7 reasons librarians should edit Wikipedia

Have you been looking for more ways to contribute your knowledge and information science skills to the world? You should come edit Wikipedia with me. I’m an active Wikipedian. In the last few months I’ve made around a thousand edits, big and small, to the world’s most popular encyclopedia. But sometimes it feels like I’m the only living librarian in Wiki-world. And that’s too bad, because editing Wikipedia is awesome. It can be great fun, and it’s professionally rewarding.


This could be you

As an employee of a gallery, library, archive or museum, or as a subject matter expert in academia, your contribution is especially valuable to the Wikipedia community. It’s great to be needed. Creating or editing a Wikipedia article can provide you with a renewed and refreshed perspective on your job. And since hundreds of millions of people rely on Wikipedia as their primary reference work, making it better is a calling, even if you only have time to make one or two changes. Here are seven other great reasons librarians should edit Wikipedia:

  1. It’s where reference lives on the Internet. Reference isn’t dead! But most people, and especially students, begin (and often finish) their research on Wikipedia. Many teachers are worried about Wikipedia’s lack of credibility. You might have trouble taking Wikipedia seriously yourself. But it’s the Internet’s reference book. Often if searchers can’t find the answer there, they don’t call the library–they simply give up. Instead of despairing about the popularity of Wikipedia, consider this: what if you could build a stronger connection between Wikipedia and libraries’ credible resources? This is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. As a librarian, you can bring a neutral point of view and strong, credible references to an article. This is triply true if you have training as a reference librarian. People are coming to Wikipedia because they want to know something. You have the opportunity to literally put the right reference work in their hands, the moment they look for it. You can help make Wikipedia a good starting place for research.
  2. It needs to be organized. Lack of organization and coherence is a problem for many Wikipedia articles. If you’re a cataloger like me, it can drive you up the wall. If you have good information organization or information architecture skills, you can help restructure articles so that they’re more readable. As a librarian, you can probably see when information needs to be pulled together or split up. It’s really quick and easy to change article headings and hierarchies (and for me, kind of fun). Even if you only have a minute or two, you can put the article in an appropriate category so it’s easier to find.
  3. iSchool students need guidance. Creating and editing Wikipedia articles is a common assignment for library and information science grad students. I think that’s great–no joke. But in order for their assignment to be useful–to them and to Wikipedia–they need to collaborate with experienced librarians and academics. A lot of them are still learning about the subjects they’re writing about. Even if you’ve never taught an MLIS class, you can mentor the next generation of librarians in a way that boosts everyone’s skills. And that’s really important because…
  4. You can use Wikipedia help improve global information literacy. A lot of articles on libraries, information science, the media and scholarly communication have been neglected or used primarily as iSchool projects. They’re not very helpful to ordinary people who are trying to find out about these topics. This is a huge issue, and it’s why I decided to get more involved with Wikipedia. The lack of quality articles on these topics makes the profession look disorganized and out of touch. A lot of people’s first (only?) encounter with a topic like metadata or discoverability is a Wikipedia article. So the next time you find an article about libraries or info sci that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t just roll your eyes. Roll up your sleeves. Show people how helpful and useful librarians can be. Please. I’m lonely.
  5. It boosts your writing skills. If you’re not a publishing academic, you may not be called upon to do much long-form writing in relation to your job. Writing Wikipedia articles is a great way to build and maintain your professional writing and composition skills. Wikipedia’s style teaches you to summarize, back everything up with credible references, and write with general audiences in mind. Your writing also instantly becomes useful. Every month, thousands of people read articles that I have contributed to–at least as a collaborator, and sometimes as a primary author. That’s more readers than a lot of published authors get. You may be worried that someone will delete or change your hard work. That sometimes happens. But if you make a substantive contribution, It will probably be accessible for a long, long time. And it will always be part of an article’s edit history.
  6. It can teach you coding basics. Coding is a big deal for librarians. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and I definitely empathize with people who find Wikicode, Wikipedia’s formatting language, a bit difficult. Wikipedia is trying to deal with this problem by simplifying the editing process. But I think learning Wikicode is a great entry into coding for librarians. I like it because it’s a simple code that helps organize and deliver information. It’s very logical and gets instant results. For me, Wikicode was easier to learn than HTML and CSS, and since you can also use a little HTML in articles, it leads naturally to more challenging coding and web design tasks.
  7. There’s a job for everyone. Wikipedia is like a huge city with all kinds of jobs that that are big and small. For example, there are thousands of Wikipedia articles that need copy editing. Fixing an error just takes a second, and it’s very unlikely to be controversial. It’s a great job for grammar geeks. If your gift is in training and HR, then you’ll be a great guru for new editors. Are you a legal eagle or good negotiator? Wikipedia’s way of building consensus and resolving disputes is absolutely fascinating. And one of the best things is, you can be involved as much or as little as you want. You can just contribute a few minutes of copy editing once a month, or you can become deeply engaged with the Wikipedia community. You can work mostly alone if that’s your style, or you can collaborate with others on a large, controversial topic. And you don’t have to confine yourself to library and information science topics. Your librarian skills could boost the quality of any article. If you love astronomy, for example, or Sherlock Holmes, or tea, then there is probably an article you can help improve. And if there isn’t, you can create one!

