Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 6: April 2005


Trends & Quick Takes

Critiquing the Curriculum

That’s the title of Wayne A. Wiegand’s article in the January 2005 American Libraries (pp. 58-61). The sentence beneath: “The entrenched LIS agenda needs to change to reflect the most critical functions of the library.” This is a case where I need to remind you that IANAL—in this case, L for Librarian: I haven’t been to library school. And maybe, if Wiegand’s right, that explains why I wrote Being Analog, cowrote Future Libraries, and gave some of the speeches I did: I wasn’t aware that there was an entrenched LIS agenda.

Wiegand’s first point is the one that affects me most directly:

First, I’m convinced that most [library school faculty] think of libraries as part of a greater world of information… However, my study of American library history leads me to see information as only part of a larger library world, in which libraries have done three things especially well for the past century-and-a-half: They have 1) made information accessible to millions of people on many subjects; 2) provided tens of thousands of places where patrons have been able to meet formally as clubs or groups, or informally as citizens and students utilizing a civic institution and a cultural agency; and 3) furnished billions of reading materials to millions of patrons.

The library as place. Reading—and reading materials in general, not just “information.” As Wiegand recounts, in library-related questions on a 2001 national survey, when people were asked what skills librarians most needed, 76% said “familiarity with a range of books and subjects”; when asked what people do at public libraries, 92% said “borrow books.”

In some of my talks, I’ve dissected one ALA slogan, “The information place,” as being wrong on all three counts. First, libraries have never been the place people get information—and mostly not the primary place people get either up-to-the-minute information or the information most important to their careers and hobbies (at least for public libraries). Public libraries fill in the pieces: They provide access to the information people don’t acquire as a matter of everyday life. Second, “information” isn’t all that libraries are about—I don’t even believe it’s primarily what libraries are about (and Wiegand seems to agree). Third, while the library as place is vitally important, libraries have served beyond their walls for many years. Wiegand says library schools need to understand more about place and reading, and why they’re so important to patrons. I think that’s true.

The other major point is that LIS faculty are inclined to “think primarily of…‘the user in the life of the library’” and that they need to think of the library in the life of the user. That’s certainly true, but it’s an area for others to comment and expand on.

For all I know, Wiegand could be wrong: Maybe library school faculty have already dropped infocentric attitudes and started to understand the importance of reading, place, and the library within the overall life of the user. I suspect he’s right. Go read the article (if you haven’t); it’s worth thinking about.

A Safer Internet Explorer Will Destroy Firefox?

The February 15 story at News.com is straightforward enough: Internet Explorer 7 will appear in beta this summer, rather than waiting for the next major version of Windows (as would normally happen). Microsoft appears to recognize that IE represents one of several major vulnerabilities in Windows.

Naturally, analysts assumed that Firefox has something to do with Microsoft’s change of plans: For the first time in many years, thanks mostly to Firefox, IE has less than 90% of the PC market.

So far, so good—but Molly Wood, senior editor at CNET.com (News.com’s parent) extrapolates in a manner I find disturbing and unsupportable. The article title almost says it all: “IE 7: so much for Firefox.” The first paragraph: “The party’s over.” Why? Because “Papa Bill just dropped the hammer.” Here’s Wood’s take on Firefox:

Firefox is great. I use it. But it’s a chore sometimes, what with most sites using that pesky nonstandard IE code. Not everything renders properly, and some sites just plain don’t work—I have to load up IE to use them. Plus, let’s be honest—Firefox has its flaws. Why is there no way to check for updates from within the browser, for one thing? Why does it take so doggone long to launch? Why, why must it crash every single time I open a PDF? I mean, every single time…

I wonder about two things: That first sentence (belied by everything else in the paragraph) and just what’s wrong with Molly Wood’s PC. I’m running Firefox on a middle-aged PC, dialup, at home (sometimes) and on a recent underconfigured PC at work (all the time except for one solitary website requiring IE). Rendering improperly? I have yet to see it. Sites that don’t work? Yes, some sites are coded so they’ll reject any browser except IE—but not many. No way to check for updates? Just the other morning, Firefox alerted me via popup window and icon that there were significant updates: no need to “check” for them. “Take so doggone long to launch”? One reason I use Firefox most of the time is that it’s faster to launch (and use) than IE. Crashing on PDF? Well, it’s never happened to me, and I use PDF a lot. What am I doing wrong?

