Popcorn? Connor Tomas O’Brien and Chris Cormack on the battle for libraries’ future

Find an update to this blog debate at Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins, on this site.

Today on the blog I’m joined by writer, web developer, and Australian creative-man-about-town Connor Tomas O’Brien plus Kiwi open source advocate (and fellow developer) Chris Cormack of Koha.

Connor is the director of the EWF Digital Writers’ Festival. He came to my attention after a Twitter conversation which led to his article “A very quiet battle” for the journal Kill Your Darlings. In it, he addressed sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin’s argument that publishers are deliberately making it untenable for public libraries to loan e-books to their patrons.

Connor Tomas O'Brien at Kill Your Darlings

“That’s probably true, and actually not very surprising,” Connor replied, suggesting that “ebooks and public libraries fundamentally just don’t mix”:

After all, if we accept that one of the core roles of the public library system is to make work freely available, and to make that work as convenient as possible to access… well, it’s already extremely easy to acquire ebooks freely and easily online without paying a cent. If we ignore the copyright implications, the torrenting website The Pirate Bay is, in a sense, like a modern day Library of Alexandria […D]igital lending systems are so complex, restrictive, and counterintuitive that it’s far more convenient for somebody with a limited income to pirate an ebook than rent it from their public library. The Pirate Bay, though illicit, offers a superior system of unrestricted free digital access to written work than any public library in existence. (For reference, here’s a breakdown of a typical library’s ebook checkout restrictions).

It’s hard to see things improving. Public libraries were established to facilitate the distribution of physical objects, not digital files. The conceptual framework for lending – involving one patron visiting a physical space, removing a book from the collection for a limited period, then returning it for others to enjoy – breaks down when it comes to ebooks, which can be accessed anywhere and endlessly duplicated.

Connor acknowledged that “The public library […] is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever”, but without giving examples of what he expected the library to do in this brave new world. And when he signed off the article like this:

For now, there’s not much to do, really, but grab the popcorn and sit back and watch as publishers and librarians battle it out (very, very quietly, of course).

Well, of course this got my dander up. I was minded of Edward Burke’s “All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men do nothing.” If people complacently munch popcorn while public libraries ail and the smallest, most disadvantaged communities lose their free point of access to human knowledge and culture, they’re actually helping a deeper slide into inequality across the nation.

So I got in touch with Connor and asked him to talk through his ideas about the future of public libraries – and to bolster my limited technical knowledge, I talked also with Chris Cormack of Koha, an open-source software developer who spoke at this year’s Auckland Libraries Youth Hui. I won’t deny I’ve got a soft spot for Chris ever since I found out he arranged for the Māori hero Maui to attend his son’s birthday party – the kind of parenting that chimes so well with the spirit of playful learning.

The following interview comes from stitching together e-mail discussions with Connor and Chris. Connor ran out of time because of his work with the Digital Writers’ Festival, but I hope interested readers will be able to pursue the issue further online – you can find Connor online as @mrconnorobrien and Chris as @ranginui.

After reading Connor’s article, I asked him: “Aren’t the systems around e-book lending only so complex because publishers are trying to enforce unenforceable, outdated business systems? It’s so easy to publish an ebook now: aren’t publishers trying to create an artificial scarcity, because the traditional business model was based on scarcity of the physical text? I’ve heard it argued that libraries should directly value and reward authors for the work that they do, rather than the distributors who might be increasingly irrelevant. Rather than the problem being libraries, isn’t the problem a publishing business model which places intrinsic value not on the work, but on its transmission?”

