This piece, titled Two Buck Book, by Allegra Burke, consisting of a recycled New Columbia Encyclopedia, evoked a lot of thinking about the value of reference books.  Allegra apparently paid two dollars for this book, which is listed at $140 and I paid $59 for it years ago.  The New Columbia is commonly considered the best single volume encyclopedia in the English language.

Two years ago, I discarded my copy of The New Columbia.  I had decided that the Wikipedia entries were superior to their print counterparts.

Wikipedia has the advantage of being continually updated by thousands of contributors.  Any print encyclopedia is already out of date by the time the first copy is sold.  Wikipedia is also many times more comprehensive than any print encyclopedia but is easier to use and Wikipedia is about as accurate as any print counterpart.

I wonder how long it will be until seeing a reference book or perhaps any printed book will be like seeing a scroll.


Twice before I have written about the effects of a non-neutral net in the abstract.  This week, courtesy of News Corp., which owns Fox, we have seen an example of what a non-neutral net would look like.  Recently Cablevision and News Corp. could not come to terms regarding how much Cablevision would pay for airing Fox television programs. With no agreement in place, Fox programming no longer appeared on Cablevision.  In addition, Fox blocked Cablevision subscribers from accessing any Fox content on Hulu’s free service, which is partially owned by Fox.  In this manner, News Corp. prevented Cablevision subscribers from simply streaming Fox’s programming from Hulu.  This gave News Corp. leverage in its negotiations with Cablevision.  In effect, News Corp. said that if Cablevision subscribers wanted Fox programming they should either reach an agreement or go to a different service provider.

Technically, the Hulu content runs over a neutral net.  The network over which the content flows is neutral.  The content provider is preventing certain users from accessing its content, based on their ISP.  Effectively though, this is like a non-neutral net.  Certain customers are not given access to certain content.  Incidentally, the customers who paid for Hulu’s premium service had uninterrupted access to all content.

In effect, Fox’s action hurts Fox as much as it hurts Cablevision.  The free content on Hulu is funded by advertising.  By blocking Cablevision customers, Fox eliminates some of its audience.  The blocking has the greatest impact on the customers though.  As mentioned in an earlier post, when access to part of the Internet is restricted, the customers lose.  Imagine if Cablevision had a problem getting a loan from Bank of A and retaliated by blocking access to the Bank’s website.  Existing customers could not access the website and potential new customers would not be as likely to open an account with the bank…  As the Internet’s importance increases, the potential impact of restricting access increases dramatically.

A book buyer in the US owns any printed book that s/he purchases.  The owner does not have the right to copy the book but besides that the purchaser can legally loan the book, sell the book, etc.  In contrast, a person who downloads a book on a Kindle or some other form of eReader, is licensing the content.  According to the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use, the content is restricted to personal use.

In the US, the First-Sale Doctrine, a limitation of the copyright law, gives buyers full ownership of books and many other purchases.  Currently, that law is under assault from several directions.  On September 10, 2010, the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court, in Vernor v. Autodesk, said that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply to software, which is licensed rather than sold.  This is problematic because libraries loan software, such as language learning programs and video games.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that in the future even CD’s and DVD’s may no longer be subject to the First Sale Doctrine.

In the library world, where we loan materials, this is of great relevance because many licenses are for personal use only.  Libraries have been exploring the possibility of loaning Kindles and other eReaders preloaded with content.  Intuitively this makes sense.  Loaning a printed book or loaning a Kindle with the same content to one patron at a time seems like it should be equivalent.  But of course loaning something that is licensed for personal use only is  probably illegal.  Complicating matters further is that fact that many licenses provide different restrictions on content use.  So it could be legal to loan one type of eReader but not another type.

Sadly, as we move to a society that increasingly downloads content and gets our information from screens, this could become a larger problem for libraries.  As we offer more digital content, libraries’ content could gradually become more restricted by for profit publishers.

However, there are also other forces working against these potential upcoming restrictions.  Authors and artists are licensing their works using Creative Commons licenses and Open Source software is being written by numerous developers.  Cory Doctorow, the author of young adult fiction who has a book reviewed elsewhere in this blog, uses Creative Commons licenses on  all of his work produced since 2003.  The text of Wikipedia uses a Creative Common License.  The Firefox browser, the Linux OS, Open Office, Android and the Evergreen Integrated Library System are all examples of Open Source software.

As librarians, I believe our efforts should work to mitigate the potential upcoming restrictions from two angles.  First, we should try to work with publishers and resellers to get terms more favorable for libraries.  We should also work in the courts and Congress to get more favorable laws concerning digital rights for libraries.  The American Library Association presented arguments against the court’s decision in Vernor v. Autodesk, so we are already working on this but it seems we are gradually losing ground.  Second, we should support Creative Commons licenses and Open Source causes.  The entire spirit of the library is about sharing for the common good and that is also in the spirit of Open Source and Creative Commons.

Netflix: What’s in a Name?

