests me. One of things that concerns me about my current setup is that PDAs are being made obsolete by smaller phones. I've assumed that at some point, when my PDA dies, I'll go for a BlackBerry (which has a larger screen than your usual phone) but if Amazon did stretch themselves to allow Mobipocket books to be installed, I'd certainly consider buying one when my PDA dies.

But then, I don't live in the wilds of the west, away from Sprint's network.


Thoughts on ebooks, part 1

I've been promising to post my thoughts about ebooks (as a longtime ebook user) for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that I have a lot to say about it (thus the division into two posts.)

I suspect I've come across as defensive about ebooks to my friends, perhaps as much so as those in the media I've accused of being somewhat anti-ebook. My frustration hasn't been that others don't seem to appreciate ebooks the way I do. It's that I feel like a lot of people are saying things, or at least suggesting things, that aren't true: namely, that ebooks have failed to this point, that there's no market for them because people love print books, and that, if they do sometime succeed, it will be a day far, far in the future with some magical device not yet created. There also seems to be a tendency to equate ebook success with the type of thing that happened with the ipod phenomenon, i.e., when absolutely everyone has one, then we'll know it's a success.

My problem with all of those sorts of remarks is that thousands upon thousands of commercially available books (i.e., books you'd buy in a bookstore, including bestsellers in both fiction and non-fiction categories) have been available for a number of years now. I bought my first books in ebook format in 2002 or so.

And here's the point I feel like a lot people commenting in the media miss: I'm not the only one buying them. Publishers are constantly adding to what they offer in electronic format, and they wouldn't do that if the books weren't selling. Re-read that last sentence, please -- I feel like it's the point most people miss.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people don't like reading from screens. Maybe they will, someday, when the right screen comes along (such as Amazon's Kindle, possibly) or maybe they simply never will, and they feel threatened enough by the idea of ebooks possibly replacing print books altogether that they do their best to deny that ebooks are already a viable format.

Whatever is behind it, it troubles me. A good friend of mine has vision problems, and discovering she could easily read ebooks on her PDA allowed her to regain the pleasure of reading -- something she'd missed for several years. (Not just fiction, either -- she has a Bible, commentaries and some devotionals she reads that way.) And yes, there are large print books available. But they cost more (where ebooks usually cost less than print books) and libraries usually have a more limited selection of large print books than what is available in ebook format.

But are others like my friend likely to discover that they can buy and enjoy all their favorite authors, when so many people in the media are busy insisting that ebooks have 'never taken off'? Not likely, and that troubles me. Why can't people who need to comment negatively on ebooks say, 'they're not for me, but others seem to like them?'

And why do people make comments comparing the lack of success with books in electronic format to that of mp3s as a way of proving ebooks have failed? It's a sad reality in our society that not as many people read as listen to music. Comparing the two is somewhat like apples and oranges. (Or given the studies noting the percentage of the population that read '1 or fewer' books in the last year, maybe apples and liver would be a better analogy.)

There are drawbacks to ebooks. Although you pay less upfront, you can't give them away. (Something most publishers see as a plus. ) DRM is handled in a variety of ways. Most of my first ebooks were purchased in Microsoft Reader format, which has a very complicated system. I've since switched to ereader and Mobipocket, which have more straightforward methods, tied to my credit card/debit card. In theory, I could give away the files, but I'd have to give away my credit card number, too. Not likely.

It's interesting that in the five+ years that bestsellers have been available in electronic format, there haven't been any reports (at least not that I've seen) of the files being pirated and made available for free. Perhaps that's why publishers are increasingly onboard with the idea. In fact, the only report I can remember of a pirated book was the last Harry Potter, where someone scanned the thing and posted it. That's a threat, whether ebooks are available or not, but I can't help but wonder if the Potter books were available in ebook format (they're not), if the pirates would have less of a target market.

I'm addicted to books, and always have been. (As a kid, I was the cliche -- hiding a novel beneath my math book and later, walking home while reading the latest library book while hoping I'd not be runover by a truck.) I've got books I call keepers I'll read over and over; I've got authors I buy automatically, and both types are on my PDA. I eat a lot of meals alone, and love having a choice of things to read. I also like curling up in bed at night with the only light being the PDA. For that matter, I love the convenience of traveling with all of my favorite books in my purse. (See? Told you -- book addict.)

That doesn't mean I don't buy and read books in print. There are books I prefer in print. For me, it's not an either/or proposition, and I don't know why so many people think it has to be.


Roy Tennant on E-Books and Use of Digitized Books in Library Catalogs

Roy Tennant posted two pieces to his blog recently that bear on recent IFTF discussions. The first post discusses an anecdotal survey by ebrary and librarians from the University of Rochester and Northeastern State U. of faculty opinions toward ebooks. Tennant concludes that ebooks and print books will both be around for a long time because we often want them for different purposes. The second post evaluates the New York Public Library's attempt to add links from records in its catalog to books digitized by Google.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Indianapolis' new Central Library finally complete

The construction process hasn't gone well (cost overruns, long delays...the usual) but it's finally finished. This link contains photos, maps and information.

Nothing really new beyond what we discussed in October -- lots of computers, a cafe...and a grand piano in the atrium. Perhaps someone visited Valporaiso University's library. ;)

In some ways, it strikes me as similar to Seattle's public library, but true Hoosier that I am, I think I like this one better:

Indianapolis Star article on the new library