Connor:

That reasoning makes no sense to me. Publishers are trying to enforce a system that enables them to make money, which then lets them pay writers, which lets writers produce more work. They will always favour systems that enable them to end up with a stronger bottom line, and that’s a good thing, I think. I’m not fond of the idea that publishers are irrelevant middlemen that try to exploit authors. Publishers offer a slew of services beyond printing stuff out on paper and whacking a cover on. Also, publishers really are having a tough time with ebook piracy, so I don’t think they’re very interested in exploring systems that would further enable widespread piracy of work. I’ve explored existing library lending systems, and almost all of them are trivial to crack – it’s possible, if you have fifteen minutes handy, to figure out how to use most online lending systems to steal a whole lot of work for free from publishers… and publishers are obviously aware of this, which is why they’re treading very carefully. If a publisher signed on to a system that legitimised piracy, that’d be an absolute disaster.

I’m curious as to what you mean by “libraries should directly value and reward authors for the work that they do”. How could this happen? Where would the money come from? How would it be directed? I’m not necessarily against completely flipping how authors receive compensation for their work, but I struggle to see how such a system could operate. Perhaps the best example would be something like Rdio or Spotfy, in which you pay a monthly fee in order to access an ostensibly limitless amount of music, and at the end of the month, the money you pay is directed to the artists whose work you listened to. (Oyster are exploring a similar system for books).

However, there are big problems with this system from the perspective of libraries. The core problem is this: the system, if it comes into existence, would come from a startup (like Oyster), not from libraries, which have relatively poor bargaining power and no real track record with this kind of innovation. The startup would see libraries as the middleman and would cut them out! I guess I struggle to understand how public libraries could create these radical new systems for distribution and author reimbursement… I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but I’m just not sure they’re the right institution to make it happen.

Chris:

Publishers are no different to record labels, IMHO. Look at what happened to them, and the lengths they have gone to hold on to their outdated systems…only to lose the battle. I don’t see that book publishers will ultimately be any more successful. A business model built on physical objects can’t be expected to work on digital ones. Publishers will not always favour the bottom line, they will favour what they percieve is the easiest way to the strong bottom line. Often they will get this wrong, as will a lot of businesses.

I also dispute that publishers are having a tough time, really it’s no tougher than the RIAA had with music piracy. The only people who ever say that are the music and book publishers. Numerous studies have pointed out that in many cases there is little impact, and what there is is often positive. There is a false myth that if someone hadn’t committed copyright infringement (to not buy into the illegitimate framing content holders use) they would have purchased the item.

If you want an example of a smart publisher who values the actual bottom line – instead of a misguided idea that the only way to maximise value is to enforce scarcity – look at Tor Books.

Tor state: “DRM-protected titles are still subject to piracy, and we believe a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as publishers are, understanding that piracy impacts on an author’s ability to earn an income from their creative work. As it is, we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year.”

Tor author Charles Stross said: “I’m happy to see that Tor have gone DRM-free with their ebook editions. DRM doesn’t impede pirates, but it subjects honest customers to a monopoly tightly controlled by the owners of the DRM software, reducing readers’ freedom and hampering competition.”

Matt:

I’m also thinking of the extent to which authors spend a lot of time these days appearing at events, giving talks, running workshops, and doing non-writey things that build their “platform.”

Given that this stuff is already seen as a major part of the 21st century writing business, libraries clearly have a role to play. For example, as I was leaving Auckland, the leading highbrow bookstore Unity Books was in talks with the city’s library service to run book launch events and author talks at the nearby Central Library. Auckland Libraries already host similar events, and Unity lacked the floorspace to run a really big event of their own. If bookstores were invited in to sell the new book, and the library presented relevant items of its collections for borrowing alongside, at a library-hosted book event for which the author would be paid a speaker’s fee, isn’t this something like the author-celebrating culture we’re imagining?

Connor, in your Kill Your Darlings piece, you write: “The public library, in other words, is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever.”

What do you think a public library should be doing in 2013?

Connor:

The Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne probably offers the most compelling model for what a public library could/should look like in the future (full disclosure: I work out of the Wheeler Centre, but I don’t work for them). The Wheeler Centre brands itself as a space for “books, writing, and ideas”, which seems both broad enough to enable them to be flexible with what they run, but also specific enough to make it simple enough to explain what the Wheeler is to somebody uninitiated.

