Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Higher School of Economics

I had a leisurely morning yesterday, catching up on blogging, then met the very charming Yelena again, then Masha from the Embassy, and off we went to the Higher School of Economics (HSE). Our embassy driver was fearless. After two days of snow, then rain, it was all slush and ice. The HSE was in the older part of Moscow, which meant very narrow streets, and lots of little hills. But our driver went careening through, often inches away from the parked cars, but always under perfect control.

Then we walked up five flights of stairs to meet with about 15 students of various ages. There was one librarian, a number of journalism students, and a few writers. My key topic was again ebooks. The second time through with Yelena the interpreter was fun. We worked very smoothly together, and did a better job communicating humor. I very frank about what wasn't working in the US right now (Big 5 market moves, and why that was driving us to consider new sources of content). I also talked about how libraries might even become publishers not just of books, but of newspapers.

Next I talked about censorship issues. This time, I was careful to include internet filtering, mandated by the federal government when we take grant money, and various state restrictions. I talked about how we do that (buy filtering software, limit it to graphic depictions of sex only, etc.). It was a lively crowd. They wanted to know my views about limiting materials that were "extremist." I replied that many of these categories of "dangerous" were very open to interpretation. The problem, as always, is who decides? If the state, if a religion, even if the wise and noble librarian, there is the possibility of abuse. In the United States of America, the role of the library is to serve individual exploration, to sample the many contradictory streams of our culture.

An example: few libraries collected the works of the African American writers in the period before the push for civil rights. Yet this work, coming not from the mainstream but from the fringe, was very powerful and ultimately very positive. To tie this back to the ebook discussion, we can expect a huge influx of fringe materials.

Finally, there is something very affirming about doing these talks. Librarians in the US believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. That exposure is better than suppression. It's messy, it can be awkward. But ultimately, the willingness to confront the new, the odd, and even the threatening is an act of intellectual and moral courage. And it makes us better prepared for the future.

At the end, I again thanked my interpreter, who was clearly having as good a time as I was. I also thanked the US Embassy, and HSE.

I returned to my hotel, where I was interviewed about these topics again for Voice of America. The reporter reminded me very much of a colleague back in the states. There is a persistence of physical and emotional characteristics across the human family, whatever the nation of origin.

Later, I walked through the Red Square to find a restaurant. On the way back, I had an odd thing happen. As I was hopping over puddles and the snow, the man ahead of me dropped a plastic pocket with some visible currency. I called out, "Sir!"

A man walking up behind me then also called out. The man who dropped the money turned around, stepped back, and picked up the money. He started to thank us. Abruptly, a third man approached from the opposite direction, flashed a badge, then asked for and examined ID and wallets from the other two, then, hearing my English, a passport from me. He asked if I am police. I said, No. He asked how many packets of money had been dropped. I said, "One." He very professional patted me down, then asked for the things in my pockets. One by one, carefully and poised to grab them back, I handed him cell phone (immediately returned), my pocket notebook (returned), then my wallet.

Is there anything about this that feels like a scam? Could these three guys be working together? I was on total alert.

Everything came back intact, despite his quick rifling through my money. The guy with the badge said "I'm just doing my job," and the other two did feel genuinely on edge. The man who dropped the money apologized profusely to me. I disengaged as quickly as possible, then went direct to the hotel (maybe 3 minutes, tops). Then I felt my left pocket afterward: no hotel key. I went direct to the desk, disabled the old key and got a new one. Then I went straight to my hotel room, where I saw that I'd left my card on the table. Bottom line: after four double checks, I didn't lose a thing.

It seems highly unlikely that an officer was both available and alert. On the other hand, this is just outside the Red Square and a luxury hotel, and there might well be undercover cops around. If not, maybe there was something about the setup that made them think I didn't have enough money worth stealing (I didn't by policy), and might be something other than what I appeared.

At any rate, it's the kind of thing that leaves you feeling a little paranoid. I stayed in my hotel for the rest of the night.

Today is my last day. I'm off to a panel discussion at a non-fiction book fair. Then I hope to grab a souvenir or two, pack up, and get ready for my return. A fascinating place, Moscow.

