Bookshare: library or club?

Sutton Council is keen to stress that its new Bookshare scheme is no substitute for its ‘wonderful library service’.

Both the council and Adrian Short, the developer of the service, say that it is, on the whole, another push to get more people reading, not something to undermine the local authority-run library but to run alongside it.

Sutton Bookshare is the scheme whereby people living or working in the borough can offer their books for loan via a networking site, and in turn choose from books belonging to others. They meet up in person to swap books.

It’s catching the eye of the media, with Radio 4’s PM, the Guardian, and now the Press Association covering it.

When I wrote about it being developed last November, in CILIP Gazette (11 Nov, p.2), I noted that Sutton is a test bed area for the ‘Big Society’. This is always going to ring alarm bells for some people. The Guardian reported that library campaigners are worried that no matter what the council says, it will undermine the library service. I wonder myself whether the £30,000 grant that funded it couldn’t have gone on resources for the library, although I believe this figure is for a wider project called Sutton Open Library.

The aim is to allow ‘difficult to get hold of’ books, titles not likely to be available at the local library, to be shared out among the community. Another aim is to help build and reinforce personal relationships, as people have to meet up to loan out or borrow the books. So you get to meet people, presumably, with shared interests.

When I signed up (yet I live in Glasgow – does it think I commute to Sutton to work?) I was attracted by a lot of books on design theory and urbanism. Clicking on a few, I found Adrian Short himself owned all these. So, it worked, as it would have been a good chance to meet up with him and discuss something I’m interested in.

I would like to see how this social side of the project develops, and how closely this can become aligned with the aims of the library service. I find it rather hard to grasp at the moment. As for other practical connections, there are direct links from books on the Bookshare site to that book’s page on the library service’s catalogue (if available). It also links to Amazon, in case you want to buy it.

But will it really get people ‘hooked on books’? Won’t the scheme attract people already into books enough to feel that they have interesting ones to offer for loan?

I’m sure the last thing the developers wanted was to create exclusivity, but the idea feels more like a club than an inclusive library.

I suppose the most immediate benefit I thought of for public libraries is that they are the most obvious venue in which to meet up with a stranger to swap books.

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Ins and outs of context

Publishing – and consequently bookselling and libraries – is going through upheavals. Reading a piece about tackling problems for publishers, I was sidetracked by something on one of my favourite related subjects – containers.

In his fascinating piece, Brian O’Leary of publishing consultants Magellan Media, says that book and newspaper publishing should no longer be governed by their physical containers. “Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.”

These days, he says, context is king. Containers are restricting publishing. Publishers have to compete on context, not content. Digital natives demand context – tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, “even good old title-level metadata,” Or they will go elsewhere. By concentrating on the product – the book or magazine – publishers have neglected making it as easy as possible to discover and access.

And not only born digitals read, or search, differently. It’s now true everywhere in the digital world that “search takes place before physical sampling.”

Readers – or searchers – also want to engage with contextually-rich content, and this means that publishers need to give readers access to certain tools with which to do this.

I think his most interesting point is that the reason for the switch from content to context is the growing abundance of content, and I’m glad he nods to the fact that most of this is going to be rubbish; hence the need for better discoverability.

And, when it comes to better discovery and access, he says, “nothing substitutes for authorial and editorial judgment… Context can’t be just a preference or an afterthought any more. Early and deep tagging is a search reality.”

I’m glad he makes this conclusion, as it points to a nice, meaty role for the information professional. None of use want to waste time wading through a morass of irrelevance.

Nowhere does O’Leary mention different types of content, however. The old types of content are closed, authoritative, but I think this still suits fiction. I do not want a good story’s narrative rhythm to be in any way interrupted by interactivity.

Similarly, Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, said recently that she thinks interactive book apps for children are a bad idea.

It would distract them from reading. Zadie Smith, in her defence of libraries on the Today programme yesterday, said “We read for our lives.” Well we did.

What are our young people today going to say, “We read, then linked to another piece then watched a bit of video then looked up a reference then forgot to get back to the original story… for our lives,”?

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Rights and wrongs of must reads

There are quite a few grumpy comments about the ‘Books everyone must read’ graphic created by Information is Beautiful and published on the Guardian’s Datablog.

Apart from grumbling about the graphic itself, some object to these kind of lists dictating to them what they must read.

I would not really object to any kind of recommendation, although I don’t take much notice of them. But I’m not a typical book buyer. I only read what Nicholas Lezard tells me to in the Guardian on a Saturday (I’m only half joking – he introduced me to Stefan Zweig after all).

