Thursday, October 9, 2014

Oh Adobe

Here's the problem: a lot of our "stuff" - both individual and business - is now in the cloud. Leaving aside the security of servers, there are also potential compromises in the transmission to and from the servers.

The issue for libraries is patron confidentiality, which we are both professionally and legally (in all 50 states) bound to preserve. (See Andromeda Yelton's impassioned post about the quandary.) Adobe, for quite some time now the near-monopolistic provider of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for ebooks in libraries, has been outed as having problems with the clear text, unencrypted transmission of user information (probably more than is strictly required to enable syncing across devices, if the usually well-informed Eric Hellman is to be believed, and I do believe him). It's possible that Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) 4 is also doing a little snooping - rummaging around your hard drive looking for other ebook information, although that's still in doubt.

Right now, if you confine your library ebook borrowing to one of the mobile apps (Bluefire is the most popular), you're probably not affected. Likewise, if you use an older version of ADE, for now. But unprotested "features" have a way of moving into newer versions, and forced upgrades.

As has been noted elsewhere, librarians are just about the only trusted voice in our society that is sounding the alarm about such incursions. So what, speaking practically, can we do about this?

  1. Make noise to our distributors. Librarians need to contact their vendors - OverDrive, 3M, Baker and Taylor all use Adobe DRM - to express their strong concern, emphasizing potential legal violations, and asking for a timeline for a fix. (It might even be more effective to address these concerns via an attorney on behalf of your library or city. A simple "letter of discovery," asking for information about possible violations of state law should suffice.)

  2. Make noise to the public. Ultimately, librarians need to get the word out to more mainstream media. It's one thing to irritate your business partners, but even worse to take a reputational hit in the larger consumer market. Tell your boards. Pass along a link, or an editorial to your local newspaper. We're whistle blowers on this one, protecting our patrons' privacy. What to pass along, exactly? "The library is investigating the evidence that one of our ebook vendors has recently changed its software in ways that compromise our patron privacy." On second thought, let's give option 1 just a little time first. It's smart to get our facts straight first.

  3. Investigate alternatives. DRM is where the problem started: it was all in the name of "protecting" your stuff. Now, it has become license not only to conduct personal surveillance, but to broadcast it to anyone with the know-how to tune in. I know OverDrive was putting together a non-Adobe DRM system (to get out of paying Adobe the 8 cents per checkout they are now assessed), but OverDrive's interests are commercial, not about confidentiality.  It may be better. I hope it doesn't become our only other option.

We're still in the Wild West of ebook systems. This kind of screw-up is inevitable and unsurprising. But now is the time to stake out the ethical ground the library reputation depends on, and let people know the system is broken, and is urgent need of repair.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bulgaria 10 years later

My first trip, a State Department grant, happened back in 1994. Nancy Bolt, then State Librarian of Colorado, teamed up with a former legislator in Iowa to arrange for a series of workshops and travel exchanges. Back then, Bulgaria was still throwing off the Soviet influence. Libraries had been tools of the state: a mechanism for the distribution of propaganda. Perhaps as a consequence, they did not enjoy a lot of public use or support.

There was also a parallel institution: the chistalistes. Think "culture center" - a place to celebrate the folk programs and activities of a country very rich in history.

The purpose of that first visit was to present a model of library as community information center. We talked about helping libraries begin to consciously collect and promote their collections to distinct market segments. We tried to encourage our colleagues to become not just passive distributors of state literature, but active, engaged, and visible "players."

But I don't want to suggest that our sole purpose was just to tell them to be more like us. We learned a lot from them, too, and found that librarians everywhere are united by more similarities than differences: we are motivated by the desire to serve, we love and promote reading, we work to make our communities better.

I spent time in Sofia, the capital, and then took a lovely bus ride through the Balkans to Dobrich, where I shadowed the very astute and forward-thinking director of the library, Elena Voeva-Yuzchenvo (who has now moved on to the leadership of an academic library) for a time.

The Bulgarians were then scrambling to join the European Union. They impressed me. Again, their history goes back past the Romans (although Roman ruins still endure there) to pre-history. I reveled in walking through their cobblestone streets, along rivers, past countless small shops. Their food is amazing.