Are you ready to give it a try? The last thing to remember about Wikipedia is that there is nothing wrong with editing articles, and you don’t have to have any special qualifications. When I try to get librarians and academics more involved in Wikipedia, I feel like they’re really hesitant to make substantive changes. That makes sense given the library/academic community’s reverence for books and resources. But Wikipedia is made to be rewritten. Don’t hesitate. If you step on someone’s toes, or if you need more time to figure out Wikipedia’s culture and style, the community will let you know. But they’ll also let you know if you’re doing it right. There’s something satisfying about seeing an article’s usage shoot up because you improved it.

I am always available to talk with librarians and academics who want advice on editing Wikipedia. I can also offer suggestions for articles that need work. As usual, you can email me through my contact page or hit me up on Twitter.

The university of the public library

I am a librarian at a small public library in rural Florida. While there is a lot to love about my community, many of my patrons face the ills of rural poverty: outdated infrastructure, inadequate schools, a lack of access to computers and high-speed Internet, and insufficient transportation. Under these circumstances, the public library isn’t just a “nice thing to have”–it’s a lifeline to community and social services, as well as the many benefits of access to technology.

While the library’s core mission is still to provide access to books and a place for free expression, providing access to high-speed Internet has become increasingly important. Far from reducing the need for libraries, the Internet has made libraries more valuable in communities like mine. People now use public computers and Internet to access job training, social services, and even healthcare, often with the assistance of library staff.

The library building has become more important too. My library maintains the largest public meeting room in the county. Like many rural libraries, it also serves as the physical office for work placement, legal aid, and children’s and family services. This results in a net savings for our state, which has been able to reduce the cost of administrating and housing social programs (especially in far-flung rural areas) while maintaining library aid at 2008 levels.

It has also benefited our patrons, who can now access books, classes and literacy programs–fundamental tools for escaping poverty–in the same place and at the same time as they access social services. Libraries now serve as co-working spaces, business incubators and content creation labs, providing people with even more ways to achieve financial independence and realize their ambitions. Furthermore, these programs are staffed and administered by people who live in the community they serve.

Similar changes are happening in libraries all over the country. A combination of the Great Recession and rapid technological transformation has vastly expanded the public library’s profile, role and mission. While people talk about the “end of books,” library usage across the U.S. and Canada has significantly increased over the last 20 years.

However, I feel like one of the most important and exciting changes in library usage hasn’t been formally studied, publicized or accounted for. In the last few years, several students in my community have earned their university or graduate degrees entirely at the public library. These dedicated, ambitious students are mostly young working mothers, currently employed in low-wage jobs, who are seeking a better life. Many of them are studying for careers in healthcare, retraining themselves for a 21st century economy. The library doesn’t issue their degrees, but they wouldn’t be able to graduate without the library. Here, they find the physical space to study, a place for their kids to read and do homework, and college-level advice, support and guidance from librarians.

I don’t believe these students are alone. I think public libraries are turning into community colleges all over the country, not because politicians made a plan or spent a bunch of money, but because people are putting their libraries’ resources to use. I see tremendous economic, social opportunity here. There are so many benefits:

  • Communities enjoy the economic benefits of hosting a new community college without having to invest in new buildings, staff or infrastructure. This is even more valuable in communities like mine, which wouldn’t be able to support a college any other way.
  • Parents and children can learn in the same space, which helps break the cycle of poverty. While parents earn their college degrees, improving both their earning potential and level of education, children have access to thousands of books (a key factor in children’s literacy) as well as programs like storytime. Parents don’t have to find child care while they study, and children get to see their parents working hard in college.
  • Whole families have more opportunities to learn and spend time together, through family programs. Basic literacy, many STEM subjects (e.g., basic electronics, coding), cultural studies, and health and home education (e.g., safety, cooking, personal finance) are great subjects for parents to learn along with their kids.
  • Students can tailor their classes to their work schedules and needs, without losing contact with other students. They can choose what, when and how they want to learn. They also maintain access to graduate-level face-to-face guidance through their local librarian. This especially benefits non-traditional students who might not be able to thrive in (or afford) a regular college environment.
  • Private and online colleges benefit through increased attendance and revenue. Furthermore, the public library provides their academic adviser, classroom, academic library and computer lab, saving private colleges on costs while helping ensure their students’ success.
  • State and federal governments benefit as library aid dollars stretch further than ever before. The library is a perfect place to integrate social, educational and employment services, providing immediate poverty relief in the same building as college resources, employment services, help for entrepreneurs and affordable child care. Not only are libraries providing access to college to the people who need it the most, but students are less likely to need social services in the future. College graduates are more likely to get living-wage jobs, start businesses, improve their living conditions and make good decisions about their finances and health. They will also pay more in taxes over the course of their lives, increasing the sustainability and efficiency of government programs. Furthermore, their children are much more likely to attend college.

