Archives for category: Libraries

Shelf Awareness’ 11 April issue tells us: “The American Library Association released its annual Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, included in the ALA’s State of America’s Libraries Report 2018, which ‘affirms the invaluable role libraries and library workers play within their communities by leading efforts to transform lives through education and lifelong learning.'”

“According to the report, libraries continue to face challenges — including the potential for censorship — to a variety of books, programs and materials. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 354 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2017. Some individual challenges resulted in requests to restrict or remove multiple titles or collections. OIF estimates that 82%-97% of challenges remain unreported. Overall in 2017, 416 books were targeted–direct attacks on the freedom to read. The most frequently challenged titles last year were:”

Alii alia sentiunt, though I guess one can understand a parent wanting to protect their child from all the “bad stuff” that goes on in the world. The kids of course all know a lot more than their puritanical parents think, and are by nature more tolerant, but that can hardly be used as an argument for not trying to protect them against ideas parents don’t like. We, the enlightened, know that knowledge is good, no matter what its subject matter, and that the way to promote understanding is, well, understanding. Reading about something we disapprove of is maybe a duty we should all assume every now and then. Fear of the unknown can be relieved by changing the unknown into the known. We liberals all know what’s good for others, don’t we? Yet I dare say there are lots of liberal parents who’d like to prevent their children reading stuff like Atlas Shrugged or Guns and Ammo magazine.

Here’s a link to The Guardian‘s take on the news.

We are all being forced to recognize that all this suppression of dissenting points of view is driving the confronting groups to ever more extreme positions. The Guardian tells us that there were 23 reported hate crimes in libraries in 2017, ranging from the scrawling of swastikas on library walls to the destruction of Muslim religious texts. If only these idiots would sit down and read about the groups they fear so groundlessly.

 

 

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Atlas Obscura brings us a story about the digitization of The New York Society Library‘s lending records dating from 1789 to 1805. The Society’s Library is now on East 79th Street, but obviously started out way downtown (in 1754). Earlier records were lost during the British occupation of New York in the Revolutionary War. We are allowed to see that Alexander Hamilton was reading Goethe while Aaron Burr was engaged with Voltaire 14 years before their duel.

Early in the 20th century records were switched from ledgers to index cards, and thereafter the only records kept were those for prominent people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Privacy laws now make it illegal to store this sort of information.

Joe Esposito clearly knows more about these sorts of things than I do, but isn’t he being a bit too vague when he writes at The Scholarly Kitchen “a fair number of not-for-profit publishers have margins that come close to 50%”? Having just talked about Elsevier’s net profit margins, isn’t he here carelessly sliding into gross margin?* Maybe not, but surely a not-for-profit publisher with a 50% net profit margin would be conspicuous. This sort of profitability was not in evidence at the not-for-profit publishing companies I’ve worked for; and they are usually described as relatively successful.

The point he makes that size brings cost reduction through efficiencies is nevertheless important, though we might not all wish to go along with the implications of the shock headline of his paper Why Elsevier is a library’s best friend, from which my quotation comes. Before big companies like Elsevier consolidated so many journals under one umbrella there were subscription agents  who could be used by librarians to consolidate all their subscriptions into a single transaction. Of course the middle man would be taking a bit of margin, but that margin has in effect merely been transferred over to the publisher whose profits on this sort of business have long been objected to as gross (as well as net).

My objection is to the suggestion that libraries unambiguously benefit from the efficiencies created by Elsevier and their like. If every journal was published by a separate publisher, each one of whom had to pay their typesetters and printers more than Elsevier with their market power do, and if they had to pay a subscription agency to manage their subscriptions, would librarians necessarily be worse off? The publisher’s margin would come way down, the subscription price might go up a little or even remain the same (nobody’s accusing Elsevier et al. of giving their journals away) and the library might end up paying more for each subscription. The big difference would come in the library’s freedom to choose. In order to get the “discounted” price on a bundle of journals from a single large publisher, you have to subscribe to them all. You may feel that 100 of these journals are essential, 50 are optional, and 25 are junk which you take because you have to in order to get the overall price. Without the consolidated subscription each individual journal might cost you more, while your overall expenditure was a good deal less, because you no longer have to subscribe to the 25 worst and maybe most of the “optional” group.

So efficiencies are good, but freedom of choice may be better.

