Not a bad name for a library, eh? Bayt al-ḥikmah to it’s customers. Apparently, although we don’t know exactly where it was located, The House of Wisdom was initially set up in Baghdad in the late eighth century to contain Harun al-Rashid’s collection. He’s the guy you know from One Thousand and One Nights. Turns out that he, or at least his library, is fundamental to the transmission of mathematics to Western Europe. Alternative theories have al-Mansur or al-Maʾmūn as the library’s founder.

The Tigris River in Baghdad looking inky

The BBC tells us we might think of the House of Wisdom as the Citadel in Westeros or the Hogwarts library, both nicely literary ideas. “The House of Wisdom was destroyed in the Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258 (according to legend, so many manuscripts were tossed into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink), but the discoveries made there introduced a powerful, abstract mathematical language that would later be adopted by the Islamic empire, Europe, and ultimately, the entire world.” Reluctant school kids struggling with their multiplication tables know where to place the blame. It’s all Harun al-Rashid’s fault. Perhaps we should be happy it’s not The (2x x 5y) + 1 Nights.

. . . went up 21% in the second half of 2020. Publishers Weekly shares the joyous news.

The information comes from The Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey.

Of course we should be happy about so much more reading, but during shutdowns what else was anyone going to be doing anyway? And, just to keep us grounded, if not fully buried, the report goes on to confess “The data shows [sic] that reading of all kinds increased from just under 17 minutes per day in 2019 in the same timeframe to just over 20 minutes in the comparable period last year.” Hardly enough time to open the book and find your place.

And prepare to be depressed when you discover that the survey shows that television watching increased during the same time period by 19 minutes for an average total of 3.1 hours a day. Think how many book sales that amount of time spent reading might imply. Still business is booming on 20 minutes. Thank you.

Reporting on an Oxfam survey of readers’ preferences as between ebooks and printed books, Study Finds tells us that only 16% of the (2,000, UK) respondents prefer an ebook. They admit that “over a third of respondents (35%) enjoy buying paper books because that allows them to proudly display them on their bookshelf as a background during Zoom meetings.” (Link via The Passive Voice.)

This seems to me to be highly suggestive sign of our times. Behavior in online meetings is still evolving. Making a good impression is obviously an important element — we have to break into a house-cleaning frenzy before any such online dates. You want folks to think you are on top of things, and of course, really smart. It was ever thus: a potent motive for your book collection has always been the casual displaying to your amazed visitors of the breadth and depth of your interests. I remember my ex-boss surveying our bookshelves as he walked into my apartment — “Ah ha, I see you’ve got a first edition of The Cantos” he intoned after a couple of minutes of silent scrutiny before he could even be introduced to anyone else. (I didn’t and don’t). But you can’t help checking out a bookcase-full of books, can you? In our dining-room one wall is covered in bookshelves, and there always seems to be someone with their gaze apparently fixed in the middle distance ignoring everyone else, screwing up their eyes to read yet another title. I’m often sneaking a look at my fellow travelers’ books on the subway; not that I care, but it’s just interesting to know what others are reading. And seeing a book you helped make being read on the A train is a huge dopamine boost. Encountering a Kindle or an iPhone makes such snooping almost impossible. This might even be advanced as another reason to disparage ebooks!

Now that so many television broadcasters have been working from home it’s become obvious that they spend a good deal of care and attention fixing up the bookshelves which appear behind them. It seems to have become acceptable (though personally I wonder) to display your own recent book face out right behind your left shoulder. A nice little vase of color-coordinated flowers is another popular element. And some really abstruse academic tome is often a nice touch: oh, he cares about Boolean algebra! I spend a good deal of time trying to identify their books, though Public Television’s fuzzy-screens, designed to make everyone look less old, do tend to make this tough.

I wonder if publishers have twigged to the product-placement implications of all this. We pay for bookstore premium space, as in end-caps and front-of-store tables, so why not during the television news? And broadcasters can of course figure out that their workers don’t have to be working from home in order to have interesting, revenue generating products peeking over their shoulders.

Via Tom Gauld’s tweet:

© The Guardian/Tom Gauld

Printing Impressions has a video in which Frank Romano, a well known name to anyone involved in book printing over the past few decades, reports from The Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Mass. of which he is Chairman and Executive Director.

Mr Romano believes printing has a bright future, but he sees it as likely to be less involved with ink on paper, as with ink on almost anything else. This prediction is also made by Mark Hahn whose Target Report (on mail-order printing) at Printing Impressions emphasizes the trend towards personalization in print too.

For the time being, however, we are living through a time of high demand for ink on paper printing — for books. Books are selling well, so all publishers are scrambling for such book manufacturing capacity as remains. Paper is in short supply, too many plants have closed down, and the remaining capacity is stretched thin because, in a time of surging demand, like so many businesses, printing is finding it hard to coax people back to work after coronavirus shutdowns. And it’s not just printing: it’s harder and harder to find space in a shipping container. We keep being told we are short 600,000 truck drivers in the U.S.A. (the union says 1.1 million) — so even if the books do get made it’s almost impossible to get them shipped in a reasonable time. Cynically one might anticipate an easing of these labor shortages as well-deserved support measures for out-of-work workers come to an end over the next few months.

One does have to be wary about talking about sales growth this year as compared to last. Last year’s book sales did end up strong, but at the beginning of the pandemic the book industry was in shutdown chaos. That the recovery was so quick and so strong is impressive, but makes year-on-year comparisons difficult. Compare the first six months of 2021 with the first six months of 2020 and what do you think the outcome will be? Comparing the first half of 2021 with the first half of 2019 would be a more meaningful thing to do, but of course that’s not what we usually get.