And that’s just the easy stuff. As you read this list of benefits, keep in mind that this is not a proposal for a costly new government program, but something that is happening organically, right now, in our communities. Simply by being there for students, public libraries are serving as a launching point into the middle and professional classes. I find this very exciting, not only for the reasons listed above, but because I am sure that patrons will find even more ways to use libraries to improve their economic circumstances. I also think there are ways for libraries and policymakers to maximize these benefits.

In fact, the biggest concern that I have about this trend is that it will not be noticed, that budget cuts will close off this opportunity before it’s fully explored. Many states seem to see library budgets and, especially, librarians’ salaries, as a tempting target for cuts. But access to an educator with a master’s degree is one of the things first-time college students need the most, and it’s one of the reasons this revolution was (and is) possible. It’s not just that libraries provide reliable, affordable access to the Internet. And it’s not even that librarians are highly trained in academic research, information science and information technology. The simple fact that librarians have successfully completed college and graduate school is an invaluable resource to students.

There are very few teachers (or parents) with master’s degrees in my community. I have spent many hours helping students choose classes; understand their homework assignments; find and cite academic sources for their papers; proofread their work; and use online classrooms–the same jobs an academic librarian or academic adviser would have in a college. Since free time, affordable transportation and access to technology are problems for college students here, I often worry about how they would navigate these challenges if they didn’t have access to the library’s resources, which include master’s level librarians. This revolution takes more than broadband.

But not much more. Here are the ways I think we could help support our low-income college students and their libraries:

  • Research. How many college students are learning primarily at public libraries? Who are they? Do they graduate at a higher or lower rate than other college students? How does their college experience affect their future, both in comparison with traditional students and with people who didn’t go to college at all? Do their children see benefits? How can whole-family learning affect factors like adult literacy rates and poverty reduction? More information is needed to clarify how common this trend is and how we can help. I feel like this is an excellent subject for Ph.D students and Schools of Information (iSchools) to explore.
  • Ensure that every library in America employs an MLIS librarian. It’s important for every library to have at least one staff member has completed college and graduate school, in order to provide college-level guidance and support to students of all ages. MLIS librarians are especially valuable in communities where high levels of education are rare. However, library wages are so low that it is hard to attract librarians with master’s degrees to poor and rural communities. Furthermore, librarians’ workloads have increased significantly in recent years. In 2013, the federal government called on librarians to help administer the Affordable Care Act, an unfunded mandate. This year they’re asking us to use new E-rate funds to expand our digital services. It’s time to give our nation’s librarians a raise. And it is past time to ensure that all our libraries (especially the smallest and poorest) can support a full-time MLIS librarian.
  • Maintain or increase state aid and federal matching grants. It’s not just about increasing broadband Internet access, a current federal priority. That’s important–according to the ALA, 60% of libraries don’t have sufficient Internet speeds to support their students. But E-rate dollars are wasted if federal and state governments don’t make a strong financial commitment to libraries. Libraries need to be open, maintained and adequately staffed. If the library’s doors are locked, or they can’t afford computers (or building repairs, or electricity, or tech support, or librarians) their 100mbps download speed drops to zero.
  • Build stronger relationships between public libraries, state/community colleges, MOOCs, and private colleges. Private colleges and online programs should seek more formal partnerships with public libraries to see how we can work together to deliver services to college students. State universities may want to explore ideas like offering an online bachelor’s degree (or even just a few college courses) in partnership with public libraries. Even major corporations could use libraries to provide retraining and help narrow the talent gap. Government should also be involved in ensuring that private online colleges meet the same standards as state colleges.
  • Create a collegiate environment in public libraries. Most libraries are already very welcoming to students. If they weren’t, students wouldn’t use them. But as libraries renovate with a view toward the future, they should make sure there are spaces where people feel like they’re on campus, where they can fully participate in online classes and do individual and group work as students. I believe that creating this type of environment helps support academic success. This involves both organizational and aesthetic considerations. Since libraries serve a diverse population of patrons, dedicated space for college students to learn is important. Things like computer usage time limits and bankers’ hours are an impediment to college students who have jobs.

Again, I don’t think these are costly investments–especially when compared with the high cost of building new colleges, paying for lifelong social services for the unemployed, or denying these hardworking and creative students access to the resources they need to succeed. Far more important is a renewed and refreshed commitment to our public libraries and a deeper understanding of their role in the community, both now and in the future. As state and federal governments (including Florida) make their allocations for library aid this year, I hope that they will keep these students in mind, and ensure the stability of public libraries for years to come.

Autism spectrum disorder: a librarian’s personal primer

At the American Library Association’s 2014 Midwinter conference, a particularly lively session took place on libraries, technology and gender. It spawned a terrific Twitter hashtag, #libtechgender, and some very interesting discussions, both online and off. I wasn’t able to attend Midwinter, but I think this is an engaging, important subject, especially since the session took on the issue of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the conflation of race, gender, sexuality and ability issues, as well as an exploration of how they affect each other. With that in mind, I thought I’d write an essay about autism spectrum disorder, which I have, and which affects my job and political activism every day.

