Music, Ebooks, & The Long Tail

Cory Doctorow wrote a piece yesterday named, “Music: The Internet’s Original Sin.” In it, he explains why he thinks music will remain at the center of the file-sharing debate, even though most digital music sold is DRM-free and music labels have stopped suing downloaders (for the most part). He explains the early rush to illegal downloads this way:

Back at the beginning of the file-sharing wars, during the delirious 18 months during which Napster went from zero to 52 million users, much of the focus was on the novelty of getting music for free – but there was also a lot of buzz about getting some of that music at all. Prior to Napster, more than 80 percent of recorded music wasn’t for sale (except as uncatalogued, obscure used LPs).

Music that hadn’t been available was suddenly right in front of you. That music probably wasn’t in high demand at all, but the amount of low-demand music that people want ends up representing a huge catalog. This phenomenon is called the long tail, and you can read more about it in the Wired article that coined the term, named aptly, “The Long Tail.”

Music labels have moved to capitalize on this demand by selling digital downloads of low-demand music. Once they’ve (re)secured the rights to sell the music online (which can be no small task with obscure artists, let alone the Beatles), it’s easy to make those albums available through iTunes, Amazon’s MP3 store, and other online shops. These albums are also available through music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio. If you suddenly remember a song that you haven’t heard in a decade, listening to that track is probably a couple clicks away.

Ebooks: Need I Say More

Compare the digital music scenario with the current state of ebooks. They are, in two words, not similar. There isn’t a vast long tail of ebooks available for sale or rent. Securing rights to create ebooks versions is a challenge, just like with music. But unlike music, books are much more difficult to digitize. (Compare the time it takes to rip a CD to the time it takes to just scan 10 pages of a book.) Since most book publishers rely heavily on DRM, distributing ebooks is more difficult. Buying ebooks is more difficult for consumers, too.

As Cory points out, our relationship with books is fundamentally different from our relationship with music. (Seriously, read his piece. It’s smart stuff.) We use books and music very differently, but that isn’t likely to make people more accepting of the current state of ebooks. Ebooks lag far behind music in going digital, and it doesn’t feel like ebooks are catching up.

When we tell library members about ebooks (which most people still don’t know we have), this needs toe part of the narrative. As all of Twitter pointed out yesterday, J.K. Rowling’s next book now has a cover. The book will be published by Hachette, which currently doesn’t sell ebooks to libraries. When should we explain that we won’t have this title as an ebook? Now? Or when a patron’s calling the front desk because he can’t find it on Overdrive?

Now, now, tell people about it now! If you tell patrons that we have ebooks they can read for free, that’s good news, right? If they find out about library ebooks when the one ebook they want isn’t available, the good news will get bulldozed by the bad. Tell people the good news while it’s still good. Besides, the more patrons check out ebooks from libraries, the more they’re likely to call for publishers to sell ebooks to libraries. That would be very good news indeed.


The 1940 Census & the Name Index

Last Monday, the National Archives opened the doors to the 1940 Census. For the first time, instead of being available on microfilm, the archive includes digital images of the 2.8 million census pages. With a few clicks, you can find a snapshot of your family’s life in April, 1940.

It’s an easy task if you know where your family members lived then. That’s because census data is collected by geographic area, divided into enumeration districts. At the archive, you can search by state, county, city and street name. But even if a general area is all you know, you can view a county map that shows the enumeration district numbers.

In Huron County, Michigan, the Winsor district’s enumeration district is 32-45. Open that set of images in the archive and you can browse the 36 pages of hand-written census records. Here are my great-grandparents, Dan and Mary Swartzendruber, and their 20-year old son Lloyd, my grandpa:

It’s pretty amazing to see their names there and imagine Daniel coming to the door to answer a few questions on a day in April.

This page was pretty easy to find, but it’s a whole different thing if your family lived in a city. You could end up looking through dozens of enumeration districts and hundreds of pages. That’s because there’s no index that lets you search by name as well as location. To build the index will take a lot of volunteers a lot of hours, to put it mildly.

The work is already underway at the1940census.com. Three large genealogical companies are hosting a mirror of the archive and providing indexing software to help volunteers type up information from every page. When this work is complete, “[t]he free index of the census records and corresponding images will be available to the public for perpetuity.”

The reason this isn’t a great deal, and the real reason I think we need a national digital public library, is that these genealogical companies will own this name index. Or rather, FamilySearch.org owns the license to the index. This is made plain enough in the indexing software’s license agreement:

Ownership of Your Work: Although you are working as a volunteer, without monetary compensation, you acknowledge and agree that your work in creating indexes of Images or otherwise performing related tasks using the Client or the FamilySearch Indexing Web site (such indexes and related work together called your “Work Product”) shall be deemed a work made for hire under U.S. copyright law, and that your Work Product will therefore be entirely owned by FamilySearch.

I contacted The 1940 Census project, asking if this license covered the name index and if so, would it really be free “for perpetuity.”

FamilySearch.org has advised that the license to the 1940 index being created by volunteers belongs to FamilySearch as the license owner. The index is sublicensed to other 1940 community project sponsoring parties. Those we have sublicensed the index to can provide it for free or may charge for the access at some future point.

So, yes, it is licensed, and yes they intend it to be free. But they could charge for it in the future or restrict the ways in which people can use the index, if they choose to. Without placing the index under a license like Creative Commons, there’s no guarantee that the index will remain free. And although “free” may mean you won’t have to pay to run a search, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be free to use the index in any way you like: copying part of the index to share information about your family, for example.

