The Moving Finger…Blinks, and Having Blinked, Blinks On

At the end of February, amid the snow and the false alarms for snow and ice in the Palmetto State came the following headline: “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print—And Yes You Read that Right!”. No, it didn’t come from the pen of this author (though it could have) nor did it come from any number of those whom some wish to brand as Luddites: Nicholas Carr, Mark Bauerlein, or Sven Birkerts. Rather it came from Maryland reporter Michael S. Rosenwald and The Washington Post. The piece is eye-catching if for no other reason than it isn’t from the usual suspects!

What Rosenwald discovered is precisely what Carr or Birkets or Bauerlien or your faithful columnist has been saying for at least a decade: yes, online reading occurs, and many digital natives use if for a variety of reasons. But no one, including them, prefers online reading when trying to comprehend a difficult text.

It is as if Rosenwald is reading over Carr or Bauerlien’s shoulder. The students he interviews do not like online reading because it is distracting. They find online reading difficult because when they read an online text, 90% of the time they are also doing something else: checking email, checking in at a social network, or even playing a game. Rosenwald opens with a young man, 20, who simply prefers reading text because of the smell, the feel and even the silence of the text: it isn’t making sounds, ringing bells, or offering a rabbit hole in which to get lost, literally or figuratively. Further, online readers tend to skim, cannot fully comprehend what they are reading, and find that their minds really wander all over the place. Some even complain that the light in their eyes rather than over their shoulders is problematic.

Some of those interviewed said they would not even attempt a difficult text in electronic form. And who can blame them? Most anyone can scan a newspaper or even take on a Harry Potter book. But Tocqueville? Plato? Joyce? It simply cannot be done. Joyce underscores the print versus online problem in high relief. Perhaps no other author lends himself well to the online format of hyperlink hype than Joyce because he requires so much elaboration. “Met him pike hoses” isn’t going to resonate with many that Joyce is word-playing with metempsychosis. But readers find that even such quellenforschung is also better done in print than a myriad of distracting hyperlinks.

Of course, it isn’t that digital natives or anyone else refuse to read online. Many love the ability to define words (though they likely forget them immediately), or to do quick keyword searches. Some, though I admit to reading between the lines, also prefer being able to do searches in books they haven’t read for materials they may need for a paper. Science materials, too, tend to be online favorites.

So, what are we to make of all this? As I have written elsewhere, it’s part of the transition. In no way do I believe that this spells the end of online materials. Publishers, who in a print world, enjoyed Sardanapalian benefits, are trying to recapture those cash cows in bits and bytes but with little success. It isn’t so easy, but they’re discovering it is much cheaper to print an electronic book while dropping the price only marginally. Like online courses at war with classroom ones, online books are going to be cheaper and provide a greater return on investment. That ROI does not necessarily include what students are investing in, however. If eBook reading increased 200%, it would still have a way to go before it caught up with print reading if measured in terms of value received and retained.

What this means for libraries is obvious, isn’t it? We still have to collect and support both for the time being, in the same way that we have for years supported microfilm and bound periodical volumes. Microform reading only caught on when there was no other choice. I would find it surprising if eBooks end up in the same dustbin. Microform-reading was never easier, better or more convenient. Nothing about it enticed the reader, and much dissuaded even the diligent. Its only attraction was a pedestrian one: it saved spaced while still providing access, even if a difficult one. EBooks have already shown their value in the benefits mentioned above, but also in leisure reading. None of us really likes lugging suitcases of print books with us on vacation (my long-suffering wife will argue that she knows at least one person who does). Having the ability to take hundreds of etexts appeals to those of us with eyes larger than our brains.

But when it comes to scholarship that must be recalled and remembered, few of us will choose the electronic text over its printed counterpart. I believe this to be more a facility of evolution and practice rather than something inherently hard-wired in us. Unless or until we can rewire our brains and–for better or for worse, online reading is doing that—we will have to read both formats, depending on the subject matter and/or reason for reading.

I haven’t had time to sift through the new literacy report so I cannot speak to how well or to what extent the issue of online reading contributes to the strength or weakness of literacy. If the students in the Rosenwald story are right, and if my own research in this subject matter is at all correct, it may well unravel many of the gains we have made in literacy in recent decades. Poor readers, especially, will have a much tougher time going forward if they must learn to read digitally first. If that continues, we will see future generations underperforming when compared with their past peers.