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* Crudely, gross profit is the difference between receipts and outgoings. Net profit is gross profit minus the overhead cost of running the business, salaries, rent, insurance, paper clips and so on. In order to get your net profit within spitting distance of 10% you’d want to have your gross margin around 50%, as far above as possible. Efficiencies in operations will reduce your overhead. Reducing your overhead will increase your net profit. The PR difficulty that large commercial publishers of academic journals have is that their net profits tend to be over 30%, which their customers begin to see as excessive. It is believed that while some of this profitability may result from efficiencies, much of it comes from market dominance.

The Digital Reader, following the New York Times‘ lead, tells us it’s all over in a post entitled Book Mending is Going the Way of the Buggy Whip. The article quotes Mr Vass of the Kings County Library system in Seattle, who opines that he will be the last of his kind. He may be right if he means the last bookbinder to be an employee of a library system, though even there I’d suspect him of excessive pessimism. The world is a large place after all. Maybe he’ll be the last in the USA.

The Digital Reader‘s main beef with the whole concept is economic, and his math certainly does suggest that by a financial measure Mr Vass should be the last of his kind. Before WWII the economics of the business were completely different. We all tended to be more careful at conserving resources: not because of any ecological purity, but because “things” just cost more relative to labor than now. There used to be tinkers: now we just chuck old pans away and buy new ones. Governments actively discourage tinkering with automobiles in order to make them last longer, and manufacturers join in by making their vehicles more and more computer-driven. People are aghast to see me darn a sock or patch a pair of pants. It’s the same with books: unless there’s some sentimental attachment it’s just more reasonable now to toss a book with a broken binding and go out and buy another one.

BUT — you can still get your book repaired. There are many freelance hand binders out there who will continue doing this sort of work for private customers, though it can’t ever come cheap. Furthermore though, there are several companies who specialize in book repair for the library market, and if their back-logs are anything to go by, this is not work that’s about to disappear. Companies specializing in one-off library rebinding have found the development of digital printing technology a great opportunity for expansion. Bridgeport National Bindery‘s trajectory is a good example. Originally a library repair business, in the early 90s they pioneered a new business model by adding a binding service for printers who were using Xerox DocuTechs to print ultra short runs of books. After a few years they figured that they could easily enough get into the printing part of that business, and they did, first with DocuTechs and then with other print engines. Success built, and they began doing four-color photo books — the sort of book individuals put together as a family project, a wedding album or whatever. Eventually the new elements in their business mix dwarfed the old original one-off repair business, and now BNB has withdrawn from library repair. Acme appears set to pick up the slack.

A step-by-step can be found in this ALA slide deck which has links to many videos showing details of the process.

You’ve probably come across one of those books in your public library which looks like a paperback except that it’s bound in hard covers. This is a book which has been prebound. I went to my local library to photograph one of these objects for this post, and discovered that the world has moved on. We now, in NYC brach libraries anyway, just put the paperbacks straight onto the shelves without bothering to prebind them into hardbacks. I guess we don’t care whether the books last or not. I did locate a pair of Before/After pictures from Bridgeport National Bindery which illustrate the transformation. (These are not prebinds though. They are rebound textbooks; rebound after use. The process is identical though.)

 

 

 

 

 

Prebinding is an odd term whose origin may become a little less strange when we look at its history. In the olden days, when money was less of a problem, smart libraries would consider edition binding, the hardback bindings provided by publishers, inadequate to the stresses of library use, and would habitually send out their new hardbacks to be rebound in a stronger, Buckram-covered, reinforced binding before putting them on their shelves. As part of the service the binders who did this work, library-repair binders, would provide full library services too, adding shelf labels, pasting in the lending record pouch, maybe even Brodarting.

 

 

 

 

So one can see how in a world where a librarian considered edition binding so contemptible as not really to qualify for the name “binding”, prebinding your books before issuing them to your patrons might be what you’d call it. Going even further back we can find libraries buying unbound sheets from publishers, which they’d then have stoutly bound before shelving. According to Bound to Stay Bound Books the industry came up with standards for library binding in 1923. They direct us to a librarians’ Hall of Shame, but unfortunately their link no longer works, so we cannot gawp at examples of lousy edition binding. We all know they are out there however. I once worked for a company which had two divisions, one doing reference books (which were by and large strongly bound and well able to withstand more than 100 borrowings) , the other a trade list where, shamefully, many of the books, even though large, were bound without any reinforcements. A cynic might claim trade publishers prefer not to address the question of reinforced binding head on: they would really prefer that their books should fall apart before 100 readings, so that their customers will feel impelled to go out and buy another copy! The binding of this cookbook is a disgrace — though I did have ultimate responsibility for it myself. (The annotation refers to the recipe, though it might as well refer to the binding.)