The mandate of the Wheeler is fundamentally to bring people together, sharing ideas in a non-academic setting. This takes place in a variety of ways: regular events targeted at a range of different kinds of readers, an associated cafe/bar that lets audience members mingle, and a couple of floors full of resident literary organisations that work side by side. When you add all of that up, you have a space that is constantly utilised by different groups in different ways.

The issue public libraries face is largely that there often isn’t that critical mass of energy. Instead, that energy is usually spread across state writers’ centres, universities, cafes, and bookstores. Melbourne already has the Wheeler, but in other states I hope likeminded groups converge to set up similar spaces. If you have one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city, all the energy flows through those spaces, and it has a catalysing effect. Writers’ centres, libraries and bookstores all work a lot better when they sit physically together, I think. Alone, they’re increasingly going to struggle.

Matt:

I actually agree with your idea of the Wheeler Centre as a decent model; a lot of the work I do is programme- rather than collection-focussed. I love this line: “Writers’ centres, libraries and bookstores all work a lot better when they sit physically together, I think.” (One of the things Auckland did this year was take librarians into comic stores to offer their services alongside book retail).

In Melbourne, the most gloriously bookish city in Australia, I love the Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria, but as someone who works with marginalised communities and rural towns, I also recognise that these places tend towards a CBD focus and emphasis on serving existing communities rather than reaching out to neglected ones.

My fear is that smaller libraries are losing out – places serving towns of 15000 or less, with maybe only a couple of staff. These neighbourhood spaces are on the front line of public interaction with the world of culture, literature, and storytelling, just as much as, if not more than, the CBD Meccas.

I sometimes feel uncomfortable with all those big-city cultural venues. It’s not the institutions’ fault, rather it’s that of the funding bodies, but when did the Sydney-based NSW Writers Centre, allegedly a state-wide body, last have the money to run a programme west of the Blue Mountains? And the “national” Centre for Youth Literature at State Library of Victoria is crewed by a team of awesome badasses, who do make the effort to tour Victorian schools – but it seems to be “national” only in the sense that any Australian can access their website.

Again, it’s not their fault, but it speaks poorly of Australian cultural funding, especially given the economic boom the nation has enjoyed for many years. As someone who has worked often in marginalised rural and suburban communities, among kids with low socioeconomic and cultural expectations, I get distressed by stuff like the Zombies versus Unicorns debate at Melbourne Writers Festival. It’s great for kids to meet authors, but I’m less excited about events which require schools to bus their kids in to the CBD and pay $7 a head to hear an author speak, and much more thrilled when we find ways to unleash stories and adventure right on their doorstep.

I’ve written before about avoiding CBD consolidation of cultural services on my blog:

I believe that this kind of progressive cultural work needs to be done at a grassroots level, by people who have the skills and determination to actually create and deliver the services they envision. And it has to leave the biggest urban centres, the preferred homes of the media and cultural establishments, to appear in neglected spaces: rural, suburban, liminal, deprived.

I know the Wheeler Centre tries to do this through partnerships with refugee organisations, for example, but out here in the sticks often we get only the barest droplet of benefit from big-city cultural powerhouses. (Move to Central West New South Wales and you realise how hard it is to get people to venture much beyond Bathurst!). I fear for small town and suburban libraries, those gateways to all human knowledge and culture which should be a short walk from every child’s doorstep. Once such libraries die, I suspect it will be a painful battle to secure funding and find a renewed political consensus that such services should be part and parcel of what communities offer their residents. As Caitlin Moran wrote in her Huffington Post article on Britain’s library cuts,

Unless the government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and insisted councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to “normal” again, our Victorian and post-war and 1960s red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.

From Connor’s position as a festival director, his argument that “Alone, [writers’ centres, libraries, and bookstores a]re increasingly going to struggle” sounds like a power grab by the privileged, arts-festival-writers’-centre elite who, from my limited viewpoint and experience, seem to have done so little for poor, rural, and marginalized Australian communities over three decades of blazing prosperity, largely funded by those communities’ mines.

