Whither the book – A blog post about session 10 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

As the module, and indeed the taught part of the course itself, comes to an end we are left looking to the future and speculating on where it will take the book… and publishing… and libraries. Helping us do this was Alaistar Horne of Cambridge University Press, who had been at the London Book Fair that week with lots of other people who were likely wondering the same thing.

The answer – at least for now – seems to be that the future is complex, plural and diverse. There is no one killer app, or platform. Formats, channels and audiences will be multifarious. Take the e-book, for example. Much press was made when Amazon’s book sales in the UK tipped from being mostly print to mostly e-book nearly three years ago (how much that was due to 50 Shades I don’t even want to know). At the beginning of this year there was another slew of stories reacting to figures suggesting that the printed book was fighting back and e-books were going out of style.

It turned out that the origin of the story was Waterstones’ MD saying that sales of Amazon’s e-reader Kindle had all but evaporated in the chain’s shops. If I point out that this has little to do with the popularity of e-books vs. print books, I wouldn’t be the first. E-ink readers are now the Sony Betmax of digital books. People buying e-books from Amazon are doing so via the app on their tablets and phones.

The fuss was also fuelled by sales figures that showed a decrease in the rate of decline of print book sales. Again, not really big news.

A productive class discussion led by Horne threw up some interesting contradictions. Most of us preferred ink on paper as providing a better reading experience, but that turned out to mean simply that it was easier on the eyes. We tried to argue that printed books can have ornamental and sentimental value, and can be shared, but we could also all reel off the true benefits of ebooks: cheaper (if only a little), instantaneous, space efficient, not tied to one physical location, lighter (what’s easier on the eyes isn’t easier on the shoulders), etc.. There is also the as yet seldom realised potential of ebooks/apps/whatever to be simply better than print books at presenting content, certainly in a non-linear and more interactive way. And they can have audio, video and gaming elements. They can use the device’s sensors – mic, camera, accelerometer, GPS, etc. – to provide feedback.

As for the basic e-book, it turns out we like both formats and would buy either for different reasons in different circumstances. I personally think the book publishing industry could do its customers a favour by making buying a book more like buying a film on disc. Why not get a downloadable digital copy for the cost of the hard copy? Film companies probably do this to undermine the market in pirate downloads of their catalogues. Book publishers probably don’t feel the need to do the same. Similarly, the way in which Spotify almost gives away music for nothing only makes sense when seen as a response to digital piracy and the music labels’ fluffed response to digital in general that fed it in the first place.

Subscription means access for as long as you pay your monthly fee. But people want to own books, right?

Tell that to public libraries, which are now experimenting with e-book lending themselves, thanks to publishers’ belated agreement. Libraries been giving it away for years. No wonder the suits are finally trying to close them down.

Its only just beginning…


The end is nigh – A blog post about session 9 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

As I write this my last day of lectures at #citylis looms. However, you still need to hear about last week’s session, which was comprised of two guest speakers: Matt Finch and James Baker.

I won’t try to describe what Matt does for a living as you might not believe me, but you can read it from his own hand here. Matt gave a very engaging and inspiring presentation describing some of the events and activities he has made happen around the world, particularly ones promoting literacy and public libraries as vital community resources.

This chimes with the overarching theme of the #INM380 module, namely that digital technologies are changing the way that the information ‘industries’ have conventionally worked, giving rise to many challenges and opportunities, not least for public libraries, which need to widen the scope of what they do if they are to have a secure future. According to Matt, some of this might involve zombies and burlesque artists. In fact, he’s already proved how that can be a great success. Perhaps my favourite policy of his was taking the trouble to go back to the catalogue and improve metadata on a library’s stock and make sure that patron’s search results give better results. Focus this on titles of particular interest to young and Google-savvy readers and it could make a real difference.

James Baker is a digital curator at the British Library (BL) and has spoken at #citylis before and always has many interesting things to say on the subject of digital humanities, although he doesn’t like that term. He provided a very good example of how to grasp the issue. The BL has many large datasets as part of its collections – both metadata on its own materials and discrete datasets. Take its Digitised British newspaper collection – far too much text for any human scholar to process, but it can be done computationally.

When you start to think what could be done like this it seems a great pity that the majority of the BL’s 56 million catalogued items will likely never be digitised, at least not before technology advances enough for us puny humans to be redundant anyway.

In which case we might all be holed-up in our remaining public libraries as our digital overlords debate what to do with us. So, until that distant time, if your local library organises a zombie apocalypse, shuffle along as they’re training you up for the FUTURE.

‘Oh no, not again.’ – A blog post about session 8 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Our last session before Easter (yes, I know I’m a bit late writing it up but my excuse is that I wrote the assignment essay for this module instead, hah) was on the subject of Reference works; past, present and future. We heard from Diane Louise Bell and Katharine Schopflin, both of whom know a thing or three about the subject as it relates to libraries.

With academic libraries in particular, the conventional distinction between reference works and others is being blurred by changes in the way that readers now access information, thanks to technology. Reference works were the ones in multiple volumes, with expensive bindings designed to last longer than you, that you were permitted to consult but never to borrow. They were too frequently referred to – and expensive – for that.

But today we get a lot of reference information online, either from Wikipedia, or from online versions of established reference works that our library subscribes to. We don’t need to borrow something that we (and any number of others) can (simultaneously) read remotely. Digital publication also has the advantage that updates are much faster and less expensive than with printed volumes.

Douglas Adams famously predicted the handheld interactive information resource (think Wikipedia on a tablet) with his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978). This was positioned as a refreshing antidote to the stuffy Encyclopædia Galactica (originally Asimov’s concept) –

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopædia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover. [© Douglas Adams]

Hearing from Katharine how the classical encyclopaedias were compiled got me thinking about alphabetisation, which is something that I’m hoping to research as part of my dissertation. It might sound a bit basic but it is interesting to me that entries written into a book in an arbitrary order would be later cut out and filed in a different order to aid retrieval. This is essentially the transition from book the book catalogue to the card catalogue, which we use today, albeit in digital form.

It is fascinating to think how, for a project that would take decades to complete, a scheme of entries and cross-references could be compiled in advance, before the articles themselves were written. And, of course, they didn’t need to be written (or rewritten) in alphabetical order.

Before this it would have been much more likely for reference works to be organised according to a schema derived from some perceived great order of things, with God at the top, naturally. In that sense, alphabetisation is one of the foundations of modernity. A bit like the Hitchhikers Guide.