Making prebounds has became even easier with the advent of digital printing. Now instead of carefully removing the paperback cover and laminating it onto boards for the rebound book, the binder can simply scan the paperback cover and reoutput it scaled to fit the hardback exactly.

I’ve always wondered about the legal position of converting paperbacks into hardbacks. I guess it’s not really a legal question: more of an ethical one. After all publishers issue paperbacks at a cheaper price for a mass market sale, and many, especially university presses, depend on the higher priced hardback to amortize the “discount” given to the customer on the paperback. If the hardback costs $74.00 and the paperback $29.95 obviously a librarian who can get the book prebound for less than $44.05 (which they certainly can!) is going to be able to stretch the book budget a little further. If all librarians did this and the publishers didn’t ever sell the couple of hundred hardbacks they’d made, clearly there would be difficulties for the publisher: not only would they be left with hardbacks on hand, but every paperback sale would fail to make its margin. The profit margin had assumed a helping hand from the higher-priced hardback, which would be carrying a large proportion of the up-front costs of the book. Until the books are sold such an allocation is just wishful thinking.

Here are stacks of paperbacks awaiting prebinding at Bridgeport National Bindery.

I discover that prebinding has a second meaning. The website TechTerms informs us that “Prebinding is an optimization process that allows faster launching of applications in Mac OS X. Often, when a program is opened, it loads data from files called dynamic libraries. These libraries must be located each time a program is run since their memory addresses are usually undefined. When a program incorporates prebinding, the addresses of the library or libraries referenced by the program are predefined.”

Kerry Mansfield’s book Expired looks at old library books. There are lots of photographic examples at The Guardian and an overlapping set at Hyperallergic.

Thanks Nathan for bringing this to my attention.

This is the “Library” in the Raeburn Hotel in Edinburgh.

But it’s actually just a thin folding screen incorporating the sawn-off spines of a bunch of dismembered books. As a proud employee explained to me, we just fold it back and there’s a bar behind it! You can see the hinges.

It’s really a very nice hotel.

Brodart is a library services company: a big one. It was founded in 1939 by Arthur Brody, and is headquartered in Williamsport, PA.

Library services consist of things like creating catalog records and the cards carrying them, putting shelf labels onto books, sticking in the loan record pouch, barcoding, and often protecting the jacket and sticking it to the book — all the sorts of things a library will have to do to a book before they make it available to their patrons. Some companies will even rebind a paperback into hard covers so that it’ll stand up to more library lendings. Unsurprisingly over the years librarians have found it more efficient to subcontract these mundane operations to companies who relive them of the hassles. (As I suggested in a recent post reference publishers have also provided many of these services — buying them from the same set of library services companies.)

In the same way (though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale) that xeroxing has come to mean photocopying, so brodarting has come to mean covering a library book in a plastic cover which incorporates and protects the jacket.

You can see in the second picture that the plastic-wrapped jacket is taped to the case with a bit of Scotch Tape (Sellotape) top and bottom.

For those obsessed with protection, finding themselves stymied by the fact that their book has no jacket Brodart has this reassuring message: “No problem! With Brodart Econo-Fold Book Jacket Covers, you can cover any book!”

Messy-fingered boys used to protect their books by wrapping a plain paper cover around them. I remember doing this: what I can’t remember is why, as a messy-fingered boy, I cared.

Traditionalists tear their hair out on hearing of yet another library destroying its card catalog and breaking up the wooden cabinets of neat little drawers in which one used to find them. Bad enough they junk the actual books: but the catalog, that index of human knowledge too!

Atlas Obscura brings us the heartening news that the Library of Congress’ Card Catalog, though redundant, still survives in the basement, occupying a city block. Here it is in operation in 1919.

NPR’s Morning Edition had a piece on it, stimulated by the publication of the LOC’s book The Card Catalog with a Foreword by Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress. The story ends with the mysterious notice “The Library of Congress is working with universities and tech companies to create the next iteration of the card catalog — but unfortunately for all you tactile types, it probably won’t be stored in tiny wooden drawers.”