And so, the print versus online debate continues in its ironies, whether you read this article first in print or online.

[A version of this piece appears in Against the Grain.]

Unsafe Waters-Duh…Nuh, Duh…Nuh, Duh..NuhDuhNuhDuhNuh!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the copyright waters, they suddenly get both murkier more turbulent than ever before. I speak of the recent appeal handed down last week, 17 October, with respect to the Georgia State University reserves case, or GSU Case. That appeal is here, all 129 pages of it.

THE ORIGINAL CASE

To refresh your memory, GSU provided what were essentially digital course packets for students to use via the library’s e-reserves. In 2008, three publishers, Sage, Cambridge, and Oxford, filed suit charging over 100 violations of fair use. In 2009, GSU revised, updated, and modified its copyright policy, requiring faculty to address the four copyright factors and so establish a good faith test of fair use compliance (the four are: why you’re using it; nature of the copyrighted work; amount of the work used and that part’s value to the whole; and the market impact of your use on the material). The infringement violations were reduced to 99 with some that eventually were dismissed, removed or thrown out, leaving about 75. The case dragged on for more than a year and in 2012, about a year after the closing arguments were made, Judge Orinda Evans handed down its 350-page decision, found here.

The short version of the story is that the case proved a huge win for GSU, libraries, fair use and the information-wants-to-be-free crowd. For publishers, it was an avalanche of a loss. All but five of the 75 were found in favor of GSU. The remaining five were essentially legal quibbles, not without merit, but hardly enough to furrow the brow.

The appeals court reexamined the case last week, or rather reached a decision last week, one that took more than a year. Some say this is a win for publishers. Some say it is and it isn’t. Frankly it depends on whom you ask. The Court writes early, “[T]he District Court found that Defendants were the prevailing party and awarded them costs and attorneys’ fees. Because we find that the District Court’s fair use analysis was in part erroneous, we reverse the District Court’s judgment; vacate the injunction, declaratory relief, and award of costs and fees; and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

That does not sound like unmitigated good news for GSU. What it does appear to be (but see Nancy Sims’ take, Copyright Librarian at the University of Minnesota) is not an avalanche of a loss for GSU, but certainly a bit of help to publishers. Publishers by no means go everything they wanted, but neither did GSU. It lost out on the roughly $3.5 million for legal fees awarded in the earlier decision. Much remains to be seen in this case, of course, but for the time being, “fair use” remains strong but a little more difficult to read.

THE CURRENT APPEAL STATUS

The first sticking point is the four factors constituting fair use in Copyright Act of 1976. The Court wrote, “In order to make this determination, the court must carefully evaluate the facts of the case at hand in light of four considerations … codified in the Copyright Act of 1976: (1) the purpose of the allegedly infringing use, (2) the nature of the original work, (3) the size and significance of the portion of the original work that was copied, and (4) the effect of the allegedly infringing use on the potential market for or value of the original…. Here, we are called upon to determine whether the unpaid copying of scholarly works by a university for use by students—facilitated by the development of systems for digital delivery over the Internet—should be excused under the doctrine of fair use.”

GSU’s approach to fair use was to look at them, but not to take them as a whole, examining them “mechanistically,” or as the Court put it, “[T]he District Court did err by giving each of the four fair use factors equal weight, and by treating the four factors mechanistically.” And again, “Plaintiffs also argue that the District Court erred in giving each of the four factors equal weight, essentially taking a mechanical “add up the factors” approach, finding fair use if three factors weighed in favor of fair use and one against and vice versa, and only performing further analysis in case of a “tie.” We agree that the District Court’s arithmetic approach was improper….”

Next, the Court underscored the availability of copyrighted materials and the licensing that can be paid for them. When these materials were in printed form, GSU purchased permission from Copyright Clearinghouse Center (CCC). Wrote the court, “There exists a well-established system for the licensing of excerpts of copyrighted works. Copyright Clearance Center (“CCC”) is a not-for-profit corporation with headquarters in Danvers, Massachusetts. CCC licenses excerpts from copyrighted works for a fee, acting on behalf of publishers who choose to make their works available through CCC. These licenses are called “permissions.” All three Plaintiffs offer excerpt-specific permissions to photocopy or digitally reproduce portions of their works, which may be obtained directly from Plaintiffs or through CCC. Permissions are not, however, available for licensed copying of excerpts from all of Plaintiffs’ works.”

