Category Archives: libraries

Mainframe Bookselling and Internet Commerce

Peter Brantley -- January 27th, 2014

dec pdp-11At the American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia this week, I was asked to give a talk with Ginger Clark of Curtis, Brown on the author-library relationship for ALA’s Digital Content Working Group. I enjoyed our panel; after Ginger covered the basics of what agents do for authors, we both wound up discussing the boom in self-publishing, particularly in genres with avid readers such as romance and science-fiction. Continue reading

A Day in the Life of a Librarian-in-Training

Annie Coreno -- January 7th, 2014
This year's Beyond Literacy class at University of Toronto

This year’s Beyond Literacy class at University of Toronto

Emily Ekstrand-Brummer is a second-year graduate student at the University of Toronto iSchool, where she studies library and information science with a special focus on public libraries. She is only one “packed” semester away from becoming a Master of Information—a pretty big feat in today’s information age if I don’t say so myself (it takes one to know one).

What’s on your agenda for today?

Emily: So my agenda for today is pretty packed. I’m working this morning at the department of Italian studies where I am (attempting) to archive and catalogue a huge collection of newspaper articles about Leonardo Sciascia. After that I’ve got a doctor’s appointment and then I’m going to a class about issues in children’s and YA librarianship.

What other classes are you taking this semester?

Emily: I’m also taking a course about public libraries where we talk about the role of libraries today. It’s actually pretty interesting because the prof spent all last year traveling to different libraries around Canada, so she has a lot of insights that you can’t find in the literature. I’m also taking collections development and the practicum course.

What was your favorite assignment from the past semester?

Emily: My very favorite project last semester was probably my favorite from the entire two years. I took Beyond Literacy, which is a weird special course where we just talk about what it would be like if we didn’t read and write anymore, and we all made podcasts in groups. They actually taught us how to use the recording studio and helped us record and everyone’s groups were really supportive of each other. We got to be super creative and take it any direction we wanted. Even though it wasn’t about libraries, I think I learned more than essay assignments because we just throw out any ideas and roll with it. My group did reading addictions and post humans.  Here’s a link to the podcasts:

What reading/article from last semester stands out in your mind as particularly interesting or pertinent?

Emily: I really like the Bowker and Star book Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. We read parts of it in Professor Keilty’s Bibliographic Control class, and it questions how we catalogue things in all areas of life. It uses examples like classifying humans in apartheid South Africa.

What are the hot topics at the i-School this year?

Emily: It’s things like maker spaces and community led libraries. The interesting thing is that a few of my professors are questioning that and also asking, what are these things? What do all of these buzzwords mean? Why are we putting actual books on the backburner when that is still why most people come to the library?

The Evolution of Censorship

Annie Coreno -- October 1st, 2013
Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Last week librarians, educators, publishers, booksellers, and bookworms alike joined together to celebrate Banned Books Week. The celebration took on many forms: Twitter parties, YouTube read-out-louds, Google hangouts and more. The most important way to commemorate the seven-day event happens to be the simplest: read a banned book.

As someone who works in publishing, I always look forward to Banned Books Week—maybe because the best books tend to be the most frequently banned. Yet indulging myself in The Catcher in the Rye for the fourth or fifth time seems hardly commendable. I understand, of course, that it’s important to promote these titles for younger generations and doing so really does make a difference, as we saw in North Carolina when the Randolph County school board overturned the ban on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

But as an adult with a computer and a bank account, not only have I read The Invisible Man but if I felt so inclined I could literally download it right here at my desk and start reading now. The same goes for Captain Underpants; it’s not exactly a revelatory activity.

After all, digital media has thrown censorship for a loop. On the one hand, the internet makes it easier for us to circumvent traditional barriers—if a two-year old can purchase a car on Ebay, then they probably can buy Lady Chatterly’s Lover online too. And it is not all that often you hear about religious leaders burning Kindles at the stake. On the other hand, the ways in which we encounter digital media are shifting, allowing new, more subtle forms of censorship. Rather than individuals or institutions serving as gatekeepers of information, algorithms filter content to fit our personal interests. These filters help sift the otherwise overwhelming universe of content and information by catering to our own interests, feeding us information likely to reflect our own world views. These filters work through our newsfeeds, our Google searches—the suggested reading we encounter regularly. Eli Pariser calls this phenomena the “filter bubble”—a term he uses to describe “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”

Banned Books Week is intended to celebrate the freedom of speech and our right to pursue ideas that are different than our own–even if they are unorthodox or unpopular. It’s an opportunity to read outside the comfort zone, to encounter new or different ideas which in turn will define own our opinions, to enable us to think critically about the world around us.