Three months later NPR brought us news of that “next iteration”. Twenty five million records from the LOC card catalog have been made available on-line. The Internet Archive reports these records may be found at data.gov. These records are likely to be of interest to bibliographers rather than the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Here’s a set of LOC Library Cards, produced back in the days when publishers of reference books would compete by saving the librarians the bother of getting the index cards themselves by arranging for them to be printed and loosely inserted into the books as part of the initial production process. Note they are pre-drilled to fit on the metal rods which would prevent light-fingered readers removing them from those little drawers. The cards would come with preprinted record number stickers ready to stick onto the book’s spine, and that little sleeve which you may still be able to first pasted into the front of an old library book in which the withdrawal record was contained.

If you feel the need to read these cards, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Books”, “Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and, I think, no chair is so much wanted. In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting two, ten, or twenty centuries for us — some of them — and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination — and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize. It seems then, as if some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books, and alighting upon a few true ones which have made him happy and wise, would do a right act in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.”

We should not perhaps be surprised that events have caught up with Emerson: we do now have professors of books. However our professors of books are not doing exactly what it was the sage of Concord desired. I follow the SHARP listserv (The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) which is contributed to mainly by professors of books, and I can confirm that the main focus on books is not “in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry [them] safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples”, but on the social, cultural and technical history of the book as object. A recent vigorous exchange perhaps indicates the extent to which the big problems have already been tackled by this new discipline. The discussion has been about marginalia (a good indicator of past usage): does an X in the margin carry a different meaning from a tick, and are their meanings any different from that of a vertical line? The acme was reached with serious consideration of whether a mark on the left of the text carries a different meaning from the same mark on the right of the text. Of course less minute issues are also grist to the mill of book history. There’s a vigorous study of the book as a physical and social object, and book history has become a university subject.

The great books of the western world in 60 volumes

The job Emerson was calling for, although not perhaps graced with any endowed chair, is nevertheless sporadically performed. A good librarian springs to mind. Some teachers do communicate their delights. I guess Great Books programs in so many American colleges may have been inspired by Emerson’s call, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s on about. I suspect that being hit over the head with Mortimer Adler’s stultifying list of over 500 “great books” would be calculated to make many a student immediately apply for an apprenticeship in metal bashing. Emerson’s looking for a professor who’ll communicate his/her enthusiasm for their reading so that students will follow up for themselves. I would think this would include lots of books which aren’t “Great” but which are good and fun. Many of such books may of course actually be or become great, but the enjoyment is the thing. I rather doubt that anyone who has fun reading Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics is also going to yuck it up on Georg Cantor: Transfinite Numbers, or even consider wasting time reading Congreave’s The Way of the World. The sort of thing we want is the reading group reported on in a recent issue of The Wheel, a St Catharine’s College newsletter. A couple of history professors have set up a reading group to read “beyond research specialisms”. The group, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an élite organization, is made up of Fellows of the college and graduate students. You’ve got to keep the discussion at an appropriate level haven’t you? They are currently reading Eric Hobsbawm’s four volumes on modern Europe. Daringly they now propose opening the group up to “alumni in history and cognate disciplines”, but not to any of those unruly undergraduates. The additional members will be “invited to follow the same course of readings, and then join [the original group] for discussion and dinner in Cambridge on Sunday 5th November and then in London in the summer of 2018”. Not sure I’m cognate enough.

Then of course there’s The Western Canon. “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them” mowing swaths through the charging cavalry of eager youth. Rather than bury the lads and lasses in Grotius’ The Law of War and Peace, Emerson would have his ideal professors just talk at random about things they’d loved reading, and thereby catch the enthusiasm of the student. Still I guess there are some things you do just have to plough though in order to be well educated! Actually I think the best university education will make you read the books you are meant to read, but make the experience rewarding enough that you’ll go on after graduation and read the best of the rest.

The literary critic, a title hopelessly compromised by its association with the book reviewer, is the sort of figure we’d look to for inspiration: someone a bit like Emerson in fact: the man of letters. This is rather an unfashionable job, seen as too conservative and hectoring for our modern permissive mores. Harold Bloom and George Steiner are surviving examples. I was always very glad to have bought The Modern Movement: 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950 by Cyril Connolly when it was published in 1965. I’ve certainly not read all 100 (106 actually; he has one or two a. and b.s) but I have benefitted from Connolly’s directing me to most of the books included. Each entry is accompanied by a little essay telling you why you should care, and the book is completed by a comprehensive bibliography. Now there’s bridges and ships.