In other words, if you want permission, you can get it; you simply have to pay for it if it is available, and in some cases it is not. In fact, dealing with CCC is no easy matter. The Court added, “How much unpaid use should be allowed is the bailiwick of the fair use doctrine. To further the purpose of copyright, we must provide for some fair use taking of copyrighted material. This may be viewed as a transaction cost, incidental to the business of authorship. But if we set this transaction cost too high by allowing too much taking, we run the risk of eliminating the economic incentive for the creation of original works that is at the core of copyright and—by driving creators out of the market—killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg.” Or, there must be a balance between educational value on the one hand, and incentive to create on the other. Neither, in the court’s opinion, has an absolute right.

Although not a big deal, the Court also found that what GSU did was not transformative: “Defendants’ use of excerpts of Plaintiffs’ works is not transformative. The excerpts of Plaintiffs’ works posted on GSU’s electronic reserve system are verbatim copies of portions of the original books which have merely been converted into a digital format. Although a professor may arrange these excerpts into a particular order or combination for use in a college course, this does not imbue the excerpts themselves with any more than a de minimis amount of new meaning.” In order to remain in fair use, a work cannot be copied verbatim but must be used either sparingly (see below), or recast to create a new work. Thus, Weird Al Yankovic can get away with his music and make a sizable profit because his songs transform the original work. Parody has always been protected, so long as it is different enough from the original. The works in question had not been changed at all, just copied verbatim.

With respect to how much copying had been done, GSU often resorted to 10% of the original rule-of-thumb, or the so-called “bright line.” But the Appeals Court questioned this as well, arguing that it is not a set amount, but whether what has been copied is substantially the point of the work. Although it is in public domain, it could be argued that Portia’s “Mercy Speech,” which does not occur until the Fourth Act of The Merchant of Venice, is the heart of that play, though it comprises less than one half of one percent of the whole. A more recent example would be Joyce’s ending of Ulysses and Molly Bloom’s famous “yes” monologue. The point the court made was that simply looking at a piece arithmetically is not going to protect you under fair use if what you choose to use is the heart of that work. It’s a judgment call, but it’s a judgment call that must be made on each individual piece presented, not an arithmetical amount applied to everything possible.

The Court concluded, “[T]he District Court erred by separating two considerations from its analysis of the first and fourth fair use factors…. Because the District Court’s grant of injunctive relief to Plaintiffs was predicated on its finding of infringement, which was in turn based on the District Court’s legally flawed methodology in balancing the four fair use factors and erroneous application of factors two and three, we find that the District Court abused its discretion in granting the injunction and the related declaratory relief. Similarly, because the District Court’s designation of Defendants as the prevailing party and consequent award of fees and costs were predicated on its erroneous fair use analysis, we find that the District Court erred in designating Defendants as the prevailing party and awarding fees and costs to Defendant.”

JUDGE VINSON’S MORE CONCURRING BUT SOMEWHAT STRIDENT REMARKS

District Judge Vinson also weighed in concurring, but was even harsher on GSU, writing “after applying traditional common law principles to the use at issue here, this is a rather simple case. Checking the four statutory factors to ensure that they have been considered merely affirms the conclusion that what GSU is doing is not fair use.” He goes on to write, “[T]his case arises out of a university-wide practice to substitute “paper course packs” (the functional equivalent of textbooks) that contained licensed copyrighted works with “digital course packs” that contained unlicensed copyrighted works. This was done for the vast majority of courses offered at GSU and, as will be seen, it was done primarily to save money.” Ouch.

He closes with a strident conclusion and a bit of moralizing: “I would go further than does the majority and conclude that both the District Court’s methodology and its analysis were flawed. The Defendants’ use fails under any objective common law “big picture” adjudication of fair use and also fails on a work-by-work analysis under three of the four factors (while the remaining factor is either neutral or weighs against Defendants). It has been said that fair use is best and most precisely explained by the following paraphrase of the Golden Rule: “‘Take not from others to such an extent and in such a manner that you would be resentful if they so took from you.’” Ouch, again.

SO, WHERE DOES ALL THIS LEAVE US?