Given Wood’s ability to turn “great” Firefox into a series of disasters, I’m not surprised that she concludes, “If a standalone IE 7 is even 50 percent more secure than current versions, the Firefox rebellion is finished.” Oh, and if IE 7 has tabs, Firefox “will be destroyed as surely as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was crushed by Russia.”

Hmm. Maybe there’s a clue in that last statement. Remember what happened in Hungary in the long term, admittedly after 1956?

iPod Ubiquity

On one hand, here’s another Pew Internet report—asking how many American adults have iPods or MP3 players. The answer, if you assume that 2,201 people who are willing to respond to phone surveys represent a valid statistical cross-section: 11%, more than 22 million of them. 14% of men, 9% of women; 19% of those under age 30 (noting that with each subdivision, statistical validity weakens), 14% of “younger Baby boomers” (40-48). “Upscale” households ($75,000 or more household income—hardly upscale in these parts, but never mind show 24% penetration, as compared to 10% of $30K-$75K households and 6% of under-$30K households. If you have broadband at home there’s one chance in four that you’ll have an iPod or MP3 player—but only 9% of those with dialup connections do. (What about those without internet connections?)

On the other, there’s a March 28, 2005 Media Life piece, “Not everyone owns an iPod.” Lorraine Sanders notes, “[Y]ou’d think half the country’s teenagers own an iPod, that TiVo is taking down primetime television, and that Howard Stern’s impending move to Sirius will spell the end of traditional radio as we know it.” She offers a paragraph to comment on that hype:

Most of this is simply hogwash.

According to an Arbitron/Edison Media Research study, more than 80% of Americans plan to continue listening to on-air radio; 6% own or use a TiVo or other DVR; 3% own a Blackberry-equivalent—and only 6% own or use an iPod. Consumers with the ability to block ads don’t block all of them—and that’s only reasonable.

Note that both studies could be right—if MP3 players other than iPods represent around 45% of portable-player sales, which is quite possible if you include flash players as well as disc players.

PublishAmerica: Vanity or Not?

An Associated Press story on January 29, 2005 talks about PublishAmerica—founded by a “Web marketing consultant who had written two books he couldn’t get published” and a client who owned a vanity press. The new venture “would take on those people who yearned to be authors but struggled to find a publisher, offering the editing and promotional support not found at a vanity press and do it without a fee.”

And boy, have they done it: more than 4,000 books released in 2004, with nearly 11,000 writers “under contract.” The website says that signing with PublishAmerica gives authors “the very important distinction of having your next book accepted by a traditional publishing company” and assures applicants that manuscripts are carefully reviewed and edited, that books are available in stores, and that authors don’t have to pay. And, to be sure, founder Larry Clopper (the unpublishable Web marketeer) says, “The publishing industry will never be the same.”

One novelist who couldn’t find a publisher loved being accepted by “traditional publisher” PublishAmerica—but says her manuscript wasn’t edited, there was minimal marketing assistance, and bookstores told her they don’t stock PublishAmerica books because they don’t consider it a real publisher. One watchdog group calls the company an “author mill.”

Consider these numbers: In 2004, PublishAmerica released 4,800 books. Gross revenues totaled “$4 million to $6 million”—in other words, no more than $1,250 per book, an amount barely sufficient to cover good editing and manuscript preparation, much less marketing and fulfillment. And that’s gross: PublishAmerica claims to have 70 full-time staff, which at (say) $30,000 average salary would mean $2.1 million of that $4 to $6 million is pure overhead. Assuming an average price of $20 per book, PublishAmerica may have sold as many as 300,000 books—or about 63 per title. The “all time best seller” has sold around 5,200 copies total.