I agree that people in the literacy game work a lot better when they sit physically together – so I would urge people like Connor to step down from the top table of CBD festival culture and come join us out in the sticks 😉

(I know Connor is currently travelling with the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s digital roadshow in Tasmania, but I’m not sure that hipsterious Hobart counts as “the sticks”, sorry Connor).

After all, while bookstores need to make a buck and writers’ centres tend to favour an established author-loving community, libraries as a concept really are at the bleeding edge of books, writing, and ideas. Their job is to put every single member of the public in touch which whatever they want from human knowledge and culture. I think Caitlin Moran captures this best of all:

Home educated and, by seventeen, writing for a living, the only alma mater I have ever had is Warstones Library, Pinfold Grove, Wolverhampton.

A low, red-brick box on grass that verged on wasteland, I would be there twice a day–rocking up with all the ardor of a clubber turning up to a rave.

[…]

Everything I am is based on this ugly building on its lonely lawn–lit up during winter darkness; open in the slashing rain–which allowed a girl so poor she didn’t even own a purse to come in twice a day and experience actual magic.

Libraries in 2013 are finding new kinds of magic every day, but they won’t survive for long unless people are willing to fight.

Connor – drop your popcorn and join the good guys.

Find an update to this blog debate at Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins, on this site.

8 thoughts on “Popcorn? Connor Tomas O’Brien and Chris Cormack on the battle for libraries’ future

  • The Public Library is about connecting people to all sorts of resources, and people to people. Saying that cracking DRM to free up the content is “trivial” makes the incredibly fallacious assumption that all of society is as technologically as dexterous as the writer( of course whether one should crack DRM is a moral debate all in itself, and as Chris pointed out, most people want to pay creators for their work, but I want to focus on technological prowess). I work in a public library, where we see people coming in every day to use public access computers, who struggle with the concepts involved with “the internet”, and, for example, how to put data into a basic excel spreadsheet(and she’s one of the more able users); put yourself into the shoes of one of the massive swath of individuals on the “have not” side of digital proficiency. http://bit.ly/13eSiE3 this is a study of European public access computer use that shows how only a small minority use public access computers, but this group (in Europe it consists of various marginalised peoples on the other side of the digital divide, including the Roma, but feel free to substitute your own local marginalised groups here) would have no other access to computers the digital world. I’m digressing, but the point I want to make is that leaving access to culture up to publishers, or The Pirate Bay doesn’t do much for marginalised groups, who might be living right in the middle of said “Cultural Meccas” or way out in the sticks, but because of proficiency are missing out on participating in the digital world as it stampedes away without them.

    Boy, a lot of strings in old duder’s head for this discussion eh?

  • I have one simple opinion on this – DRM is doomed, and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge it is destined to die out like a dinosaur. The way forward is to understand what’s happening, embrace it, and reinvent your monetary model. And don’t think you’ll ever get rich from it – those days are over.

  • Your blog piece is interesting indeed. I’ve had discussions with publishers on this matter for several years and I am of the opinion that few of them understand how libraries function and how information is seeked outside of a publisher’s commercial perspective. They see the library as a competitor rather than a gateway to their products which is why some publishers seem gleeful in hampering library access to their digital products.

    Even more interesting to me is their disinerest in making their products available to those who can’t afford them. They have no interest in promoting to marginalised communities as they are less likely to be consumers. I understand, though don’t agree with, this. They have a commercial imperative to make a profit whereas libraries differ in that we have a societal imperative to provide literacy opportunities and to inform communities. Two very different end goals. A literate community is in publishers’ business interests but the return on investment in spending time fostering literacy in small communities is not worth their while. However I think libraries rely too heavily on the publishing industry to drive their decisions. As for DRM – publishers need to look at 21st century business models rather than clinging to 19th century business norms.

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