I'm ashamed to say that over the years, I haven't stayed in as much contact with my colleagues there as I should have. All of us were busy.

But then I was invited back by the Bulgarian Library and Information Association to present a two day workshop on "community reference" -- which I pioneered with my former staff at Douglas County Libraries, and which they have written and spoken about across the country. (See my previous blog for more about "community reference.")

Bulgaria has changed. It seems far less Soviet and far more European than 10 years ago. A lot more people - young people in particular - speak English. Due to a favorable rate of exchange, it's very affordable. Sofia is still a wonderfully engaging and walkable city. The food is still great, the people are consistently gracious and interesting. Wifi is everywhere. There are a lot of shops, restaurants, hotels, and parks. 

Bulgaria has problems, though, too. First is a subtle demographic: a lot of young people abandoned Bulgaria for points west, in quest of both learning and wealth. That leaves behind some older folks who have begun to wax nostalgic about the unlimited medical care of the old Soviet era. Second is the problem of corruption: I gather it's fairly widespread, with ties to organized crime. Third is a kind of cynicism: after the Soviet collapse and the embrace of capitalism, people thought their lives would immediately begin to resemble those portrayed on American movies and TV. There is some sense of disappointment, even betrayal.

I talked with a lot of people in my week there. While not everyone agreed with this, one woman said she saw strong evidence of rising anti-American and pro-Russian sentiment. (Bulgaria is, by the way, just about half way between the Ukraine and Israel.) But this is what struck me: there are three ways, she said, that the US and Russia are the same. She said, 

1. You both think you're exceptional.

2. Neither one of you knows or cares much about the rest of the world.

3. Both of you feel free to invade any country you like, whenever you feel like it.

On the one hand, that's an awkward pairing. On the other, I see how she got there.

After the workshops, funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, I thought about the problems some of the directors had shared with me. Bulgarian libraries are seen as "the memory of the people." That's fine as far as it goes, and although no politicians would close a library, they don't invest in its success, either. So with very little funding (a fraction of what goes to even the poorest American libraries), it's hard to attract new patrons. They can't buy much in the way of collections, and there are no - not one - purpose-built public libraries in the nation. Instead, they are scattered across former Community Party buildings and other re-purposed structures, broken into a series of small rooms with too many poorly paid workers and too few resources of any kind.

While there, I was also interviewed by someone who works with a lot of children's publishers. There is widespread illiteracy in Bulgaria - a problem that may be getting worse. (This despite some very well-educated people, too, and lots of outdoor booksellers!)

Upon reflection, I wrote to my key contact in Bulgaria, the wise, vivacious, and extraordinarily dedicated Anna Popova, that although I enjoyed giving the workshop, I do not believe even widespread adoption of that strategy would really address the underlying lack of support of Bulgarian libraries. Instead, I recommended that they adopt something that I have come to believe, more and more, is the foundation of American librarianship: major outreach to children.

If you are not a library user, it takes a life transition to make you one. One of the most powerful transitions is parenthood. In the US, a third to half of our public library business revolves around children's materials. We provide free storytimes, then send families home laden with books. Study after study affirms the vital importance of a rich exposure to language to the brains of infants. As I've noted elsewhere, if a child between the ages of 0-5 can get 500 books in their home, it's as good as having two parents with Master's degrees, regardless of the actual education or income of their parents. This, in turn, affects everything from childhood health to earning potential and productivity. It's a modest investment that pays huge societal dividends.

Moreover, children's services is the most powerful recruitment strategy for libraries we have. It not only solves real and important social problems, it also establishes an emotional connection with the next generation. It is is essential to our survival.

While many Bulgarian libraries offer some services to children, there is nothing like the widespread all-out recruitment of the US. 

Can Bulgaria make that shift?

I don't know. Culture and history are powerful things. But I concluded this time, as I did the last time I visited, that Bulgarian librarians are up to the challenge. And they represent a significant asset to their nation.

From community reference to library as leader

A few weeks ago (Sept. 14-19) I made a trip to Bulgaria. (Another blog with more about that to follow!) I was a guest of the Bulgarian Library and Information Association, speaking in the national capital of Sofia to about 30, mostly public library directors about what I've called "community reference," and others call "embedded reference." 