I am no lawyer, and while I played one on stage once upon a time, that still doesn’t really count. My take on this is less sanguine than some of my doubtless better informed colleagues, here, but not here, or even here. Some factors remain that are important to consider and feed my pessimism. While the publishers may not have won a grand slam, they did get back their money, and GSU will have to modify once again its approach to copyright and e-reserves. True, e-reserves remain fair use, but they remain in the bailiwick of the library that is making a good faith effort to abide by fair use. Judge Vinson’s concurring remarks should provide a horrifying backdrop of what could have been: GSU should pay for everything it copies, or words to that effect.

First, fair use is not a blanket protection for anyone who teaches. It is a tool by which professors and teachers may use certain portions of copyright text to aid the transmission of knowledge. Currently, it cannot be a substitute for buying the textbook, asking for permission, or paying a licensing fee id what is needed is a substantial portion of the whole of that work. Blackboard CANNOT become the Wild West (as a colleague puts it) of copyright infringement. Furthermore, just because a professor wants to use a copyrighted work again and again does not make it right. In fact, repetitive use of the same materials semester after semester can become a red flag.

But there is good news: the Copyright Classroom Guidelines (spontaneity, brevity, and cumulative effect) were pretty much dismissed by the Appeals Court as being the porch of copyright, not the house. The guidelines have always been that–guidelines, not law. On the other hand, neither publishers nor authors have exclusive copyright, or absolute copyright. There are exceptions. Consumers of copyrighted materials need to understand that the work or works they wish to use cost publishers more than a little to produce. Taking from them that right, or short-circuiting it, is unfair. While information may want to be free, only Google and social media are making any money off of free content. Certainly the authors are not, and neither are the publishers if they have been involved.

Second, DMCA (digital Millennium Copyright Act) take-down notices are almost as common in academe now as patches on tweed coats once were. And they can be expensive if one is found in violation. Just as you might surf the net for something useful to use in class, so do some publishers surf the net looking for copyright violators–and the have bots helping them find you. While it is very likely a given professor will not be taken to court, his or her university might be. It’s the “deep pockets” theory. If a professor knowingly violates copyright, he or she puts everyone at risk.

Third, copyright is hard to understand, it is muddy water, it is Janus-faced (one decision looks toward publishers, another toward consumers), and trying to figure it all out is very hard to do, even for copyright attorneys. That’s where we in the library can help. If the text you need follows the four factors, we’ll help you with it. If it does not, we’ll seek permission from the copyright holder. If we cannot get that and the text is a “must have” we’ll buy the permission from CCC. If that doesn’t work and we have no link to it in our purchased materials, it may be time to look for something else. Rare is the case where one text on a given topic is all there is.

Fourth, and this really doesn’t apply here, I’m sure, revise and update your syllabus, if not every semester, then certainly every year. I know this is hard to do–I have taught before. But it is good for many reasons, not the least of which is to account for any new information that has been discovered since the last time the course was taught.

Fifth, and last, I know there are universities that seek to challenge copyright by pushing the envelope. We are not one of them. I also know that many want copyright changes, and many are eager to chant the mantra, information wants to be free. All of that is well and good. But do bear in mind that Congress must take up the copyright cudgel because that’s its job. Congress is also the reason we are where we are today with respect to copyright, so be careful what you wish for. Finally, there is a school of thought that says if we all act like copyright is over, no one will get prosecuted. We’re not there yet. Copyright law still applies, and if we are preaching academic integrity to our students, we must also practice it ourselves.

Until all this gets sorted out, open access anyone?

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

And here we go again with those dead languages, right? Not exactly. The Latinism is known by many outside the so-called clerisy. In short, it means “who watches the watchmen.” Traditionally it was thought to be from Juvenal and his Satires but now even that is called into question as being a later addition. Whoever said it, it needed to be said. It strikes at one of our more striking fears: who is guarding the guards?

Most will roll it out to gain political points, but our concern for now is … eBooks. Yes, that’s right, eBooks. It should come as no surprise–but it probably will–that while you read certain eBooks, they are reading you. Amazon has been spying on you for years, as has Facebook and other social media. Now it comes about that Adobe eBook editions is sending back your reading habits to Adobe Editions. The newest Adobe, Digital Edition 4, is the culprit, and it sends a considerable amount of data back on you to Adobe Editions.