Author advances range “from $1 to $1,000”—and since there’s no up-front fee, PublishAmerica isn’t a traditional vanity publisher. Or is it? “[B]ecause PublishAmerica has little clout in the market, authors end up buying copies from the publisher, which periodically offers special discounts, and selling the books themselves.” The best the head of the company will claim is that sales to authors are “less than 50 percent.” And, despite his claims of PublishAmerica’s “traditional” status and the website’s claims of availability in stores, he can’t cite any PublishAmerica books that have been placed in bookstores nationwide. Instead, almost all PublishAmerica production is print-on-demand, where a book doesn’t exist until it’s ordered.

Then there’s the careful editorial review. One author was unhappy with the handling of a novel, so she submitted a new manuscript: the first 50 pages of the previous novel followed by the last 10 pages, repeated often enough to make a manuscript. The manuscript was accepted. Another writer submitted a novel consisting of 30 pages repeated six times: it was accepted.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America won’t offer membership to PublishAmerica authors; neither will the Authors Guild or the Mystery Writers of America. PublishAmerica had its own comments about science fiction authors (and, full admission, right here it gets personal, even though I learned more than 40 years ago that I have no talent for writing science fiction):

As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction… [Science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home… [They are] writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters.

Wow. Take that, Gene Wolfe, JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, and a few thousand others: You can’t compare to “all other fiction” (which presumably includes romance, mystery, and porn).

Thirty science fiction writers found this a bit outrageous, so decided to see just how tough PublishAmerica’s standards really were. They got together over a holiday weekend and wrote Atlanta Nights, “a novel about hot times in Atlanta high society,” making it as bad as they possibly could. As you’d expect, PublishAmerica accepted it—and, of course, withdrew the offer “upon further review” after the writers said what they’d done. (You can find Atlanta Nights at www.lulu.com/travis-tea.) [Later information from an SFWA January 28 press release on PRWeb.]

Quicker Takes and Mini-Perspectives

I was a bit surprised by a mini-roundup of “gaming notebooks” in the February 8, 2005 PC Magazine. Not by the prices—hey, if you’re a gamer, what’s $5,300 or $5,600? Not by the brandnames—Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Voodoo are all familiar names for this type of PC. What surprised me is what’s not mentioned consistently. None of the reviews mentions the size of the computer, and only two of three even mention weight (which in both cases is a tad heavy for a portable: 8.8lb. for the Alienware, 12.4lb. for the Voodoo). Don’t weight and size matter when you’re paying a hefty premium for portability?

Ø    Arggh. I can’t take it any more. Here’s an Editors’ Choice review of the Logitech Z-2300 “2.1” (stereo with a subwoofer) speaker system, $150, in the March 2005 Computer Shopper. The first two sentences of the third paragraph sent me over the edge: “Our first test on the Z-2300 was musical, and we loved the results. The system delivered the kind of thump and low-end resonance you’d associate with a great PA system at a concert.” As opposed to a system that accurately delivers the bass that was in the original recording, which probably isn’t “thump and low-end resonance.” Other comments about this speaker, lauded for its “outstanding audio quality,” are that game play “made our walls, desk, and floor shake with an intensity our neighbors quickly hated” and that, viewing a Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers DVD, “every collision benefited from a tremendous thud, and the fall of every horse hoof came through with pristine clarity and low-end bass that made us shudder.” Good grief. Flatness of response? Harmonic distortion? Accuracy? Never mind: It shakes those walls, and that’s what matters.

Ø    The print book continues to die slowly if at all. A February 24, 2005 AAP press release says that net sales in 2004 totaled $23.7 billion, a 1.3% increase from 2003—not a big increase, but not bad for a mature industry in a society where “nobody reads books.” Adult hardbound sales increased a respectable 6.3%, with paperbounds up 2.8%. Compound growth rate from 1997 through 2004 averaged 4.7% per year.

