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.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The problem of the middle man

An article was referred to me from "Beyond the Bookcast." It's interesting to hear (see the previous link for the podcast) what the folks from Publishers Weekly made of ALA's midwinter. On the whole, I agreed with them: things are looking up.

But having thought about this some more, I think there's something really new here. The commentators "got" what we're doing with the DCL Model. The creation of our own infrastructure, our launching of direct negotiations with publishers, our securing of significant discounts, all reveal a fundamental shift in the market.

Once we put together our system, and realized that the independent publishers and the self-published authors weren't available to us at any price through the usual suspects of Baker and Taylor, Ingrams, or 3M, we realized that we had cut out the middle man. And having done that, why not go direct to more mainstream publishers? After all, we were using the same technologies as the distributors -- and achieving a much higher degree of integration, and ease of use.

As I have written several times now, if you can't add value in the distribution chain, you become irrelevant. There are some who believe libraries have become so. And here's a defense for libraries that answers questions I'm still astonished that people are asking.

But here's MY question: Do libraries still need middle men? Increasingly, I find that distributors aren't revealing their terms with publishers, and publishers don't know their terms with libraries. Moreover, when I talk directly to publishers, I find that they've already formed ideas about libraries that are wildly inaccurate. And where did those ideas come from? The middle men.

DCL got into our system to solve a very specific business problem. But over time, I've learned that we may have solved more than we realized.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Seattle space needle and moon

This is from my phone, back at ALA's midwinter meeting. I just happened to look up just as the sky cleared. It looked, and still does look, surreal.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

My early writings

Recently Suzanne found a folder that contained photocopies and printouts of a lot of my older writings. I just spent a while reading them through. Examples:

  • "The ALL-OUT Library: a design for computer-powered, multidimensional services," my first professional piece, co-written with Jim Sleeth. He was then the assistant director at Lincoln Library, Springfield, IL's public library. I was the circulation department head. The article talked about a schema to adapt bibliographic records to include information about newspapers, community organization, and library events and programs. American Libraries, October 1983, pp. 594-596.
  • "Sending them a message: Electronic Bulletin Boards," was my next big one, and marked my introduction to the late, lamented Wilson Library Bulletin. By then I was the assistant director of Lincoln Library. (Jim had gone off to be the director of the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira, NY, from which he has now retired after transforming that institution.) Here my topic was about the then-hot topic of EBBs -- standalone message boards run by local computer geeks. I talked about how they worked, and encouraged librarians not to start their own, but to hang out on them and become engaged and influential members. I had lots of thoughts on copyright in the age of digital publishing, some musings about the influence of users rather than system owners, the possibility of gathering public opinion information electronically, and the prospect of online reference service. Wilson Library Bulletin, June 1986, pp. 30-33.
  • "The electronic hermit: trends in library automation," came along a little later. I boldly predicted the widespread adoption of the microcomputer, the graphic operating system (in the days of DOS), and something called "hypertext" (Ted Nelson's Xanadu project that basically defined and presaged the World Wide Web). I also thought desktop publishing would be big, resulting in a boom of small press publishing. I raved about CD-ROM-based reference tools, although I worried about rapacious publishers upping the price even though the cost of production was cheaper. (Hmm. eBooks, anyone?) I wasn't sure if public PC use was good for us or not; I reported on some early experiments that seemed to suggest that public access to technology didn't necessarily lead to library use of any other kind, although later research seems to prove that I was wrong. Wilson Library Bulletin, February 1988, p. 24, 26, 28, 30. 109.
  • "Assessing the assessment center," was about a hiring technique that I was sure would spread. It didn't, really. But I've used it ever since, and still believe it to be the best I've seen. Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1989, pp 18-21, 120.
  • "Terminal illnesses," part of my monthly "Microcomputing" column for the Wilson Library Bulletin, was about the worrisome rise of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and the importance of workstation ergonomics. Wilson Library Bulletin, September 1991, pp. 85-88.
  • "Is Anybody Home? Homeschooling and the library," with Suzanne LaRue. In that same issue was what I believe was only the second article to appear on the topic. Suzanne and I called out homeschooling as a trend, and encouraged libraries to respond to it intelligently, sympathetically, and responsibly. Wilson Library Bulletin, September 1991, pp. 32-37, 136.
Many of the other pieces now seem quaint. Suppose the frugal librarian wanted to wring out another couple of years from his 286, and not spring for the then-pricey 386s coming onto the market? I offered many useful tips, including the use of batch files to mimic a menu system, DOSSHELL to allow multi-tasking, shareware programs that offered alternatives to more expensive options, and so on.

I have been involved, it seems, in punditry for (OMG) 30 years. But on the whole, my record isn't that bad. It reminds me that today's library literature should consciously seek out the frontline practitioners getting their hands dirty with the new tools of the trade.

The review also confirms what I've known for all of my career. This is the best time to be a librarian. I see the seeds of change in those early articles, and I see the first bloom of those changes now. Thrilling.