Russian State Libraries

After another breakfast buffet (salmon caviar!), I met Peter and one of his other staff people in the lobby. We walked over through the second day of snow to the Russian State Library, just a couple of blocks away. There I met Yelena, my new interpreter. The Russian library is a huge couple of buildings behind the Dostoyevsky statue, and contains some 10 million or more items. I was introduced to several key directors of the library, then they took me up stairs to a very fancy board room, where about 30 librarians from the largest Moscow libraries wandered in to listen. A tech guy set me up with my slides (bless the little wearable jump drive).

My talk to this group was mainly the 5 trends talk. Then I took questions, and segued a bit into the censorship talk. I begin to see why there's such an interest in this topic here. There is in fact a list of titles that are forbidden -- mostly related to terrorism. One of the librarians asked if we'd ever experienced this interesting challenge: Muslim patrons demanding a private place for prayer. I asked if she meant staff, and she said no, patrons. There have also been recent national attempts to block access to certain internet sites. I'm pleased to say that I got them to laugh, mostly when I told them that no one complains about subversive materials because they too busy complaining about fairy tales and reading books about vampire sex.

There was a lot of discussion, again, about the difference between preservation - very important for the Russians - and promotion, which is the marketing approach I was talking about. As I'd learned in Nizhniy, librarians have standards - even mandates - to maintain collections, and getting rid of books, even books that no one uses, is difficult. But I found that by talking about digitization, perhaps we could both preserve (in archival computer collection) AND promote newer materials.

My friend Nicky showed up for a bit, but then had to hurry off to catch his flight in the bad weather (20 centimeters of snow in two days, and many flight delays).

At the end, they gave me a couple more beautiful books. Everyone in Russia has been extraordinarily welcoming and kind.

Then we went out to lunch at a nearby place, all you can eat for 380 rubles. It included mashed potatoes with pumpkin, which was pretty darn good. I also got some fish, some cabbage, and some diced chicken with hot sauce.

Next was an embassy car ride to the Russian State Library for Young Adults. The director (I don't seem to have her name) was remarkable. This library was a delight: modern, wired (and wireless), it is dedicated to youth ages 13 to 30. It was set up as a series of maybe 400 sf rooms. One was dedicated to a cafe experience. One a viewing station with benches and pillows. Another a listening station to older vinyl. One was a science collection. Another, art. One room was dedicated to the history of printing, and included several books (in cases) printed before the founding of the USA. They do have history. One room for comic books and manga. One space (with books and chairs) for small children, either of staff, or visiting siblings of the youth). I have to say that this really worked - a collection and staff really focused on one age group might be very effective not just in Russia.

In the basement were a couple of theater style meeting rooms, and a workout room for the staff (most of whom, the director told me, don't make enough money to afford this themselves).

My presentation - about ebooks - went to about 40 staff members. I had trouble at first getting them to laugh. Maybe that's because I began to sweat profusely, some weird accident of walking around and jet lag, I suppose. One of the tech guys cranked up the air-conditioning, which helped. They loosened up in the questions. I finally got them to laugh when describing how we have a library board appointed by county commissioners even though our library is independent. Why is it so? They asked. "It's politics," I said, "it doesn't HAVE to make sense." They asked if all American libraries are doing what we do with ebooks. No, I said, we were ahead of the curve. But we had to do something; our vendors were making real problems for us. I underscored that librarians have much to learn from each other, and all of us have challenges.

In a discussion afterward with one of the tech guys, he said that pirated ebooks are available on free download sites within hours after they are released. But there doesn't appear to be any attempt on the part of publishers to do copy-protection. Books are released on various commercial sites as pdfs, doc files, and epubs, then pirated. No one will buy what is available for free, even if stolen, and violating copyright. But again, I don't think they have the ability to integrate ebooks into their catalogs in the sense of controlling their loan.

Finally, I was approached by a reporter and photographer from "theoryandpractice.ru." The questions were again focused primarily on censorship. The interviewer questioned the background differences of law between our countries, and I talked about the First Amendment, and why people challenge books. I did not mention internet filtering, which is required in many states, and I should have. He asked me often about the difference between American and Russian libraries and asked what I'd recommend. But again I underscored that I hadn't come to tell them how to change, just to compare notes and learn from each other. Then the photographer took about two hundred photographs, to the point of silliness (just to get one!).