So as tempting as it is for me to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved just because it appeared on 2012′s list of most frequently banned books, basking in the rich language is not exactly in the spirit of the week. I need to read something I have avoided, something I have cast as outside my own interests/views or dismissed on account of the author—even if I don’t enjoy it.

Metadata Ways and Means

Peter Brantley -- September 24th, 2013

Metadata is a much-discussed topic these days, thanks to the efforts of the National Security Agency to acquire as much telecommunications information as possible. NSA actions have made it obvious that petabyte-scale aggregation of metadata is increasingly possible. What is less clear, particularly for cultural institutions, is the extent of intellectual property rights in metadata and their impact on sharing at a time when data are increasingly susceptible to enhancement via linked open data and semantic description. A recent meeting convened by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, under the direction of Professor Pamela Samuelson and with the assistance of Dave Hansen, assisted by an Alfred P. Sloan grant, explored some of these contours. Continue reading

Resolving Public Libraries at Amazon

Peter Brantley -- September 4th, 2013

Ohio Univ's Online CatalogThe end of summer and the start of school; a last round of easy dinner parties and sleepovers for the kids. Such times lead me into conversations about ebooks, ereaders, and why things are the way they are, instead of some other way. Explaining to friends that no, they can’t lend an ebook to their wife in most cases; no, there’s no easy way to set up a shared or group account; and yes, they might be able to get a book from their library, but the selection is incomplete and the process sometimes difficult – it all seems like an old refrain at this point. Continue reading

A Different Kind of Book Trust

Peter Brantley -- August 27th, 2013

BPL book truck
Recently, Eric Hellman of has begun advocating for future-dated Creative commons licenses to provide greater access to digital books. The idea is that a publisher would specify a future date at which the title would be made available through a Creative Commons license; MIT Press, and a few others, have experimented with this approach This is a solid point for elaboration and experimentation. Eric has iterated the idea for his startup, adding the possibility for individual purchases to incrementally shorten the windowing period. Continue reading

When Librarians Write: On The Riot Librarian

Annie Coreno -- August 20th, 2013


A few weeks ago we ran a starred review of The Riot Grrrl Collection edited by Lisa Darms.

Having just finished my degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto, I was particularly excited to learn that Darms is not only a librarian but also the founding archivist of the collection showcased in the book (and a Canadian to boot!).

There are lots of librarians who write books (for example, see her, him, and a personal favorite, him). But usually we encounter these writers in their role of author rather than librarian. This is not surprising considering that librarians have long struggled with the issue of visibility and are most recognizable by their physical workplace rather than the nature of their work. Defining librarian without mention of the library is not that easy of a task—even in Merriam Webster, the librarian is defined as “a specialist in care of or management of a library.”

This is precisely why Lisa Darms’s book is such an achievement: It is not about libraries, it’s about a punk-rock, feminist movement. It does not tell you what librarians do, it shows you.

The book itself, much like the collection, aims to document “the process of zine-making, being in bands, and activism, as well as, the finished products of these activities.” Darms writes, “It isn’t intended as a coffee-table book, despite the fact that many of the documents are beautiful in their own right. Our goal is to make the content of these smart, radical texts more broadly available.”

Although the collection “makes up less than 1 percent of Fales [Library]’s physical holdings, it already accounts for 15 percent of our research use, and is further accessed by hundreds of students in classes that the Fales staff teaches on riot grrrl, feminism, queer activism and zine culture.”

If I learned anything during my two years at library school, it’s that the value of the library is not so much in the physical components of the library itself but the activities which go on inside: whether it’s the process of reading a book, making photocopies of a zine to distribute, or meeting with a group. It is the librarian’s job to encourage, empower, and enable patrons to partake in these activities. Darms, in her book, hones that energy and transports it outside the library and into a wider world.


Preserving Less of the World’s Literature

Peter Brantley -- July 30th, 2013

Miners in a tunnelThe rapid development of online publishing has been a boon for advancing access to literature and science. At the same time, it portends a dramatic lessening of the currently-legislated ability for national libraries with preservation and access mandates to record and store national and world literatures. There are at least two principal axes to this concern: independently published literature, and the growing wealth of alternative direct-to-web publishing channels. Continue reading

On the NSA’s reading list

Peter Brantley -- July 17th, 2013

Spy Vs SpyWhen I was about 15 years old, I purchased a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook by mail. I’m not exactly sure why I did that; it was being heavily advertised back then in the progressive magazines I read, and I probably thought it was the cool, geeky thing for a young boy to do. I remember trying to plow through it, but it was sloppily written and I didn’t think much of it; the author has strongly disavowed it, and wants it off the market.