But wait, there’s more.

While this little app is there, it also collects data about all your eBook reading habits–what you read, what you opened, in what order you read the books, as well as any other eBooks on your computer. Adobe responded to the American Librarian Association’s charge of an “egregious data breach” by telling ALA that is would repsond at a later time. In other words, we’ll get back to you on that.

Ah, the Internet!

Earlier I said that this shouldn’t surprise, but it will. It should not surprise because everyone associated with the Internet–with the possible exception of its creator, Sir Berners-Lee (No, not Al Gore), brooks no protection of your privacy. In 1999, Sun Microsystems chief Scott McNealy proclaimed, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Just four years ago, in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, reminded us that the “age of privacy is over.” It really should come as no surprise. All social media depend upon your privacy being, well, public. You simply cannot be on the Web and remain a private individual.

What should astonish us is that we flail ourselves like celibate monks when the government imposes some small intrusions for our safety and well-being. We’ve made a saint out of Edward Snowden, and we’ve canonized the late and tragic Aaron Swartz. But we sit idly by and let social media make a mockery of our desire to lead private lives, desperate or not.

Information wants to be free, or so we’re told. Apparently it also wants to be shared, at the mere expense of your privacy.

It’s a brave, new world, after all.

Loeb and Behold

Loeb

It is honestly like book porn for many bibliophiles. The first time you see them is especially thrilling. My first time, now almost forty years ago, was in the Joint University Libraries, now the The Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt. Their familiar green and red bindings blinded because there were so many, over 500. I have always had an affinity for the classics, and now here was nirvana, a kind of book heaven. I nearly trembled as I pulled them off the shelf and saw the Greek (green binding) or Latin (red binding) on the left hand side of the page, the English on the right. I began reading them and did not stop until, about forty years later, I finished both sets. Each volume fits perfectly in your hand. Philanthropist Loeb knew, rightly I think, that a “gentleman” would want a book he could carry around in his coat pocket.

No, alas, I did not devour them in the original languages. I know Latin, but I only know the Greek alphabet. I can stumble and lurch my way through Cicero, but I am a blind man in a dark alley with Plato, fenny or otherwise, understanding only one or two words every few hundred. Even so, I thrilled each time I opened a new volume to read. It took decades to get through all of them because I kept having to, well, work for a living. I thought about saving the savor for retirement, but I decided that, one, I couldn’t wait; and two, I didn’t want to risk being disabled, incoherent, or both by then.

And now, here they are, for anyone who wishes to read them. Earlier this month, about a week ago, in fact, the Loebs went digital. The Digital Loeb Classics are now available online for a fee, more than 520 of them. What’s more they are searchable, browsable, sharable and even annota…er, and you can annotate in them as well.

SimpsonsThese volumes still resonate, even among the hip and the young. They appeared in a Simpson’s segment, in Mr. Burn’s study. As the irascible Burns enjoys a snifter of brandy, it does bring to mind Loeb’s classic [pun intended] statement that these volumes were for those who enjoyed the finer things in life.

So, here they are, ready to be devoured even by digital natives. And here’s to you, James Loeb. Cheers!

Enjoy.

Here’s Looking at You, Selfie!

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By the time you read this column this story may have lost all its relevance. But as it has made a bit of a dust-up lately, I think it deserves some further treatment. This column may not sound like it has anything to do with libraries but hang in there. I’ll make the tie-in, not to everyone’s satisfaction of course, but at least I’ll make the effort.

About two weeks ago, the cyberverse was all a twitter about naked selfies, mainly of celebrities, that had been hacked right out of the cloud. Imagine that. What goes online isn’t exactly private. Doh!

Celebrities flew into high dungeon about this, and a few tech places wrote about the scumbags that hacked the cloud to get them. Some were aghast. How could this happen?! Some argued that the pictures were not of them. Most of the comments were along the lines that we all have an inalienable right to make naked photos of ourselves on our phones and store them online, only to be let out when we deem them relevant. And furthermore, how dare they? Taking something that isn’t theirs, yada, yada. It appears now that some of the more famous buff selfies will make their way to an art gallery. Lena Dunham, she of Girls fame and one who cannot seem to stay clothed under any circumstances for long, blamed it on everyone but those who had taken nude selfies.