Then I rode back through nasty traffic jams to the hotel. Moscow is a series of big rings, highly inefficient. The average annual income is something like $10,000; cars cost $8,000. I'm not sure how everyone has a car. It reminded me that coming back from Nizhniy, Steve said that it would be an hour by car, or under 5 minutes by subway, so we took the subway, which was fun, fast, and fascinating.

I'm tired today. I woke up around 1:30 a.m., and stayed up till almost 4. I'll probably get adjusted from jet lag just in time to fly back and start all over again.

Today I have just two engagements, tomorrow just one. It will take me, I suspect, many weeks to process everything I'm learning.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tales from Moscow

I arrived in Moscow last Sunday around noon. On Monday I gave two talks, as noted in my previous post. Tuesday, I got to take a high speed train (100 mph, if that's what 160 kilometers per hour shakes out to) to Nizhniy Novgorod, the 5th largest city in Russia. The train was very new, modern, comfortable.

The day started when I was picked up by Steve, an embassy Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer. He lived in Moscow as a student for 10 years, and his Russian is excellent. We were driven to the train station. Differences from American trains: you walk through a security gate to get in the door, then another security gate before going to the train platform. There, my passport was checked and noted by a guard. I gather that access within the country, whether for travel or work, remains subject to approvals and monitoring.

Once we arrived in Novgorod, we took a taxi to our hotel, then were met by Lyudmilla, a vivacious and articulate interpreter. She took us on a walk along the Volga River to the Linguistic University of Nizhniy Novgorod, where Lyudmila had graduated. I gave two talks: "chasing the library patron" for a group of university libraries (with a lot of ebook stuff thrown in). Lyudmilla was the translater, and giving a talk through a translater is kind of fun. Then I gave a talk for a veritable crowd of English speaking students on "intellectual freedom" (anti-censorship) in American libraries. Their English really was remarkably good, and they had lots of follow-up questions. Then Steve and I walked downtown to a place called Nostalgia and had some really remarkably good Georgian food: a kind of white salty cheese pizza with a goulash spread, and lamb ribs. Local beer.

Back at the hotel I saw a sign for billiards, which Steve asked about. We were then led through many winding corridors down to a dedicated billiard room. It was huge table with very tight pockets -- like a snooker table. There was a cue and 15 numbered balls, but all white and large. It required a lot of very precise shooting to get everything in.

The next morning Lyudmilla picked us up in her car, and took us to the City Library District of Priokskiy. There are 91 libraries in the city, most on the smallish size. This one had been recently renovated, and was very clean, brightly painted, and crammed with books. I had a chance to meet the manager of the library, who was clearly smart, competent and successful. I then presented, through the translater, on 5 trends in American libraries. With questions, this ran over 2 hours. Then I got a presentation from the manager about their library. Clearly, they are progressive and committed. They do what most American libraries do, I would say - lots of programs and partnerships with others. But the focus is far more on preservation than circulation. The state provides detailed standards for visits, holdings, and so on, and requires equally detailed reports. As a a consequence, there probably isn't as much experimentation as in American libraries. We talked about a contrast between library as warehouse, and library as bookstore. There seem to be a lot of librarians needed to keep things going -- they don't, apparently, have shared cataloging databases like OCLC, for instance. I gathered that librarianship doesn't pay well in Russia or have much prestige. Yet I found in them the same passion for service that we see in the States.

Following this, Steve, Lyudmilla and I went out for lunch -- I had chicken fillet, rice and vegetables, all rich, creamy, and yummy.

We hopped back on the train, and sat in the diner car on the way back chatting. A most pleasant way to travel. Between the two cities (a four hour ride) are miles and miles of forest, alternating between very tall but skinny pines, and birch. There was snow on the ground, although not a lot. Both in Moscow and in Nizhniy Novgorod, I showed up for the first snow of the year. I gather that's unusual. But it's been snowing ever since!

I came back to my hotel, got a new room with essentially the same very plush interior as the last, but on a different floor. I'm not sure why this is, but the first night, I had to step up from the hallway about six steps to my room. On the next floor up, I step down about six steps.

Breakfast buffet this morning, and in a little while, I'm off to the Russian State Library to talk about trends, censorship, AND chasing the library patron to 20-30 librarians from the largest Moscow libraries. Following that, I talk about ebooks to (I think) a different group. Finally, I gather I'm being interviewed for the Theory and Practice website (theoryandpractice.ru).