Ø    If the classic DVDs you buy from Warner Brothers seem unusually good, there’s a reason, according to Fred Kaplan in a February 28, 2005 Slate story. For one thing, the film libraries owned by WB (which include RKO and pre-1986 MGM films) have been well preserved, and most DVDs are mastered from the original negatives. For another, Warner has restored its true Technicolor movies (the ones filmed on three black-and-white strips between 1935 and 1954), going back to the triple b&w negatives and aligning the negatives properly. Since b&w negatives don’t fade (unlike color), this combination of archiving and high-resolution digital scanning and frame-matching can yield spectacular results. Additionally, WB tends to produce most classic movies as two-disc sets, putting the extras on the second disc—which means they can use milder compression rates on the movie disc, yielding better pictures. So if Meet Me in St. Louis, Gone with the Wind (where the movie’s spread over two discs), and the forthcoming release of Wizard of Oz look better than you remember, it’s because they probably are better than you remember.

Ø    John N. Berry III of LJ wrote about some flack the journal received last year after quoting posts from lists. “Before publication, we decided it was unnecessary to get permission to quote these posts, since a large audience had already received their messages.” That’s an interesting definition of “large”—some 1,500 subscribers for one list, but only 400 or so for the other. But that’s not the point. This is: There was an “e-storm of messages” on one list saying the quotes represented “bad journalism, bad netiquette, and bad ethics to quote people without even telling them, or asking their permission.” I know it’s been a long delay—but I’m with John on this one: “[T]hose who go public with their thoughts…have some responsibility, too.” If you sign your name to a list post, especially if it’s a list anyone can subscribe to, you’ve published that post—and it’s neither unethical nor bad etiquette to excerpt from a publication without asking permission. (If an entire post was quoted, that’s a different issue: the poster could conceivably sue LJ for copyright infringement, since every signed post is automatically copyright-protected. But if you haven’t registered the post, you can only sue for actual damages, and those would be mighty tough to prove.) I find very few bloggers who won’t quote from list postings, and many bloggers want to claim that they’re providing a form of journalism. I don’t believe you can have it both ways. I was surprised by a later letter in LJ, where the writer asserted that there’s a distinct difference between quoting published material and using material from a list, claimed that lists go to “a defined group of people who share a common interest” and called selective quotation “steal[ing] their words.” Nope, sorry: list postings are published material…unless the list is factually private and limited to those who can prove a common interest.

Ø    The proprietress of Exploded Library offered some “possibly luddite confessions” on February 3, 2005. I was charmed. She’s never bought or sold anything on eBay; she likes to subscribe to the print version of her urban daily newspaper; and she prefers to use travel agents to book flights—many of which are complicated international trips. Well, you’ll have to call me 67% Luddite as well, then—and maybe 100% for complicated flights. I’ve spent even less time on eBay than she has. I regard a good metro daily newspaper as important to staying socialized, staying aware of all those things that aren’t crucial to my daily life but might matter in the future. I book most of my own flights, but most of them are simple. We do use a travel agent for cruises—and would for any complex trip.

Ø    David McCandless wrote an interesting confessional in dot.life at BBC News on February 7, 2005: “Why I’m giving up broadband.” He’s a “committed early adopter and geek,” has used broadband for years—and has come to realize that “there isn’t really that much I can do with broadband.” His wife convinced him not to play online games too often; he’s noted that you can get full-motion video of news just as easily by turning on the TV; and he doesn’t want to discuss illegal file-sharing. He believes he’s formed “an information habit” that’s interfering with the rest of his life. So he dropped back to dial-up. Which works just fine for e-mail and web browsing. “Isn’t that what the internet is really for?”

Ø    I haven’t spent much time exploring it, but you might check out Low Threshold Applications (jade.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/lta/), a site for applications of technology (largely for educational purposes, including library-related purposes) that are “reliable, accessible, easy to learn, non-intimidating and (incrementally) inexpensive.” As of early February, there were 44 such applications on the site, from “integrating RSS feeds into your course management system” to “creating editable forms in Microsoft Word.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 6, Whole Issue 62, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Hosting provided by Boise State University Libraries.

Opinions herein may not represent those of RLG, YBP Library Services, or Boise State University Libraries.

Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2005 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

URL: citesandinsights.info/civ5i6.pdf