Ah, the Internet.

First, raise your hand if you think that what goes on line is only a little less private than what you might post on the Times Square marquee. Seriously, can anyone today believe that even something “deleted” from the Internet is really gone? Unless you are the IRS, you can’t really delete anything off the web.

Secondly, naked pictures on your phones? Really, people. Isn’t that what mirrors are for? I know that narcissism is rampant and that the web has made all of us self-loving-loathing creatures. But honestly, why exactly do we need to be making picture of ourselves and of, well, you know. I think they’re called “privates” for a reason. Just saying.

Thirdly, yes, there are scumbags out there in every field and some of them work in Silicon Valley or Cupertino or some other tech-related field. As a group, tech folks have been criticized for 1) their les than upright and positive views of women (look at the gaming images of women, though women are nearly 50% of all gamers); 2) their unwelcoming attitude to members of the opposite sex (i.e., women need not apply ) and 3) their lack of restraint about what the web can display, show or otherwise unleash (just start typing into Google….). Anything goes is, I believe, the view, and information-wants-to-be-free is the mantra.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that this happened and some members of the rich and famous were made, for a moment or two, still very, very rich and only slightly chagrined. A good rule of thumb about the web is that you put nothing on it you wouldn’t want your mother to see. If you do, brace yourself as you may find that your Mom is a bit annoyed, not to mention embarrassed.

So what does this have to do with libraries? Only to show the stark contrast between one medium, the Internet which has no appreciation for your privacy, and the other that has protected it from the first day you checked out your first book. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we hear all sort of “stuff” about privacy and First Amendment rights only to watch the Internet make roadkill of both on the information superhighway? Furthermore, no one really seems to care, at least not the way they would have had another entity been so cavalier about both. Apparently we will put up with anything when it comes to the web. It treats us shabbily, embarrasses us, encourages us to embarrass ourselves, and then laughs when we come back for more. Or, maybe that’s just laughing all the way to bank. Meanwhile, it continues to contend insidiously that it has or will soon replace libraries.

No one wants to put the genie back in the bottle (though many of us may want to put clothes back on some of those selfies!). Still, is it too much to ask that our choice not be between having a convenient service and giving up our privacy? Probably not.

The story of the selfie is emblematic. On the one hand, social media encourages you to look within, navel-gazing (omphaloskepsis for the academic in you) ad infinitum. On the other hand, libraries services force you to view the larger world outside you. Remember, the web is not exactly looking out for your best interests because it believes you have no privacy anyway so get over it. Should, however, you want privacy, well then, get thee …

…to a library.

[A version of this post will appear in Against the Grain later this fall.]

No One Wants to Be a Stereotype

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No one wants to be a stereotype. That is, no one purposely seeks to be something of a byword, a parody, or something that others might smile at, amusingly. I would hazard to say that no child has ever said, “I want to be a stereotype when I grow up!” For example, no car mechanic drives his personal car under a shade tree to begin work. And I think it’s safe to say that some preachers don’t really want to sound peachy all the time, and many professors eschew professing in off hours. Okay, two out of three isn’t bad.

But I’m going to risk the stereotype of a librarian by not only writing about a book, but also writing about a book titled The Library: A World History. Honestly, how much more stereotypical can you get? I’m saved in part because my hair is too short for a bun.

This gorgeous book is really library-porn. Or maybe it’s just book-porn for anyone who loves libraries, and that includes many people who are not librarians, and even excludes some who are. (Don’t ask me why, but some librarians bristle at those who automatically think all librarians love books.)

Architectural historian James Campbell and photographer Will Pryce decided a few years back that what the world needed was a glorious picture book about the world’s libraries. Right here, smack dab (as we say in the South, but again, don’t ask me why) waist-deep in our digital age, these two embarked on a photosafari in search of the great libraries of the world, and documented them in print. At the end of their journeys, they ‘bagged’ more than eighty of the most wonderful enchanting, and sacrosanct book repositories from one end of the earth to the other. Theirs isn’t the first such book—others have been done—but theirs may be the most comprehensive and eye-pleasing.