Here’s Publishers Weekly‘s graph (based on BookScan data) showing various scenarios for 2021 sales outcomes: consensus is they’ll be up by 2% or 8%, or some number in between. The thin dotted black line at the bottom is 2020’s performance. Bear in mind these “numbers” are percentage increase over the previous year, on a week-by-week basis. You can see that last year the rate of sales declined (went below the zero line) in April/May, and then made steady improvement for the rest of the year, as the retail book trade figured out means by which people could pick up books kerb-side and so on. Somewhat sickly, it seems the book industry’s prospects may be tied to the pandemic prospects — the more shutdowns the better for books sales!

Via Technology • Innovation • Publishing, here’s Velocity of Content, the Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast, telling us that sales of graphic novels have surged in 2021, growing from 9.3% of adult fiction sales in 2020 to 20% this year. I believe that a comparison like this of the break-down of the total sales rather than just the gross numbers does have the potential to be meaningful. Velocity of Content does tell us that “Unit sales soared 178.5% in the first six month of this year. With 16.2 million copies sold, graphic novels are now the second-largest adult fiction subcategory.”

I wonder if this apparent move towards graphic fiction represents a growth in the overall book market with the addition of some “reluctant” readers, or whether long-time fiction readers have moved over to the graphic format? BookScan does suggest that the sales increases in graphic novels as well as in Young Adult fiction (another booming category) may indicate the participation of more young people in the book market.

Graphic novels tend to leave me a bit huh-huh, but in general terms, what makes so many think them so great? BookMachine‘s article (linked to by The Digital Reader) gives one woman’s answer — which doesn’t really nail it down for me. But there’s no question; they are quicker to read! From a production point of view these books seem to have become a kind of fetish object. Although when they were first published many comics were fairly crudely printed on newsprint, it seems that when we put them between book covers we have to lavish 100# matte coated paper on them and insist on the solidest of solid blacks (rather hard to achieve given the originals) as well as precise color matching. Seems like a part of the market may be a dilettante, collector group: almost an art book audience.

Apparently “The word ‘graphic novel’ first appeared in 1976 on the dust jacket of Bloodstar by Richard Corben (illustrator, USA) and Robert E. Howard (author, USA)” as Guinness World Records informs us. Britannica gives the palm to Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, 1978. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference comes from 1964 though. However what goes around always comes around. Even before Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and the birth of the printed book, there were “graphic novels” galore: stories told in pictures carved into wood blocks and then printed. See Block books for an example (not a novel, it’s true) dating from 1474. More recently, in the nineteen-thirties, Lynd Ward made several graphic novels, six of which are available in a boxed set from Library of America. Ward takes the medium to the extreme, eschewing words! And of course, almost everyone of a certain age must be familiar with Classics Illustrated and their ilk which, for me, certainly fall within the definition of graphic novel, even if they were adaptations to the medium.

Still, even if they aren’t exactly the latest thing, we should rejoice that graphic novels are enjoying sales success.

Our local library is still closed, though many branches of the New York Pubic Library system have reopened. I suspect this prolonged closure might have something to do with conversion to regular library space of the caretaker’s apartment which was located until recently at the top of the building.

After reopening, one might anticipate changes in the way people use their library. The OUP blog tells the story seen from Scotland and Northern Ireland where they seem to anticipate things going on much as before. Probably the same will hold true here too. There’s bound to be a bit of reluctance to cram yourself into a crowded space too soon. Borrow your book, and go.

However one thing which probably will not be changing will be the need for silence.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Thanks for Rick Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen for this link to Brigham Young University Library’s promotional video. Mr Anderson provides links to a couple of other smart videos.

The Office of the General Counsel of Harvard University has spoken. “Copyright and Fair Use” is available here. You may also download it as a PDF.

The basics — “Copyright does not protect ideas, nor does it protect facts.  It protects only the form in which ideas or facts are expressed.  For example, you may read a copyrighted paper and appropriate its ideas, or facts it conveys, into your own work without violating the copyright.” But you can’t just use the same words.

The piece is, obviously, directed at academic authors who may feel the need for guidance in the matter of quoting other researcher’s work. The advice is straightforward and direct.

Link via The Passive Voice. No doubt most colleges offer similar advice.

Risograph is a brand of digital duplicator made by Riso Kagaku Corporation and first released in 1980. This printing technique is a stencil duplication process, analogous to mimeograph. A digital file may be uploaded or an original scanned in and this digital information is used to “burn” tiny voids in a master sheet, one per color used. As with silk screen printing, ink is forced through these holes to create the printed piece.

Digitalartsonline has a good introduction to riso printing featuring the work of four artists, who all emphasize the importance of learning to make the limitations of the process work for you.

Risograph print by Rope Press

“Riso printing is a high speed, low cost alternative to screen printing. This process combines the ink-on-paper look of traditional screen printing with the speed and affordability of Xerox printing. Perfect for flyers, books, zines, brochures, artist editions, cards, 7″ jackets, cassette & cd covers, and much more.” — From Oddities Prints.

Oddities Prints, of Kansas City, are quite upfront about the limitations of riso printing. They show this graphic, and suggest if register like this will upset you, that you rethink you printing plan. They also illustrate the tendency of the roller which advances the sheet through the printer to smudge the ink it travels over. But it is cheap and cheerful.

A dramatic gif visualization of the shift of focus in 2020 of the scientific community’s virus research may be found at pudding.cool. (Thanks to Sid Huttner on the SHARP listserv for the link.) Around 80,000 coronavirus-related articles were added to PubMed Central in 2020, a 1,600% increase over 2019. According to Nature, one database puts the number of coronavirus papers at more than 200,000. Many papers were posted as preprints — i.e. before peer review — though there is as yet no evidence of any greater proportion of withdrawals than normally.

Many publishers also made covid-relevant books available free of charge.