Disintermediating preservation

Peter Brantley -- June 8th, 2012

I was at the Library of Congress yesterday to give a talk on the transformations in publishing; the presentation took 45 minutes, but the lively conversation afterwards with the library staff lasted for over an hour and a half. One of the topics that I had covered was the flattening of the publishing horizon: the ability for authors to self-publish, or independently publish through retail outlets. Among other issues this underscored is one that the Library has already started grappling with: what does this mean for LoC, as the national library of deposit?

The surge of alternative publications is far more than an academic problem. Even a short time ago, almost all mainstream monographs were published through traditional means, and the Library of Congress could acquire titles effectively by working with jobbers and distributors. Relatively few works were self-published, and a significant portion of those were channeled through vanity presses, often single-author focused, which the Library acquired only when the author proactively provided copies for recording.

Today, a growing number of authors publish books directly on their own website, via distributor/retailers such as Smashwords, or through direct retailer-sponsored programs such as the Amazon KDP program. Barnes & Noble has a strong self-publishing program called PubIt!, Kobo Books has just launched Kobo Writing Life, and new entrants like Zola Books are announcing their own direct selling platforms.

Almost none of these ebooks are visible through existing distributors. Even as the Library of Congress ramps up support for the ingest of digital books, journals, and other materials, a growing amount of content is going “missing” from traditional sources. What this means is that a growing amount of important literature is not being acquired, and therefore not preserved, with any assurance for future generations. This could range from the latest Barry Eisler short thriller to equally (if not more) important self-published memoirs from Americans whose stories would never have made it through a traditional publishing vetting system. There are a great number of significant science fiction/fantasy and romance titles that are single-channel published as well.

This problem is not historically unique: the Library missed out on many of the first science fiction novels published in cheap pulp editions, on acid-laden paper. An early collection of dime novels curated by LoC Librarian Valta Parma has rare and extraordinarily valuable titles, such as the first printing of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County within the third issue of Beadle’s Book of Fun. As noted by a couple of Library of Congress staff, a watershed event occurred in 1976, when “Helen Meyer, Chairman of the Board for the Dell Publishing Company, offered to the Library of Congress a nearly complete archival set of 8,500 Dell paperbacks, beginning with the first published title from 1943 — Philip Ketchum’s Death in the Library”. In response to this deposit, the Library started to routinely collect books in a new Copyright Paperback Collection.

If we are to avoid similar serious gaps in preserving our culture, it will be necessary for the Library to create new and direct relationships with retailing outlets for independent authors and self-published literature. Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and many others will have to demonstrate willingness to actively support deposit of works in a timely and efficient manner, and to assist in the policy discussions necessary to ensure that this huge upsurge of literature is not lost. In addition, partnerships with public libraries that are fostering and collecting community publishing efforts can form preservation partnerships, either via DPLA, or in an aggregation network that could work directly with the Library.

There’s much work ahead, and none of it easy, to ensure that the digital surge does not disintermediate the preservation of our culture, along with traditional book distributors and publishers. There are even greater challenges looming, as ebooks dissolve into the fabric of the web, becoming increasingly interactive and script-laden. Then, the preservation of publishing may be more about web crawls and archiving than about digital deposit.

One thought on “Disintermediating preservation

  1. Jon Jermey

    You are confusing texts with their instantiation in books and magazines. Text — the actual content of what a writer intended to say — are best preserved by ensuring there are numerous copies in diverse locations, which is exactly what electronic publication achieves almost automatically. The physical instantiation of a particular item — like Mark Twain’s story — has some historical and academic interest, but nobody would want to claim that The Jumping Frog was at more risk of being lost forever now than it was before the advent of electronic copying.

    My own interest is in vintage detective stories, and I am far more delighted that some of them are finally appearing in eBook form than I ever was to learn that one tattered copy lurks in a corner of the Library of Congress or the British Library. What earthly use is that knowledge to ME?

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