Awash in color photographs, these libraries come alive on the page, from the smallest and most unassuming to the largest and most garish. Campbell sought to document the architectural history, the why and the how libraries developed as they did. His text is as intriguing as the photographs, from his discussion about medieval libraries and their development, to Asia’s fascinating “open air” libraries. It sounds trite to say it, I know, but if you pick this book up, you’ll be hard pressed to put it back down until you have gorged on the gorgeous.

I have seen many of these libraries in person and it was like seeing old friends with whom I have not caught up with in ages. Others I not only had not seen, still others I didn’t even know about. What’s more, the book has something for everyone, whether your tastes run to the traditional, as do mine, or the flamboyantly modern, as do those who should see a physician (but I jest), whatever your tastes, you’ll find something here to feast your eyes upon.

The Strahov Abbey library in Prague is so small and quaint as to be missed by most. When my wife and I visited it one July, the weather was dreadful: driving rains and about 48 degrees. Still, it proved the best day out of thirty we spent in Hungary. Pryce captures it perfectly. The Admont Abbey Library (Admont, Austria), gleams in almost alabaster snow. The perfect rococo design from the gold cornices on columns to the checkerboard floor proves the point Campbell makes: this library was not meant for study but to impress. It does that in spades. Finally, there is the magisterial Escorial Library in Spain. What a delight it is to view this library that became the trendsetter for all that followed after it in 1585: books were used there first to decorate the walls. It doesn’t hurt, either that the ceiling is a piebald of frescoes of saints and personifications of the liberal arts and sciences by Pellegrino Tibaldi. It just has to be seen to be believed. I know it’s theologically insipid, but I like to think that heaven will look something like this, or at least have a library like this!

Of course, the authors could have easily made a digital book. Indeed, many of the libraries are indeed online, and some of them in great detail. But seeing them in color on high quality paper gives them a life that so far anyway cannot be replicated in pixels (and is the reason I didn’t include any links in this post). But I’m glad they didn’t ‘go digital,’ and you will be too when you open the book for the first time.

Maybe I am a stereotype and don’t know it. But this is one time I’m fine with that. If there is a booklover in your life, you must get them this book. Perhaps we are approaching a time when libraries will become obsolete. But seeing these libraries assures me that that isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, or in yours.

And that fact–and this book–makes me want to break out in the Hallelujah chorus!

“The True University of these Days Is a Collection of …” eBooks?!

We do live in interesting times, don’t we? This is especially true of those of us who spend most of our working lives in libraries. The last ten years have been so filled with change that it’s almost become a byword: if you don’t like something, wait a few hours and it will change. This isn’t a complaint, just an observation.

No other area has changed so much in the last ten years as books, or, rather, I should say ebooks, and that includes the very spelling of the word: e-books, Ebooks, E-books and now, more often than not, ebooks. Because we talk about them so often, we forget that they have been around for quite some time, now chest-deep in their fourth decade.

Yes, that’s right, ebooks are approaching forty years old. But what is as surprising as their longevity is their equal lack of acceptance. We like them, sort of, but under certain circumstances, or so it would seem. They are certainly easier to search, much easier to scan quickly, and, of course, you can carry 1,000 or more of them in one hand. Further, right now anyway, they are much cheaper than their print counterparts. It would appear that even in certain cases, especially with struggling readers, ebooks may make them read more, identifying as they do new words or terms the reader has never encountered. All of these things are critically important. And yet, we’re still not at the point of full ebook embrace.

Now all of this I know sounds a bit skimble-skamble, but that is unfortunately where things are presently. Ebooks are being used in libraries, especially for leisure reading. But exactly where they will end up in the vast calculus of library services is anyone’s guess.

What makes all of this seem counter-intuitive is that many very vocal but small cadres of ebook readers proclaim ebooks for all. Some have even claimed, again, for the 100th time, that print books are dead and that libraries, if they aren’t already obsolete, should collect only ebooks. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who say that we’re rushing much too fast into the digital apocalypse, and we’ll be sorry when we get to digital Armageddon. As is the case in most such antipodean quarrels, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The inquisitive folks at Pew did a survey on the internet and its usage. Now you would expect that those over fifty aren’t especially enamored with ebooks, and you’d be right. But guess what? It turns out that 16-24 year olds are not that enamored with them either! Nationwide, our high tech, never-without-an-iPhone-attached-to-my-ear crowd loves traditional libraries. Furthermore, according to Pew, this group also prefers print books! Some of you are doubtless thinking that must be a minority preference, but you’d be wrong. More than 70% of those 16-24 year olds feel that way.