I’ve often wondered if librarianship attracts autistic people, or if there is a higher rate of this common disability among librarians. I don’t think anyone’s done a study on the subject, but I keenly remember how important school and public libraries were to me when I was a child. As quiet places, physically insulated by books, libraries were refuges from the social and sensory world, not to mention some very persistent bullies. As someone who was not as strong or fast as other students, I frequently ditched gym class and went to the library. Reading fiction helped me understand other people and develop a sophisticated theory of mind.

For me, libraries are strongly associated with safety, predictability, privacy, respect and civility, conditions I am constantly seeking. The role of text in the library, and in academia in general, is similar to the central role of text in my personal life. As someone with a disability that impacts cognition, or the way the brain processes information, I find information science and data analysis compelling subjects. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I chose a career in libraries. I also know that autistic children still frequently find their way to the library. I think a good understanding of autism spectrum disorders is valuable for anyone who works in libraries.

Before I begin, a note: there is a lot of controversy about autism, both inside and outside the autistic community, along with a lot of deep disagreements and even rivalries. This is important to keep in mind when reading anything about autism, or any other cultural, social or political issue. While I identify as an autistic person, and might use some shorthand here and there, I don’t claim speak for all autistic people. I also haven’t done enough digging into the intersectionality of autism and culture, race, sexuality, economics, and gender. I encourage other librarians with autism spectrum disorders to share their thoughts and stories about how it affects their jobs and lives. There is very little information available about how autism affects people in adulthood, so anything you could say would be valuable. Where I generalize, I’m going to try to keep it to what is scientifically accepted, seasoned by what I have personally witnessed and experienced.

As usual, if you have questions or comments, you can talk with me on Twitter or reach me privately through my contact page.

What autism is

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a cognitive disability that affects social interaction, communication and behavior. To be diagnosed with ASD, you need to have marked social impairment; some specific communication challenges; and repetitive behavior and thinking (often described as “intense or restricted interests”). These symptoms have to be present from early childhood, but you can be diagnosed at any time in your life. Autistic people often pursue diagnosis when their symptoms exceed their coping skills. That may happen in childhood, but also happens during adult life transitions, like leaving home for college, leaving college for the working world, or starting a family. Here is a good resource on the symptoms of autism. Here is the official diagnostic criteria from the CDC. Very common, but not included in diagnostic criteria, are sensory difficulties, memory problems, and a bit of physical weakness and clumsiness.

Like other marginalized groups, autistic people have higher than average rates of joblessness, poverty and emotional distress. These are often compounded by extreme social isolation. Sadly, much of that distress and isolation is caused by the way society views and treats autistic people, not by the disorder itself. For that reason, autistic people may want to keep their diagnoses private, or may never get formally diagnosed at all. When trying to include autistic students, patrons, job applicants or co-workers, it’s important to protect their privacy and affirm their own decisions about disclosure. There are lots of easy, low-cost ways to accommodate people without asking about their medical or disability status.

There is no medication for autism and nobody knows exactly what causes it. It’s probably a complex combination of environmental and genetic influences. There may be many different “autisms” with different causes, but they all manifest in similar enough ways that it makes sense to have a single diagnosis.


Right now you can get diagnosed with several different disorders on the autism spectrum: autism, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. This will be changing soon. When the DSM-5 goes into effect in October 2014, these diagnoses will become one diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder. As far as the medical field is concerned, everyone who faces these challenges will be in the same boat.

The difference between Asperger’s and autism has to do with when and how autistic children develop verbal and coping skills. In my opinion, it’s all tied in to an archaic diagnostic system that classifies autistic people based on their apparent “functionality.” I don’t think that’s very helpful, so I don’t mind shedding the Asperger’s label. But this is a very controversial and sensitive issue. It subsumes many years of independent Asperger’s research and advocacy into a larger, broader topic. It leaves a lot of people feeling concerned about whether the new diagnosis marks them as more or less disabled than they really are.

The broader diagnosis means it’s important to take the spectrum part of ASD seriously, and remember that it includes the full range of abilities and challenges associated with autism. Even that leaves aside major questions about the overall value of labeling and the influence of the DSM. Many people with “mild” or “high-functioning” autism will likely continue to identify as “Aspergians” or “aspies” after the publication of the DSM-5, and there will continue to be independent Asperger’s groups and organizations. And that’s OK.

Common misconceptions

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding autism and autistic people. One way to be “a good ally” is to help correct those misconceptions when you see and hear them. Here are a few that I’ve dealt with frequently.