Even in the late 1970s, I didn’t agree with the sentiments; my parents were smart not to intervene or counsel caution. It was a very liberal household for reading, and my father, a professor of literature, also kept a “teaching copy” of The Story of O in a place that was probably a little too accessible — or just accessible enough. My purchase of the Cookbook was primarily about personal semiotics: a (failed) attempt to signal to myself, something about myself.

It was an innocent act. Now, I am not so sure that it would be. With the hands of the NSA clearly deep in international personal and organizational communications traffic, along with presumably any other national security agency around the world worth its salt, tracing that kind of information might well be worth their while. Why not? Storage is affordable at scale, and computation is pervasive.

The government now clearly understands that the most critical internet infrastructure – freely flowing information – doesn’t actually flow that freely, but is usually routed through the application silos maintained by a small number of companies that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. As citizens, it is our responsibility to consider the ramifications that control over the data we generate as individuals offers for surveillance. Regardless of how ferociously companies have fought to protect user information – e.g., EFF has applauded Yahoo, and Google has apparently given ground only reluctantly – these companies remain data honeypots for government infosec query.

Our reading takes place, overwhelmingly, in those silos, within Apple, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. With the apparent slow withering of Barnes & Noble’s business, it becomes ever more likely that Microsoft’s strategic investment of $300MM in the Nook Media unit might well become the vehicle to majority ownership. With a new reorganization under its belt, Microsoft is clearly interested in entertainment and mobile hardware platforms, and content is a critical component of hardware based business offerings.

Microsoft has drawn significant attention in the NSA scandal as being eager to please government inquiries, being accused of providing low level access to Outlook and Skype services, among others. Although Microsoft has strongly refuted these allegations, it hedges carefully by noting, “Looking forward, as Internet-based voice and video communications increase, it is clear that governments will have an interest in using (or establishing) legal powers to secure access to this kind of content to investigate crimes or tackle terrorism.”

And so whatever protections progressive States like California have been able to secure to protect reader privacy, it is not at all clear they would work against FISA orders on the national level. With our books in the hands of a few very large internet application hosts, and even assuming the best efforts by those companies to protect their users, we can not purchase ebooks, much less read them, with any sense of privacy or confidentiality.

It was a privilege to read the Anarchist’s Cookbook as a teenager and not worry about it; even to have a reasonably decent chance of not having anyone know about it. But no era is innocent, and the 1970s certainly weren’t. I would later take a university political science class on terrorism, studying the tracts and tactics of Black September and Baader-Meinhof; I would read with some fascination Marighella’s manual on urban guerrilla warfare; the Munich Massacre occurred in 1972, and hijackings continued apace through the decade.

We read in a political and social context. It is far too easy for the knowledge of which books we buy, and what we browse online, to become imbued with a deeply and profoundly political cast by organizations with great power, regardless of the intentions and free thoughts of the individual.

For now, the privilege of reading privately, digitally, has been lost. The Internet needs new architectures for distributing and securing data, using encryption that remains in the hands of the users, creating a very different kind of cloud based architecture for data storage and computation. Until then, assume that someone else has a set of keys to your bookshelf.

What’s next for libraries and digital content

Peter Brantley -- July 15th, 2013

Seattle PublicThe only thing that can be said for certain about the relationship of libraries with publishers and ebooks is that they are subject to change. To keep libraries and publishers up-to-date, ALA is hosting a virtual conference, via registration, that includes a session on “New Directions for Libraries and Digital Content.” Robert Wolven, from Columbia University Libraries, will join Peter Brantley, from, in a discussion of what to expect next for libraries.

Even as Apple lost a price-fixing court case involving the Big 6 publishers (now the Big 5, with the merger of Random House and Penguin Books), ALA continues their on-going dialogue with publishers to attempt to increase access to both current and backlist titles. Spearheaded by the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG), co-chaired by Robert Wolven, ALA has made surprisingly and steady progress in broadening the available ebook catalog, while continuing to press for changes in license terms; opportunities for content preservation; development of alternative business models; and privacy guarantees for ebook borrowers.

In the longer run, we are likely to confront far greater changes in what “books” are, and how they are procured and read. Both startups and dominant web companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon are utilizing software development techniques and ever more powerful browsers to advance towards a far different horizon for publishing content. Peter Brantley’s article for the American Libraries’ Digital Supplement, “The Unpackaged Book,” highlights some of these evolutions in how books and storytelling are presented on the web, and the opportunities and challenges that libraries face as a result.