26 April 2008

Getting it right away, getting it right

The Guardian recently wrote about a study titled Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published in January 2008. The report was written Dr. Ian Rowlands and colleagues at the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research. They must have been up all night coming up with a name that fit the acronym CIBER.
The study was commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, so it's no shock that the report emphasizes what libraries must do to ensure their survival in the face of other media competing for the researcher of the future's dwindling attention span. The report's authors display admirable reserve (they're British, after all), but they tip their hand on the title page, with a big photo of a child staring at a computer screen with nostrils flared, teeth bared, and for good measure, mad-scientist hair.
Research libraries rightly fear becoming obsolete if search engines and online information resources outperform them at their own job. The report defends the library by suggesting that readers, in their desire to get information right away, often fail to get it right.
It argues first that online researchers find good information, but they don't read it. "Around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return. . . . The average times that users spend on e-book and ejournal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. . . . users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins." I admit I'm busted, I didn't read every word of the report. But I was power browsing in college back in the 20th Century. Surely it's no surprise to Dr. Rowlands et al. that researchers often stop reading after they've found the information they need, even when they're using hard-copy sources.
Expanding on the subject of what we don't read, the report laments the tendency of academics to "squirrel away content in the form of downloads [but] there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read." This is another bad habit that folks had centuries before the Internet made it easy and cheap. Most book-filled homes and offices contain scores of unread or partially-read volumes.
The second argument the report advances is that content found online is less reliable than that found in libraries, or that users can't tell the difference. "Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google)." Traditional scholarship has always been backed by the guarantee of peer reviews--"peer" in this case being the author's peer, not the reader's. Readers of the Google generation are too quick to trust the imprimatur of their own peers, but libraries won't lure researchers back into the stacks by impugning all web content. In academic and professional circles, the web is evolving its own equivalent of peer review, and intelligent readers quickly learn to recognize the writers with sound ideas, and to ignore the quacks and hacks.
The CIBER team sees a tidal wave of suspect information threatening to drown the libraries, so they throw them an anvil. "Libraries are handicapped here by a lack of brand . . . Publishers are better able to offer something here with their strong commercial and academic brands and their rapidly expanding ‘walled garden’ information products, and strategic partnerships should be considered." The publishers can't stop this particular deluge; they're already in it far over their heads. And anyway, they've already created a brand--books--that Google regards as the gold standard for "highest-quality knowledge," as Sergey Brin said last year in a New Yorker interview.
Google lets readers get information right away. Often they get it right, too. But Google has no interest in preserving information for readers of the 22nd or 23rd Centuries. No business can wait 200 years to see a return on its investment. That's why libraries won't, and mustn't, become obsolete. Their stakeholders are not just the power-browsing scholars of the present, but those of the future. Nobody finds current information better than Google. But someday Google will be just a footnote in a volume of history, and it won't even be that unless someone is preserving volumes of history. Nobody does that better than the British Library.

19 April 2008

Trash-talking authors

As an admitted stranger in the world of fiction, I rely on Booksquare to keep me up to date with what's going on. A recent Booksquare post led me to Dear Author, a reader blog about genre (mainly romance) fiction, where unbeknownst to me, "most of the blogosphere has been mouth agape" because an author named Deborah Anne MacGillivray wrote hostile replies to a reader who had posted an unflattering review on Amazon.com of MacGillivray's book In Her Bed.
The reader, who calls herself Reba Belle, says "Looks like I will be the 'voice of dissent' here. . . . [In Her Bed] was kinda neat, actually; except that there was repeat scenes . . . when you already know the final outcome(s) kinda puts a 'blah' on the suspense/drama. . . . This happens throught [sic] the book. And dreams that we read, then experience--almost verbatum [sic]. Come on . . ."
MacGillivray's reply includes these remarks: "I am think [sic] you skimmed the book. . . and didn’t bother to see why the characters did things, just took surface reactions. . . . [your review] shows how totally you are missing the true emotions of these characters."
This outburst of trash talk shouldn't be enough to get these two sent to the principal's office, let alone set "most of the blogosphere" atwitter. Trash talk belongs in the schoolyard, not in in the big leagues. Maybe that's why there's such a fuss: we used to expect big-league conduct from book authors.
When Manny Ramirez misses a fly ball we can yell "Hey Manny, you suck," confident that Manny won't jump up in the stands and kick our butt. The social contract that keeps ballplayers from kicking the butts of hostile fans is the same one that used to keep authors from mixing it up with readers. When publishing was a one-way conversation, authors were on a pedestal, like pro athletes. It was undignified and unfair for them to rough up a fan, no matter how belligerent.
In the Web 2.0 world, even the fans get a chance to step up to the plate. Most of the blogosphere agrees that's a change for the better. But apparently, some of the blogosphere hasn't figured out that once you step out onto the field, the pros don't have to cut you any slack.