Autism is not…

  • Nerdiness, geekiness, introversion or shyness. Autism is not a quirky personality trait. For that matter, being a geek is not a disability. I think autistic people have the same range of “nerdiness” and operate on the same spectrum of introversion/extroversion as any other group of people.
  • Other mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities. By itself, an autism diagnosis doesn’t say anything about one’s intellect, level of independence, leadership skills, mental health or emotional stability. In fact, being autistic has probably helped me learn to cope with stress, overcome anxiety, face adversity and roll with the punches.
  • A disease that needs a cure. Some people who have autism are severely disabled. I don’t want to minimize that, or reject any of the therapeutic approaches people take to improve their lives and health. But when I hear people or organizations talk about a cure for autism, it creeps me out. Autism affects the whole person. Because it has a particular impact on speech and communication, there is also a cultural element. When you talk about “curing autism” you’re talking about doing something to people’s brains or their genes, because of the way they communicate and behave and engage with the world. I think that has more to do with our culture’s fear of difference and struggle than it does with helping anyone.
  • An inability to feel empathy or love. This unfortunate, common, and rather cruel stereotype was one of the reasons I didn’t get diagnosed until I was in my 20s.
  • An excuse for harassment or abuse. I hear it all the time, when someone is accused of harassment: “He (or she) just doesn’t understand social cues.” I wish more people would publicly object when they hear this line. Autism doesn’t cause, justify or “explain” harassment. In fact, for a number of reasons, autistic people are much more likely to be targets of bullying.
  • Something that’s easy to identify or diagnose (without disclosure). You can’t tell if someone is autistic by interacting with them–except, of course, if they share their diagnosis with you. Lots of stresses and challenges affect socialization. Furthermore, by the time they reach adulthood, most autistic people have developed strategies that help them overcome their social deficits. Because these strategies involve a lot of practice and formal study, they may even help someone excel in business, entertainment or politics. Autistic challenges are both more pervasive (affecting overall quality of life) and less obvious than that.

Next steps

This is a very preliminary overview. There are a lot of other ways to explore this issue, including engaging in conversation and debate, reading more about autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and adding books about this issue to your library’s collection (if you don’t already have a collection of Asperger’s and autism resources). Your community might want to engage in a discussion about the DSM-5. It might be good to explore invisible disabilities and the idea of universal accommodation. I have some more thoughts on the positive aspects of autism; the importance of text; and how to make the selection process more equitable and the workplace more welcoming, but I’ll leave that for another post. Until then.

What’s the matter with e-books?

Something happened to e-books on the way to market in 2013.

After a few years of impressive growth, sales of e-books have either stabilized or begun to decline. According to the American Association of Publishers’ annual report, overall sales of e-books are down around 5%–a dip that may be significant or negligible, but is nothing like the smash growth years of 2010 and 2011. Even more surprisingly (and worryingly for e-book advocates) sales of children’s and young adult e-books are down 40 percent from last year.

Meanwhile hardback sales surged 10% in 2013, and independent bookstores are reaping the rewards. The best-selling printed book of 2013, an illustrated book for junior readers, didn’t crack the top 20 in e-book sales, suggesting a diverging market. And Barnes & Noble’s signature e-reader, the Nook, truly took it in the teeth. Sales of B&N e-books declined 6.6%, and sales of Nooks plunged a shocking 67%. The CEO of B&N’s Nook division is now faced with unenviable task of saving the entire company. Take it from a former B&N CEO, William Lynch, quoted in USA Today after 2012’s similar slowdown: “Consumers have settled into their book formats of choice. Physical book sales will have a longer tail than previously anticipated.” Shortly after that interview, Mr. Lynch left the company, because its digital division failed.

E-book advocates have begun writing the same editorials that legacy publishers were writing in 2010, and newspapers were writing in 2000, and librarians have been writing since the telephone was invented. The march into the inevitable electronic future has stalled.

It’s too early to sing a dirge for e-books, but the idea that e-books will ever supplant printed books is fading fast. Some people think (hope?) the market is merely settling or stabilizing. That is now the best-case scenario for e-book publishers. They may be right, but I doubt it. I think the e-book gold rush is coming to an end. The real risk to publishers isn’t that print will disappear in the next decade, but that e-books will.

This is not just the faint hope of a nostalgic bibliophile (though I am far from alone in preferring print books to e-books, which is the point). I grew up on the Internet; I don’t stick with outdated media for sentimental reasons. I just don’t think print is outdated. And I think e, in the pure, .mobi or .epub sense, might be.

The source of this belief lies in the answer to one question:

What functions make an e-book better than a printed book, that the open web can’t do better than both?

I can think of several ways that print books are superior–for some tasks–to the web. I read a lot on the web. I work there. I do research. But I enjoy print books differently: as physical, social, art and comfort objects. When I’m reading a book in public, other people will ask about it, raising the possibility of a pleasant conversation. It’s easier to focus on the printed page, away from distractions and bright screens. I can navigate through books in a way that helps me remember where information is and how to find it, a scientifically supported advantage of print and a reason students prefer print for serious reading. I can make notes in the margins and between lines. I can get the author to sign it and make it a collectible or keepsake. When I’m finished reading, I can put the book on a shelf, give it to a friend, or donate it to a library. My bookshelves express something about my identity, values, and aspirations, something that is both personal and social. And then there’s the smell. It may sound silly, but these things matter to people.