We all know that librarians are trusted sources of ideas and inspiration for new reads.

Is this role going to become more important when book-buying transactions are tilted even more towards e-books? How do you browse shelves of e-books?

Online book buying sites are trying to replicate the bookshop or library by suggesting other purchases that buyers of your particular book choice have made. These are based on ‘who else writes like…?’ or ‘If you like this you’ll also like…’ that librarians and library Opacs have done for years.

But new research shows that online book buyers aren’t taking much notice of reviews and recommendations, valuing more the prices and range of books online.

Book buying is obviously different to buying other commodities, for most people, I guess. I take a lot of notice of recommendations for a new pair of running shoes, for example.

It appears that readers are coming to buy books online already knowing what they want. And more and more are abandoning bookshops. In the survey of around 100,000 people, the Book Depository found that almost three quarters of shoppers (71.6%) said they bought their books online.

If they are not interested in online reviews and recommendations, it would be interesting to know where they are finding out about what to buy.

Another role for librarians to exploit even more – as long as library visitors continue to borrow the books as well!

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Libraries – tap into community creativity!

‘Are libraries at all prepared for information without publishers?’ is a very interesting question posed in response to the HarperCollins library e-book lending furore.

The publisher has decided to limit each of its e-book in libraries to 26 loans only.

Business models for lending e-books are still not set. I think we’re inhabiting a strange, murky in-between-land ruled by what Eric Hellman calls a ‘Pretend It’s Print’ model.

The format of lending out one e-book at a time seemed to be a good compromise. I wish they’d settle on a good model because with the proliferation of tablets, and e-book readers becoming so popular with the over-55s, I think e-book lending could play a big role in the fight to save libraries.

But with other publishers refusing to allow their products to be lent in e-form at all, and now this, people are beginning to think: Publishers used to be essential as they owned the presses. And so they were essential to libraries. But are they needed if it all goes digital?

Justin Hoenke, a contributor to the ‘Tame the Web’ blog, says this latest blow should make libraries consider an even greater opportunity. He says with publishers wanting to cut librarians out of the e-book market, libraries should reinvent themselves. We should turn to our community and give them the chance to create original content themselves, to add to local collections. Instead of consuming, people would be doing ‘creative, educational, and life-improving’ things.

Apparently this goes on in Copenhagen’s public libraries. Patrons produce poetry, comics, music and films.

Nicholas Schiller, commenting on Hoenke’s blog post, says: ‘Are libraries, at their core, organisations that pool public funds to buy content from publishers and make this content available to our patrons? If we are, I’m not sure there is a role for us once publishers go away. If we aren’t, we’ve got some work to do to redefine our roles in terms of information instead of the containers that information come in.’

Publishers also provide editors and, as I’ve said before, being part of the creative industry I’ve no truck with those that want to dispense with all forms of mediation.

As a freelance, I reinvent my job regularly. Now, editor of community-produced content, employed by a library – that sounds like a nice job…

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World Book Night? I’m out

I signed up for World Book Night as soon as I heard about it. I thought I’d give my copies of Half of a Yellow Sun to teenagers that, in their well-off, West End Glasgow lives, probably had no idea about what it was like to live on the other side of the world under circumstances such as experienced during the Biafran conflict.

I am old enough for that event to have such resonance from my childhood. And thirteen-year-old Ugwu is a breathtakingly vivid character.

I was yet to work out just how I was going to get these books to the spoilt teens, but it turns out now I don’t have to. In the end I had to give up my allotted freebies due to circumstances but also frustration. My presence is needed that night for family business in deepest Cheshire. I tried to find out more about the practicalities of getting and distributing the books on the night – would I have to be present? But despite my years of experience in lateral thinking and trying to find things out (journalism), came up with zilch.  So I gave the whole thing up.

Then I read various blogs from indendepent booksellers about what a bad idea the whole thing was. It would perpetuate the idea that content should be free. It’s bad enough that most people think all words written online are free that it should now be applied to words printed on paper. It’s not helped by revered commentators diminishing the role of professional writers, editors and publishers in their wholehearted embrace of the ‘here comes everybody’ culture. This is not good for the creative sector or creativity itself. Those that live by writing are already getting the lowest return on (brain) power out of all other professions (see my last blog).

It was also, said some, a weird idea to flood the market with a million free books. It would do nothing to help struggling booksellers and smaller publishers.