Monday, November 26, 2012

First talk: ebooks

I just finished giving my first talk in Moscow, a lecture for "students and professors" at the Russian State University for the Humanities. The topic was "The Role and Future of Books in the Digital World." I gave it in English -- the students are part of the American Studies program, headed by Marina Kaul.

Having taught a class last summer with friend and colleague Sharon Morris, the setting was familiar. Bright students listened carefully and asked some great questions. Virtually all of them, as undergraduates, had read ebooks. When asked if they paid for what they read, they all laughed.

Of course, a great deal of what they read is probably on Project Gutenberg. But not all. When I asked if ebooks were available from their local libraries, the consensus seemed to be that they were not.

So far, I'm holding up well. I got to my hotel about noon yesterday, then walked long and fast with Nicky, my translator from Bulgaria, now teaching English in Moscow. I crashed around 7:30 (after having been awake for some 26 hours), woke up about three hours later, then managed to fall back asleep till about 7 a.m. So I got up, had breakfast (a terrific buffet at the hotel, a mix of American and Russian choices), and got picked up by Peter of the US Embassy, and an embassy car. I feel remarkably well synchronized to local time, although the long morning gloom (it didn't seem like morning till about 10 a.m.) was a little surprising. (It seems like the sun went down around 5:30-6 last night.)

Lunch was at the university commissary -- a kind of macaroni and a helping of stroganoff, and a side salad. Compote, maybe some kind of red currant. All tasty and reasonably cheap - 181 rubles.

Then I came back to the hotel for a cup of coffee in the hotel lounge, where there's a pretty nice jazz piano going on.

In a couple of hours I head out to the second talk of the day.

Disable Secure Boot to Install Linux

I just know I'm going to need this some day. In short, to get to the point where we can attempt to boot an alternative operating system we need to know our way through six steps:
1. Boot machine while pressing F10
2. Find Secure Boot in the menu tree, ignore warnings
3. Disable Secure Boot feature
4. Enable legacy boot options
5. Enable specific legacy devices, such as USB devices
6. Save and reboot while holding down F9

All of this is from a Distrowatch piece by Jesse Smith. No doubt all of this won't work when I need it either, but somebody might Google it up and find it. Some things we must pay forward.

A follow-up: The currently favored solution is a workaround: a pre-bootloader signed by Microsoft (so it passes secure boot) that can then be used to load a normal Linux bootloader without further signature checking. One Linux developer, Matthew Garrett, has managed to get Microsoft to sign a pre-bootloader called Shim. You can download it today and use it to boot Linux on your Windows 8 machine. Shim should soon find its way into SUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, and other major Linux distros.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Moscow

The flight was uneventful. Delta took off on time (a little early getting off the ground), and arrived a little ahead of schedule on the other end. I got to watch Lincoln Vampire Hunter on the way over, and that was interesting, having just seen Spielberg's Lincoln. I liked them both. Yes, Sally Fields did a great job telling off those pompous politicians. But Mary Elizabeth Winstead offed a vampire. Spielberg's Lincoln told stories. Bekmamatov's Lincoln wielded a silver-tipped ax. So on the whole, pretty balanced.

The Moscow airport was airy and bright, although the sky was very cloudy, and it was gently snowing. The airport is lined with tall pines. Customs was a breeze. I got picked up by somebody holding up a card with my name, which was fun. He spoke no English, and I speak no Russian, but he was friendly, and let me sit up front so I could see better. The drive into town (I'm right across from Red Square, it seems) was interesting, too. Lots and lots of tall apartment buildings, in various states of repair. But many signs of economic growth: some cool new office buildings, corporate headquarters. Everyone wears jeans.

Despite my very careful pre-notification of my credit card company that I would be in Russia, and when, they blocked it. Infuriating when you're trying to check in after a long flight. My phone doesn't seem to work here (can't find a mobile network) so I don't even have a way to call them. But I have more than one card, the hotel has free wireless, a money changing counter, and English-speaking staff, so life is pretty easy. A quaint and clean room. I'll try to post pictures eventually.