Incidentally, as I think more about this, I've decided it might better be called "library as leader." I advocate a process that follows seven stages:

1. Brainstorm the names of community leaders. "Community" here doesn't mean just public leaders. The community could be a university, a public school, or a corporation. "Community" just means "operating environment." And "leaders" means decision-makers or influencers. 

2. Interview them. One of the fundamental skills of librarianship is the reference interview. I suggest three questions: 
- what are the key concerns of your constituents over the next 18-24 months?
- what decisions will you have to make in the next 18-24 months, and what information would you like to have first?
- who else should we talk with?

George Needham once commented to me that we should add another question: what would success look like? It's a good one.

Note that in the course of this interview, you're really not talking about the library, although in my experience leaders often ask, a couple of times, why the library is doing this. My answer: we want to understand the needs of our community, and talking to leaders is a very efficient way to do that. Also, it may be possible that the library can assist our community on some specific initiatives. Which initiatives? That's what we're trying to find out.

I find this to be a very powerful kind of advocacy. It's not the "here are a bunch of numbers about us, remember us, love us" kind of pitch. Rather, it's a subtle reminder that we are, or can be, a powerful asset not just interested in ourselves, but interested in improving the lives of everyone around us. Not coincidentally, it begins the process of cultivating relationships with those community leaders - another worthwhile outcome.

3. Catalog the community. Come back, digest, and categorize the results of the interviews. Is there overlap? What IS going on in the community?

4. Present your findings back to the community. Invite the leaders to come to a debrief session. This is what you heard - maybe 5-10 key concerns. Did you get it right? Then ask, who is working on what? 

Again, these leaders may start making statements, usually positive, about the library. But you say, "this isn't about the library, or not yet. We're just trying to understand the agenda of the community. Maybe there's a place where we can add value." 

This is why I now want to call this "library as leader." What we're doing here, through a process of interviews, convening, and facilitation, is helping the community be more conscious of its own goals. We're helping them orient to the future.

5. Now go back and pick a project. This project should advance community goals. It should be high profile and high impact. It should be something that is consonant with the library's mission.

6. Do it. Make the project happen, as professionally and effectively as possible. This might be a year, or even multi-year intiative.

7. Tell everyone about it. It's not enough to do good. People have to know about it to recognize its value. A very effective technique is the project evaluation. Ask for time in front of those community leaders, at council meetings, chamber meetings, to do a group assessment. Here's what you did and why you did it. You're done, now. (Nothing gets people's attention like telling them that you've STOPPED doing something.) Ask what parts of the project were successful, and what could be improved. Indicate an openness to new projects, with the caveat that the library will be thoughtful about assessing which ones really make a difference.

Note that my definition of leadership is not telling people what to do. It begins with questions. It involves listening and careful thought. It requires investment and the building of capacity both within and beyond the organization. It involves doing something, and letting people know you've done it.

It also involves librarians leaving the building. Hence the title of my two day workshop: "Elvis has left the building!" (And yes, the Bulgarians know all about Elvis!)

I could tell that the topic was a little out there for my Bulgarian colleagues. But it is in the US, too. Part of the workshop involves "how do you sell this" to various stakeholders: director, senior staff and supervisors, front line reference staff, city councils, media, the public. Recognize that this was delivered through a simultaneous translation setup: I lectured in English, attendees listened through headsets to live translation, they asked questions in Bulgarian, I listened through my headset to the English translation -- all coming from a tag team of two translators in a booth in the back of the room. So that's both fascinating and a challenge. But I got the impression, finally, that they found this whole process an intriguing way to raise their visibility and demonstrate their value in a time of declining use and funding.

A rebirth of blogging

Since January, I've been blogging about ebook issues for American Libraries. But since I was nominated to run for ALA president, I suggested that this might be seen as a conflict of interest, as favoritism for a candidate. ALA officials agreed, and I am on hiatus.

So I'll try to do a little more blogging here.

Note: I am, however, now writing a monthly column in Library Journal about self-publishing, which I continue to believe is the Next Big Thing for libraries. Here's the first column. - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...