Wednesday, August 1, 2012

People. People Who Need People, are the luckiest people in the world.

First, I need to say that I don't know what the fuck the solution is. I just know that the day will come when libraries won't have any books.  Because there won't be any books to buy.  Everything will be online, downloaded or streamed.  And libraries will either contract for space on some company server to store and distribute that content, or they will host it themselves.  Some enterprising libraries will produce some of that content, but most will lease if from elsewhere.

So, accept that as the future.  What should we do about it?

I think the answer is people.  Or more specifically, librarians and library paraprofessionals.  I have this silly notion that librarians are pretty special.  We have varied skills and interests: complex, eccentric; and can and will help you find what you need.

So when I read that librarians have become skeptical of the promise of ebooks as the cure-all for the demise of the library, I say, Right On, Sister.  We should have been skeptical from the start.

Look at a worst-case: most popular electronic content will be owned by about 15 companies: The Big 6, Elsevier, Viacom, Disney, News Corp, Sony, etc. and it's possible that most of them will agree to exclusive distribution agreements with companies like Google, Amazon and Apple.  And it's possible that even Amazon will become it's own media conglomerate, producing and delivering text, audio and video to Kindle users, including Kindle app users, which are most of us with a new phone or tablet.

So if I had to offer a solution to the future ebook problem, I would say Fuck You to the above corporations.  I would cut my e-content budget and put that money back into staffing. We're so busy trying to sell the "invisible web" (our databases and other subscription content) to our users when they don't seem to care.  They can get what they want with a Google or Wikipedia search.

But our library visitors want service.  They want help with technology.  They want someone to help them sort out the visible web.

Answer: Cut the ebook budget and hire more people.

If that's not enough of an answer for you, then follow the lead from the libraries that are hosting local content.  Distribute the works of local authors, artists and musicians. "People don't want that crap," you say, but come on, millions of people are reading crap right now.  And downloading crap.  And looking at crap.  And they do this because they get recommendations from friends, acquaintances or even online sources and generated lists from computer algorithms.  People don't seem to care from where it comes, so long as some other source said it was worth their time.

And when libraries get good at hosting and distributing content, then they can approach publishers and cut deals to host their content.  But on the libraries' terms.

It seems really possible that Google will succeed in proving that indexing the contents of a book is fair use.  And if Google can do it, then libraries can do it.  And that would be the kind digital content that would benefit all of our users -- imagine being able to do a full-text search through your entire print collection from your online catalog.  And if that happens, then libraries might feel more confident about indexing and hosting more content, creating more meta-data to make collections searchable.  Combine this with the growing (?) movement away from licensing ebooks and toward making arrangements with authors to distribute content through the library, and I can see a future where libraries have the kind of control over content they held back in the old days.  And the key to all this is people.

So, cut the leases and hire the kinds of library workers who can create and manage these resources.  Hire more people to help your patrons access and benefit from these resources.

But who knows what's the best course. Like I've said many times before, I'm not the smartest guy in the room: I just have the best ass.

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