12 April 2008

Tell my kids . . .

. . . this shirt is what I want for Father's Day.

10 April 2008

More substantial than popcorn

RR Donnelley has something like 65,000 employees all over the world, working in businesses as varied as book and magazine printing, market research, and business process outsourcing. For us in the trenches, it would be hard to see Donnelley's full scope and strategy, if it weren't for the company's robust intranet site.
The Inside RRD site prominently features a Fact of the Day which showcases the work of a different business unit every day, and usually lightens it up with a little trivia about the geographic location of the facility in question. For example, Crawfordsville, Indiana, is the birthplace of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace.
The book Ben-Hur became a blockbuster movie, which brings me to today's Fact of the Day: Laura Kasischke's 2002 novel, The Life Before Her Eyes, is now a movie, and the publisher (Harcourt) used Donnelley to print books intended for sale in theater lobbies where the movie is showing.
It's the latest development in re-envisioning the book as souvenir. I'm surprised somebody didn't think of this 49 years ago, when Ben-Hur was in theaters. It's a win for the publisher, who boosts backlist sales in a neglected special-markets channel, and it's a win for theaters, who get to generate some incremental revenue while they offer patrons something more substantial than popcorn.
Why don't publishers take this to the next level, and partner with cable networks to give subscribers an option to order the book when they watch a movie at home?

If a movie can sell cigars, why not books?

08 April 2008

The Stinehour Press and the end of delight

The late August Heckscher, a prominent figure in the arts and an aficionado of fine printing, once gave a lecture at the Boston Athenaeum in which he compared letterpress printing to wind-powered boats, both antiquated technologies that people cling to just because they like them. "They have passed out of the economics of necessity," he said, "and into the economics of delight."
We printers in the marketplace of necessity face a steady erosion of our trade by the Internet and cheap foreign labor. But the Stinehour Press seemed to exist on another plane, the marketplace of delight, serving the customer for whom nothing but a book, and a well-made book, will do. The closing of the Stinehour Press, inevitable as it may be, is heartbreaking. It's like watching the last sailboat sink.

01 April 2008

If I ran the library

Tim Spalding, founder of LibraryThing, sounds the alarm in a March 26 post about some collateral damage from the demise of traditional top-down publishing. When authors make an end run around publishers by using a self-publishing service like Lulu.com, even if they succeed in reaching a large audience of readers, their books don't get bought by libraries.
Publishers used to be the judges of intellectual and literary merit. If a book didn't get chosen by a publisher, it had no merit. If it ended up in print anyway, it must be the work of a vanity press, and therefore undeserving of shelf space in a library. Spalding rightly argues that in the 21st Century, this logic has become nonsense. The problem is, nobody told the libraries, so they forgot to turn off the the vanity-press filter, and as a result nothing self-published gets in, no matter how good.
Spalding is worried about this, and he's making Andrew Savikas at Tools of Change worried, too. Me, I think I'll just go to the zoo.

The Monkey House, 1890, from www.victorianlondon.org

Zoos are a lot like libraries. Both were invented by people who had a surplus of money, time, and curiosity, and inevitably became collectors. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, a humanistic impulse in Europe and the US led to the establishment of zoos and libraries that were open to the public, supported by taxes or philanthropy. Give the common people books and baboons, and they will be educated, or at least entertained.
Behind the charitable impulse of opening these collections to the public was a hard fact: The average European or American worker in 1800 might live his whole life--all 30-odd years of it--without ever reading a book other than the Bible. And he would certainly never see a crocodile or a giraffe. Libraries and zoos opened worlds that were previously off limits to ordinary people.
Zoos have fallen on hard times lately, and it's not just because of animal-rights activists. Photography and lithography flooded the market with realistic images of exotic animals, and then movies and television put every toddler on a first-name basis with ostriches, penguins, and kangaroos. In other words, technology brought into our homes the experience we used to need zoos for, and at little or no cost to the consumer.
Are you listening, libraries? Your mission was to make learning and entertainment available for free to folks who couldn't afford to buy books. If the Internet takes over that job, maybe we won't need to keep the libraries open any more. And maybe it won't matter if there are important books that never make it onto library shelves.
Or maybe it will matter. Consider the Scimitar Oryx. These North African antelopes are extinct in the wild, and they wouldn't exist at all if they weren't preserved in zoos. Libraries, like zoos, offer a safeguard against extinction, a promise that the best ideas of our lifetime won't disappear along with the hardware and software used to deliver them.
In my March 22 post, I defined publishing mojo as finding the best ideas, presenting them clearly, delivering them conveniently, and preserving them for the future. The first three of these functions can easily be taken over by non-print media. That last one, though, is where print wins hands down, with the help of libraries.