Just last month, a survey of students at the University of Iowa (600 of them) found that the 18-22 year olds there much preferred printed textbooks to e-textbooks, even e-textbooks that had some sophisticated bookmarking, underlining and note-taking features. In fact, most students didn’t even use those features. These students used ebooks, but apparently only when they had to.

Finally, after increasing in sales year-after-year, the ebooks sales have declined in 2013, and rather significantly. Mr. Bezos, call your office, immediately!

Okay, so what’s up with all this?! Are we just technophobes, Luddites, unenlightened slobs? Foot-dragging, knuckle-headed, digital nincompoops?

I don’t think so, but I do think I have a good idea why we’re at this juncture.

The roll-out of ebooks decades ago was simply dreadful, more botched than the Obamacare website. Everything about them was wrong, but especially wrong were the ereaders, which were simply unaffordable to most, and unusable to all. (Kindles are still very substantially subsidized to make them as “affordable” as they are.) You couldn’t read all that well on any of them. The next iteration proved hyperlinked-filled with more distractions in the first paragraph (some actually on topic) that reading was like crossing a dangerous intersection in a major metropolitan area: you were so fixated on getting to the other side in tact that you often forgot why you wanted to go there in the first place.

The third iteration saw so many ebook readers rise and fall that no reader knew which device to buy. Simultaneous with this were the content restrictions: this ebook reader held content A, this ebook reader held content B. If you bought content A, you realized too late that you really wanted content B, and vice versa. It proved devilishly difficult to figure out what to do. If you could afford them—and most could not—you bought as many different contents as you possibly could, but it also meant buying and changing ereaders, too.

The iteration that brought us the iPad, not really an ebook reader but served as one, appeared to bring us to the promise land of ereading. But, alas, the late Zen-master Steve Jobs allegedly conspired with others in a price-fixing scheme to make all ebooks cost $9.99 (and all iPads $300 and up), only to be sure those ebooks would eventually get to $12.99 each. That case is now in the courts and does not promise, at least at this juncture, to bode well for Apple.

If all of this were not enough to poison the wine, ebook content providers determined to gouge libraries who dared to lend them. Libraries do not really own ebooks; they lease them. When you look back over the recent history, the question isn’t so much why ebooks haven’t yet caught on, but why they haven’t died outright. For more on the decline, see here.

What has also slowed down the ebook revolution is that readers reading etexts face a comprehension problem. What our eyes do when we read, those oddly jerky, jittery dances—what experts call saccades—are very different in print environments than they are in electronic ones. No one knows for sure whether the difference is owing to this very new way of reading, or to some hardwired make-up in our brains. Some researchers tell us that reading on a screen simply drains our brains of all our mental energies to comprehend. Apparently we exhaust ourselves just getting through the material and therefore forget what we’ve read. Certainly, there are too many distractions in web-based texts that cause us to lose our focus.

Additionally, we have read for the last millennium with a light over our shoulders. Now we’re telling our brains it will be directly in our eyes, however faint that light may be. We are discovering the switch to be a little more difficult than we anticipated, and some of us simply cannot make the switch at all without headaches, eyestrain, and more. We are also finding that those who read electronically first cannot easily make the switch to a print environment very easily at all, while those who learn to read in print first, make the switch, ceteris paribus, just fine.

So, is the era of ebooks over? Hardly. But changes will have to come to solidify their place in the reading pantheon. Doubtless those changes will come, are coming, but we aren’t there just yet. Meanwhile, Dacus continues to purchase ebooks because vendors make them altogether too fiscally attractive to ignore. It would take us more than twenty years to purchase 100,000 print books, assuming we’d have the space to house them (we do not). In one year, we can purchase that many and have them available to readers in a matter of days.

You can help us immensely if you’ll fill out the survey we recently sent out. You can also find a link to that survey on our webpage, in case you lost the email. The more data we have about ebooks, the better we can serve you.

We are well on our way to ebook paradise, but it will take longer to get there than any of us imagined. Until we sort out all of these things, however, you shouldn’t burn that library card.

Libraries are not obsolete after all, and I for one hope they never become so, regardless of the changes that are surely to come, not only with ebooks, but with all library services.