We need a name index that’s free for the public to use, remix, and share as they choose. Am I crazy, or does this sound like a job for libraries?


On Ebooks & Getting Skunked

At the Computers in Libraries conference last week, there was lots of discussion about ebooks. Angry discussion. Okay some of the anger was in fun, but libraries are in a tough spot when it comes to ebooks.

Thursday’s A202 session, “Ebook Trends: Info Pro Perspectives,” started with Andy Woodworth quoting Louis C.K.: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” Click through and watch Louis (He’s on Conan, so there’s no swears. From 1:55 to 6:08 or so is his bit on this). His take, and Andy’s, seems pretty right-on. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have imaged the conveniences of today’s information technologies. But we get seriously upset today when it doesn’t operate at maximum convenience.

I don’t think our complaints about ebooks are about inconvenience. Libraries are about giving everyone equal access to content. “Sharing wins,” says Andy. “Sharing will always win.” Sharing isn’t this optional thing you might or might not do in your lifetime. Boy, another month without sharing anything with anyone. Nope. “The inclination to share stories, thoughts, ideas, and concepts is more philosophically compelling than the rules around them.” Yep.

So if sharing wins, why are libraries still getting skunked? I think it’s because we forget that this system causes our patrons more pain than it causes us. We’d like to offer The Hunger Games in ebook format and not just as a downloadable audio book, but it’s patrons who can’t get the ebook.

And patrons don’t know why they can’t check out the ebooks they want to read. They don’t know that this ebook isn’t available from this publisher at all, or that that ebook just tripled in price from that publisher. My question isn’t if ebooks are worth getting upset about. It’s if libraries are the right ones to be upset. Shouldn’t it be our patrons?

After all, our frustration doesn’t get us a better seat at the bargaining table with the publishers and Overdrive. (Do we even have a seat there?) When Random House “experiments” with 300% price increases on ebooks, libraries have to buy fewer copies or buy from other publishers.

Issues like that are invisible to patrons, who likely don’t know the publisher of the book they want to read at all. They just want to read. We need to make these issues visible, because it’s patrons who are really getting skunked here. When they see enough examples of publishers gaming library budgets and cutting off access to ebooks, they’ll have the “Aha” moment we already have.

They’ll hit bingo. They’ll start making this argument about access to ebooks for us, and there are a lot more patrons out there than librarians. We’re talking about these issues already, but we need to talk about it where our patrons can hear. At the reference desk, sure, but in the local newspapers, local radio, our websites. I don’t enjoy getting skunked, but it’s a lot easier to take if it gets patrons closer to that bingo moment. Let’s make sure it does.


Libraries, Google, and Space

At the Letters to a Young Librarian blog, Jessica posted today about the reason she’s not worried that Google is ringing the closing bell for libraries. To quickly summarize, she says that Google can’t compete with libraries because a library is a physical place. People get together there. You can’t get together at Google.com. Go read her post, and then come back.

Here’s why I’m not as comforted by this thought than I’d like to be: Google’s not a place, but it’s in other ways an every-place. Google is in the coffee shop or cafe or wherever community life is happening. Some people will accept the lesser information and assistance of Google if they can choose the place to use Google services. I think that’s a poor trade-off when it comes to doing good work, but I can understand why people might make that decision.

When I’m in coffee shops near campus, I always see students at work on their laptops with headphones plugged in. The coffee is part of the pull, but it’s not all of it. I chose coffee shops to work in myself, sometimes, to get away from the too-quiet of studying by myself at home or in the library. I wanted a hello and half-conversation with the barista. I wanted the opportunity to run into a classmate for a friendly interruption.

It’s not that libraries don’t offer this kind of community, but there are an awful lot of people walking past the front desk. A lot of times there may not be an interaction until the person has a question or is ready to check out–very late, compared to buying a coffee when you enter a cafe–assuming they aren’t using the self-check-out scanner. It’s a challenge to make personal connections, and I’m not sure those connections rank highly on library priority lists.

Community connections like this are vital to coffee shops. Without a vibrant community, a coffee shop will close. This happened in my neighborhood. Our corner coffee shop quickly became the central hub of the community. We’d see friends while walking to it, catch up with friends and meet new people when we were there. It was open early, but little parking made it difficult for the morning crowd, and it was never open late enough for the college crowd. Despite lots of traffic, volunteer workers, and love, it couldn’t stay open. It’s been closed a couple years now, and although people from the community still meet to try to reopen it, it still hasn’t happened.

It’s not that libraries aren’t under cost pressures. Certainly they are. But it doesn’t seem that they’re under the same month-to-month risk of running in the red and closing their doors for good. Libraries don’t have the same pressure to build community, or at least it seems that they don’t feel that their lives depend on it. Having a space isn’t enough.

Having an espresso bar isn’t enough either. But having open doors doesn’t mean that a community will adopt it as their space. I don’t think libraries should replace coffee shops as a Third Space, but I do think they’re often have the same audience. If it were vital to get college-age students into libraries, the coffee shop challenges would be familiar: what hours are the doors open, what events take place there, what room is available for interaction and study, what vibe does it have?

Libraries can take on Google any day of the week when it comes to useful information. But with Google available every place that has a WiFi network, libraries and Google aren’t just competing for ideas. They’re competing for space. And that puts libraries into competition with unlikely contenders.