None of this is true of e-books, or the web, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

I can think of a couple of ways that e-books are better than printed books. You can carry more of them at a time, which is why they’re loved by travelers. You can buy one and receive it quickly. You can enlarge the text or search the book with a search engine. But you can receive a normal webpage much more quickly than an e-book, and carry more of them for lower prices on more devices. So what makes e-books better than that? E-books can be read offline, but so can a printed book. What’s uniquely great about e?

The only answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s digital.

When you get down to the code level, an e-book (as in a .mobi or .epub format) is just a webpage. A webpage with weird formatting and restrictive DRM. A webpage that costs a lot of money. A webpage that is tied to a single device and a single user; that can’t be crawled by a normal search engine; that can’t be copied or shared or linked to; that can’t even be bought.

Why would someone do this to perfectly good HTML? Because someone wanted to make webpages that look similar enough to real books that book buyers will pay book prices for them. The sales pitch for e-books is that they’re just like printed books, except they’re electronic. The whole e-book concept hangs on a shallow view of innovation that suggests that all things digital will replace all things analog, because digital.

But that’s not true. Where digital media has replaced physical media, it’s because the digital thing is better, not because it’s digital or electronic. MP3s are better than CDs–not because they’re digital, but because you can buy one song at a time. DVDs are better than VHS tapes–not because they’re electronic, but because you don’t have to rewind them, the cases are thinner, and they have special features.

The argument goes the other way for e-books. There are several ways that a high-quality hardback is better than an e-book. I’ve just listed them. There are probably thousands of ways that any other digital medium is better than an e-book. There are exactly zero ways that e-books hold a unique advantage over either one. The visual appeal of e-books is worse. The quality is (generally) worse. Compared to paperbacks, library borrowing, or browsing the web, e-books aren’t even cheaper.

In their rush to replace printed books with digital facsimiles, publishers have created an ugly, expensive hybrid of print and the web that doesn’t work well as either one. But don’t take my word for it. Ultimately, e-books testify against themselves. The fact that e-books are forced into book-form tells customers that printed books are “real,” and e-books are knockoffs. And guess what: that’s factually true. Once you look at it as a business question, e-books start to look less and less like mp3s and more and more like Flexplay, a deliberately limited format. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to know that customers won’t buy that for long.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Giving up on e-books doesn’t mean giving up on online books, online stories, digital publishing or making money. It definitely doesn’t mean print wins–though I wouldn’t bet against it.

Right now, the best e-book designers are focused on making e-books that look and function more like the real thing. Throw in the drop caps. Add page-turning animation. Add illustrations. Try to convince the customer: Very book. So tradition. Much real. Wow. If that’s how it goes, and those are the functions people are asking for in focus groups, it’s because what the customer really wants is a real book. And if you’re a publisher, that’s what you should make and sell to them. Trying to deliver the print experience online is a narrow, regressive approach to the digital space. It’s like taking a photo of a newspaper, pasting it into a PDF, and calling that an e-newspaper. It will never convince a reader who has her heart set on a print model.

But we’re online now. There is no reason digital stories have to look like printed books, and there’s absolutely no reason they should. There is no need to have a special device for reading digital books. The browser is the special device. Once you realize that, everything changes–in a positive and exciting way. It becomes easy to see how narrative innovation has been held back by the faux traditionalism of e-books. And it’s easy to see why young readers are fleeing the format, even though they’re reading more than ever.

To get a peek at the upcoming “e-reading” experience, explore a site like fictionpress.com (or its better-known counterpart, fanfiction.net). That’s how reading, writing, editing, sharing, remixing and building communities should work. And it demonstrates how outdated e-books already are. The publisher that masters and monetizes the HTML book will beat Kindle every time, especially with younger readers.

That’s still a fairly traditional online reading experience. My hope and belief is that we will soon see “books” that take advantage of the web’s creative potential, that use the natural flow and motion of webpages to delight, charm and surprise readers. After being tremendously disrupted by digital, periodicals are nearly there. I can’t wait to see a fiction story that engages readers with the unique beauty, strengths, design and depth of the web. That day is coming, very soon, and it will be a great one for literature and culture. A whole new literary canon will rise up that will find its only true expression online. And whole new (and lucrative) industry will be born that will make someone loads of money and give them enviable cultural influence. It’ll be like the day someone invented movies.

Those stories won’t look like books, and they won’t be books. They’ll be something totally new, a blend of narrative, mixed- and multi-media, audience participation, self-publishing and startup culture. Incidentally, most authors won’t be able to realize those new forms alone. They’ll need production designers and digital editors. They’ll need people who understand the web. They’ll need publishers–not publishers that are trying to reinvent book culture online, but publishers that are trying harness the web to serve narrative and storytelling.

That’s slightly beyond the scope of this post. The bottom line is, a lot of people have bet the bank on a medium that is unlikely to outlast the decade, and definitely won’t outlast digital storytelling’s coming-of-age. And I’m not talking about print.