From a New York Times article, I just learned why Reed Hastings decided to name the company he founded in 1997 Netflix.  It’s an odd name for a company that began by renting DVD’s by mail.  When the company was founded Hastings believed that its movies would one day be delivered through the Internet and named the company accordingly.  Netflix thought of itself as in the movie business, not in the DVD business.  A decade later Netflix started streaming movies through the Net.

Recently Amazon announced that it had sold 143 ebooks for every 100 hardcover books.  Although Amazon was in the physical book business, Amazon saw that it wasn’t physical books that most customers wanted.  Rather it was the content contained in the books.  Both Netflix and Amazon realized what their customers actually wanted rather than focusing on the medium.

Books, CD’s and DVD’s are much less convenient in many ways than their online digital equivalents.  Amazon advertises that a customer can start reading the Kindle Edition of a book in less than a minute.  Electronic books through Amazon are almost always available and less expensive.  Downloaded music and movie sales are rising sharply.

When digital content is available through library catalogs, there is often a wait, the content will only work on a select few devices and downloads are cumbersome.  Most content is not available for download.  Our customers are moving.  The question is, how can we move with them given our budgetary constraints?

Fun fact: If a Kindle user downloaded two books per week, it would take about 33 years to fill the 8.5 ounce device.

I just read Timothy Egan’s beautiful article, My Summer Home, in which Egan describes growing up knowing that some other families had summer homes but that his family had one home.  At the age of 18, a road trip to explore the country brought him to understand that we all owned vast public lands “–lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore.”  For Egan, the land itself became his summer home.

Reading Egan I cannot help but reflect on why I became a librarian: at their best, libraries are owned collectively and just as public lands make a great resource available to all of us, libraries offer the gleanings of our minds to everyone.  Anyone can walk into a library and explore almost anything produced by human minds, from the works of Shakespeare to the recordings of Mariah Carey and programs for people of all ages.

When someone enters a library, regardless of the patron’s available personal resources, the patron has the same wealth of resources as any other patron or even any monarch.  This is the beauty of the libraries.

When I ride the bus in San Francisco, most passengers are interacting with their cellphones.  Recently, I read on my own cellphone that Google and Verizon believe in Net neutrality for the wired Internet (e.g. DSL and cable lines) but not on cellphone networks.  Net neutrality, as described in an earlier post, means that all Internet traffic, regardless of the content provider, has equal access to bandwidth.  In other words, to use a highway metaphor, all traffic has access to all lanes.  On a non neutral network an Internet Service Provider could give some content providers access to more bandwidth and could block others.

With a non neutral net, the Internet will become a toll road.  Internet Service Providers, like Verizon, will be able to charge the content providers, such as Amazon, Google and the New York Times, to have access to our computers.  Of course ISP’s already charge us for access to Internet service.

If the deal proposed by Google and Verizon went through, Google would also stand to win.  Microsoft’s Bing could be pushed into the slow lane or even blocked on all Verizon cellphones.  Bing, MS Office online, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail could be slowed to a crawl, while Google, Google Documents and Gmail are allowed to whiz by.   Of course, small startups would not have a chance in such an environment unless they were backed by deep pockets.  ISP’s could also double dip by demanding that consumers who want unrestricted Net access pay extra money.

At this point, I can’t help conjuring up images of bullies demanding tolls for access to roads built largely by public funds.  ISP’s, let us remember, only provide the on ramps to the Net.  The Internet backbone is mostly hosted by government and academic network centers.

Besides retail and service providers being able to buy access to networks, news organizations could buy or block access.  Suppose a news organization decided it didn’t like this blog entry, it could pay Verizon to block my entire blog.  Since many consumers have either no choice or very limited choice of ISP’s, if the ISP’s can control the content of the information they provide, effectively, the ISP’s could prevent balanced news from reaching the electorate.

But Google and Verizon argue that their proposal would only effect wireless traffic.  For the wired Internet, they want a neutral net.  Of course, as anyone who has ever ridden a bus or used a cellphone knows, the world is moving toward a wireless state.  So, this proposal that ISP’s control wireless traffic would give the ISP’s and their partners even more power and of course more money and it would diminish the power of “we the people.”

In this excellent debut young adult novel Paolo Bacigalupi creates a futuristic world, inhabited by vivid characters. In the beginning, the protagonist, Nailer, breaks ships for scrap and oil. Nailer lives in a hut on the beach with his abusive father and dreams of sailing on the wide ocean in the sleek clippers he watches zip by.

After a hurricane, Nailer finds a broken clipper marooned on the wreckage of a flooded city. The crew is all dead, except an unconscious girl, who is adorned with far more wealth, in the form of jewelry, than Nailer has ever seen…

The plot revolves around trying to get the girl to safety. Themes of loyalty, family, climate change, disparity between income groups, genetic engineering and the environment are explored. What makes this YA novel remarkable is that it explores many themes and so fully realizes a world, yet it doesn’t ever get bogged down in description. Indeed, I found this difficult to put down.

For more reviews of Paolo Bacigalupi’s books please click on the Science Fiction category to the right.

This review is cross posted on Amazon.