In a bit, I'm going to wander around and try to wear myself out a bit to accommodate to an 11 hour difference between Denver and Moscow.

Friday, November 23, 2012

To Moscow!

Thanks to the recommendation of Sue Polanka (of No Shelf Required fame), I picked up a gig from the US Embassy in Moscow to go talk about American library issues. Over the space of 6 days, I'll give four distinct talks on 9 occasions. The most requested one is about ebooks. Digital publishing may be taking off in Russia, and the United States is a little ahead of the game. But I'll also be talking about 5 trends in US public libraries (a focus on early literacy, ebooks, community reference, library as place, and access to technology), censorship (as discussed in my book "the New Inquisition"), and "chasing the library patron" (strategies for increasing library market penetration. I hope to learn as much as I can about Russian libraries, and to blog about that for American Libraries upon my return.

I've never been to Russia before, so that's exciting. I even get to take a train trip from Moscow to Nizhniy Novgorod and back.

One would think that Moscow at the end of November would be pretty cold. But it's only about 34 degrees there -- pretty warm for a place as far north as that. To someone born and raised north of Chicago, that sounds quite tolerable.

RIP Acer Aspire One

Well, I guess the time has come. The Acer Aspire One, despite my upgrading of the BIOS, doesn't want to charge its battery anymore. So it is slowly just losing its charge, and will die. And that's OK, since I have another Acer laptop that I bought back in June when my desktop computer died. I got a lot of use out of the Acer Aspire One. And honestly, how many computers does a boy need?

But I will try to make sure that I've backed up everything, then reformat the internal drive before I recycle it. One can't be too careful.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Writers support libraries

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but I continue to think about it.

A lot of librarians missed this: NWU Supports Librarians' Objections to Publishers' E-book Licensing Terms.

There's an interesting issue here. We all know, consumers and libraries alike, that in effect, our ebook purchases aren't purchases at all. They are licenses. We can't give the books away, we can't resell them, we can't donate them. That's a license. Yet Random House has declared that libraries own their ebooks.

Here's what a lot of people don't know. I didn't. Modern author contracts call for an author royalty of 10% or so for sales. But for licensing, authors are supposed to get 50%. So you have to wonder: is Random House licensing their works, but taking 90%, when they should only get 50?

Somehow, this copyright and publishing framework has become a corporate asset, benefitting neither the public, nor the creator.

Calling all authors: why not publish at the library? We'll give you 90%.

Having said that, of course, at this writing, few libraries have the means of receiving a donation. But that's changing. I believe we're seeing a movement toward direct library management of digital content. So at some point, the question becomes, who will the author and the public trust more: the publisher (Random House), the distributor (Amazon or OverDrive), or the local library?

Copyright reform?

I ran across various links today on Twitter to a Republican House Committee report on current copyright laws, and in particular, about how those laws have gone way too far. You can find one posting about it here. To quote from that article,

... [the report] goes on to look at some of the specific harms of today's copyright law, including harming remix culture and a lot of commercial activity around it, that it "hampers scientific inquiry," discouraging value added industries and others.

Finally, it puts forth suggestions for copyright reform that go way, way, way beyond anything we've seen legitimately discussed in Congress, ever.

I think it's clear that copyright has become a corporate property, used more often to suppress the works of others than to advance the public good, or even assure the compensation of the creator. A corollary is software patents, which are also used (as in the case of Apple and Microsoft) not to foster innovation, but to seek monopolistic control, aided and abetted by the power of government.

It is indeed time for a change. Interestingly, the GOP first advanced this report as a way to become the party of youth, whose "remix culture" makes overreaching copyright laws annoying and burdensome. Relief from these restriction might well stir up feelings of support and gratitude among today's decisive new voters.

Republicans: the party of innovation, less governmental interference, the party of tomorrow?

No. Because, of course, the report has now been withdrawn, allegedly due to pressure from Hollywood.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mystery of the missing ebooks

That's the title of this Huffington Post piece by Art Brodsky. It does a very good job, in clear, jargon-free language, of telling the public just what's going on with ebooks and libraries. Not a pretty picture.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Diane Ravitch on educational reform

This piece by education historian and former assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush captures a lot of things I believe. I started out eager for educational reform, and concluded that the two big streams of standards and charter schools just didn't get us there. Worth a read.