Right now, today, e is being out-innovated by e. My advice: get on the train before it leaves the station.

Or, if you’re feeling bold: build the train.

Full disclosure: the author is a librarian and a Millennial.

You’re invited to #libchat

I started #libchat in March 2011 while I was in library school. Years later, this vibrant and active chat group is still going strong! If you’re interested in libraries or educational technology, I encourage you to join in and make contact with some fantastic librarians on Twitter. This post is from the original #libchat announcement and serves as #libchat’s organizational guideline.

If you’re a librarian or bookseller, library paraprofessional or student, you’ve probably experienced the rush of energy & productivity that accompanies a trip to a conference or trade show.  Networking! Blog posts! New projects!  How do you find and maintain that energy at home? You join a Twitter chat, of course! Starting Wednesday, March 16, from 8-9:30 EST, and continuing every Wednesday, #libchat will host a meeting of the minds on books, libraries and technology. Think of it as a library conference at your desk.

How #libchat works

Libchat is modeled on other great Twitter chats like #journchat and #pr20chat.  If you’ve never participated in a Twitter chat before, here’s how it works:

Before and during the chat, tweet questions (without the hashtag) to me @nataliebinder. I’ll tweet them on the #libchat hashtag, something like this:

nataliebinder: Q1  Does your library lend ebooks?  Why or why not? #libchat

To participate, just reply with the question number, your response, and the tag “#libchat.”  For example:

you:  Q1. We love ebooks! #libchat

Services like TwitterfallTweetGrid, or TweetChat can make it easier to follow a chat.  Try some different models to see what works best for you.

Who should come to #libchat

Librarians, library and information students, booksellers, vendors, book critics and everyone who loves libraries and books. Twitter chats are a great way to meet new people and score some new followers & friends. 

Potential #libchat topics

  • Digital rights management.
  • Libraries and the digital divide.
  • Advocacy and budget negotiations.
  • Library school.
  • Employment and the MLIS job market.

These are just some of the issues we could explore in our first #libchat.  If there’s anything you want to ask your friends and colleagues, comment on this blog post or tweet them to @nataliebinder, and I will add them to the list of #libchat questions. At the end of the session, you can also tweet your library-related resources, products and blog posts on the hashtags #libchat and #libpitch. Hope to see you there!

The entreprenurial library

I’ve been doing some catching-up on how people around the world use and view public libraries in 2013. There is good news–people love and use (and build and renovate) libraries!–but there is also sobering news. While public support of libraries is strong, public funding of libraries is in decline, and I don’t think the trend is likely to slow down soon. The problem: a generation of government workers is retiring, calling in their pensions and starting to use their healthcare plans. Governments, already bruised by the recession, and faced with a strong anti-tax sentiment, have to cut something. And the benefits of libraries, while absolutely tangible and even lifesaving in some cases, are hard to see in one election cycle.

This is why I had some empathy (though not a lot of sympathy) for Mayor Gimenez of Miami, when he claimed, after planning to shutter 22 libraries in poor communities, that “the age of the library is probably ending.” I thought this was another case of a politician needing to be educated about how libraries serve his community and empower his citizens. After chewing on it for a while, I think he means that he simply can’t see a way to afford them. He doesn’t determine the budget, or the tax rate–he’s an executive, not a legislator–and the ambulances still need to run and the roads still need to be paved. There are several serious problems with this way of thinking (see the poem “The Ambulance Down in the Valley”), the most important of which is that the rising costs of pensions and healthcare are going to squeeze all public services and infrastructure*. If the age of the library is ending, so is the age of firefighting, unless we can find some way to do it all.

Still, I can’t really see a way out of this one that maintains the financial status quo. You can’t just wish for bigger budgets. Look at what’s going on in the UK. Britons love their libraries as much as we do, and they use their libraries just about as much, but that hasn’t stopped 200 libraries a year from closing and many more suffering from the death of a thousand paper cuts. Where political resistance is too strong to cut the libraries outright, they cut the budgets for materials and staff to the point where the library is no longer liked, then close it. Once again, I don’t think this is out of maliciousness. I think there are plenty of British politicians who take their kids to the library, or would like to do so. While I don’t doubt there’s a lot of ignorance and pessimism, I think there are plenty of them that know–really know, that a Kindle is not a substitute for a printed book, Internet access is more than an Internet connection, and an Internet connection is more than an iPhone. I think, like Mayor Gimenez, they just can’t see a way to make it work. The smiles of children don’t pay retirees’ pensions any better than they pay librarians’ meager wages.

If our library system is going to survive the next twenty years, we need a surge in public commitment to our public libraries–and by this I mean money, not answering “yes” on a survey–but we also need predictability and diversity in library funding.  As a librarian, I can’t plan for the future if I’m always pulling my budget out from under the guillotine at the last minute. That is not responsible financial management. That’s just treading water until I’m too tired to do it anymore.