Another thing I’m afraid I must mention is, despite being in the thick of hearing things about library activity, I know nothing of any events by libraries either using World Book Night to promote themselves or to act as venues for the big book giveaway. I’d love to be wrong and I hope lots of things are in fact going on.

After all, as Ian Jack said in the Guardian on Saturday, urging people to read well-loved books isn’t new,  “…hasn’t the same thing been done by public libraries for more than a century?”.

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Librarians – brainy but poor?

Guess what is number 2 among most underpaid occupations relative to IQ?

The Audacious Epigone blog (‘Validating stereotypes since 2005′) has been looking at which occupations attract incomes higher than their IQ average. It has taken occupational averages, and tested IQs using wordsum scores (a verbal measure of intelligence).

(I discovered this interesting gem thanks to Matthew Mezey’s Blogwatch column in  Update magazine, out today for CILIP members, p25.)

I couldn’t see freelance journalist among the list, nor banker, although economist is near the top as low IQ / high pay. And another omission is ‘satellite TV sports commentator’, which should obviously top the list.

At the top are physician dentist, pilot, pharmacist, attorney. At bottom is author, then librarian, clergyman and retail salesman.

Sadly for me those who make their livings by way of what they write join librarian as occupations in which ‘compensation appears to be low relative to cognitive abilities’.

Most interesting of all is the final comment: ‘If any true average IQ is going to be inflated by measuring it using a vocabulary test like the wordsum, it is going to be for librarians. Still, I suspect librarians tend to be introverted types for which gregariousness is not usually a personality trait that describes them, and their earnings suffer for it.’

Would any of you outgoing librarians like to speak up against that? Comments welcome!

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Save Our Librarians Day

I hope you’ll be going to your local library on Saturday – it’s Save Our Libraries Day – even if you have time to take out only one book. Or join on the day, if you’re not already a member. How can you not defend getting e-books (and real ones) for free? It’s marvellous, isn’t it, read-ins and that, doing something I’m addicted to and calling it a protest.

Seriously, there’s a lot of campaigning going on – find out here. And once the famous authors have had their say and groups of hardworking campaigning members of the public have done their thing, its another hardworking group that has to pick up the pieces – whatever the outcome.

In all the media coverage of the cuts you don’t hear much about professional librarians – stuck in the middle between councillors, who control the cash with very little expertise in running services, and the protesting public. One of the biggest challenges faced by librarians is to become better at broadcasting what they do. It’s going to be tough trying to run ‘comprehensive’ services with much less cash, but it will be even harder to do it when you’re invisible.

Emma Cragg and Katie Birkwood had a great piece in Guardian Careers which should help to improve this situation. And public librarians have always worked hard to find ways of providing better services with less money. They organise major professional events to find out from each other – and experts from other fields – how to do it. Events such as The Edge 2011 Conference in Edinburgh (3-4 March) where they will be thrashing out practical remedies to stop the decimation of the public library network. It’s called ‘Tough Times, Tough Talk’ and it’s the brainchild of Liz Mcgettigan, head of libraries in Edinburgh, and a leading light in moving the ‘library’ into places where people want to use it.

It’s not just in Edinburgh that librarians are taking to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to tell people about their services but also to learn from each other. (Libraries ‘trended’ on Twitter recently when use of the #savelibraries hashtag rocketed worldwide.)

Librarians also have to work closely with architects, designers and developers to ensure their new libraries can help regenerate 21st century urban landscapes. Tony Durcan did this in Newcastle and Brian Gambles is doing it in Birmingham. He’ll be talking at the Edinburgh conference.

At least the media is quite good at emphasising how libraries improve quality of life. It helped to force the coalition backpedal on cutting funds to the book-sharing scheme Bookstart (although it didn’t mention that librarians were responsible for starting the scheme). It was an early winner of CILIP’s ‘Libraries Change Lives Award’ (hurry, entries for this year’s award close on Monday).

This award is one of the best things at showing how librarians’ expertise improves quality of life for all strata of society. Linda Constable, Chair of the award’s judges, says: “Robert Putnam, Harvard Social Policy Professor, popularised the concept of social capital and its importance to revitalising communities and civil society. He has stated that ‘the library is an institution rich in social capital.’” She’ll be speaking at Edinburgh too.

Only today, a commentator was castigating professional librarians for their inaction over the cuts. Perhaps he should try and find out what they actually do, and how they try and learn the best way to proceed.

Hopefully the protests on Saturday will in part be against wresting the running of libraries from those that are trying to do it efficiently and expertly and putting them into the hands of amateurs. That would do a lot of good.

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