Librarians need to be paid fair wages as educators with master’s degrees. Libraries need to be adequately staffed and funded. We need up-to-date computers, broadband Internet, educational technology, broad-and-deep book collections, buildings in good repair, money for interlibrary loan, and money left over to try new things–not Bermuda money, but enough money. Otherwise, all we’re doing is staving off the inevitable. It would be one thing if the libraries closed because people didn’t want them anymore. But that’s not the case. People want them as much as ever, we just don’t know where the money is going to come from.

Our leaders’ ignorance and inaction on this issue–their misunderstanding of the stakes, their reluctance to confront this fiscal shortfall–suggests to me that librarians must take the lead in figuring out how we are going to fund our libraries. I don’t expect libraries to give up on public funding (and I don’t expect governments to give up on libraries), but in terms of thinking of clever new ways to pay the bills, we are on our own.

This is a fundamentally different problem from advocacy, which has been a going concern in the library community over the last few years. But while I write letters to my representatives with the best of ’em, I don’t think we need to do advocacy that way anymore. I’m not sure we ever did. People support libraries to the tune of 91%. That’s as close to a sure thing as there is in politics. We might need to work on better educating people about how libraries are funded, but it’s time to move away from the whole “how will we survive in the digital age” myth. It mis-characterizes the problem and, in some ways, minimizes it.

Instead, I think we need to direct a majority our attention and our passion for innovation and outreach toward the funding side. For some of our libraries that means ensuring a better financial future by passing a dedicated library tax, establishing a legal requirement for a base level of library service (especially access to public computers), or making it more difficult to close libraries without a vote. That’s where something like EveryLibrary comes in. But in places where that is politically challenging, or where public funding is particularly challenged, we need to bring more of an entrepreneurial spirit to our libraries. That doesn’t mean privatization (a word that every librarian and every citizen should recoil from), but it does mean some libraries should be prepared to support themselves if public funding falters.

Libraries that are needed, but facing closure, can lead the way. The story of UK library funding is mostly a tragedy and an embarrassment (and maybe even illegal), but creative librarians and communities have found innovative and inspiring ways to keep providing library services. These include:

  • Working to establish the library as a publisher or a provider of “publishing support services”
  • Reducing energy costs through renewable power
  • Working more closely with businesses (for example, by co-locating a library and a shopping center, or a library and a cafe)
  • Collecting used phones and computers and either refurbishing them or selling them outright
  • Building more multi-use and multi-audience libraries that can be supported by 2 or more strong institutions (e.g. a local government, a community college, and a university, like Forum Southend-on-Sea).

We should also keep a close eye on what is going on in Miami, where smart librarians are offering alternative plans to fully fund the 42-branch system, including having libraries take over 311 service.

These solutions create multiple income/cost-cutting streams for the library without compromising our essential mission to offer information, books and access to computers for anyone who wants them.

In order to ensure equal access, government needs to be a central pillar of our library funding system. But the rise of an entrepreneurial and problem-solving spirit could invigorate our public libraries after seven bleak years. Libraries may be the only government services flexible enough to pursue alternatives like these. A demonstration of vision and innovation on the funding side would be welcomed by officials and viewed with pride by our communities, especially in areas where hours and locations could be restored. Financial stability will allow us the breathing room we need to take the next step in delivering library services.

This generation’s Carnegies are already working in our libraries. If we can find ways to anticipate budget problems and solve them before they reach a crisis, city and state officials may be more willing to meet us in the middle–hopefully with a check in hand.

* Incidentally, I am not trying to pit libraries against retirees, or say we should take from one to “save” the other. That’s not a realistic or ethical solution. If the pie is too small, the answer is to make the pie bigger.

Return your overdue books on August 31st

Clear your library account–and your conscience–on International Return Your Library Books Day.

They’re out there. Under your bed. On a child’s bookshelf. In a pile beside the door. Overdue books that need to be returned to the library. Now, it’s OK to turn them in.

It’s easy to forget to return library books. But library books belong to the city or county that you live in. When you keep a book for a long time, other people who want to read it don’t get the opportunity. Library books also represent an investment of millions of taxpayer dollars. And thousands of books go missing from library shelves, never to be returned again. Librarians miss their books–and your patronage!

Your pile of overdue books may even have prevented you from visiting the library recently. But it’s OK. Most of the time, library fines don’t accumulate over years. Each book will probably have a maximum fine of around $5.00. Even if you have a large fine, you may be able to negotiate it, receive partial forgiveness or pay it in increments. And while you may face a fine, you will not get in legal trouble for returning your library books, no matter how long they’re overdue. In fact, most librarians will be happy to see their long overdue books return to the library. So this August 31, show your support for libraries by returning every overdue library book you can find.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Return your overdue books. Gather them together and drop them in the appropriate book drop. Or mail them in.
  2. Pay your fines. You’ll feel better.
  3. Face the music. If you’ve lost or damaged a library book, pay for a replacement.

Thank you so much for returning your books. And keep in mind that you can celebrate Return Your Library Books Day every day of the year.