Archives for category: Libraries

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.

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.

Here’s a beckoning rabbit hole.

The CIP data for Martin Amis’ Inside Story tells us that this book is to be classified as Autobiographical fiction, making reference to GSAFD. What on earth is GSAFD? You can look it up! It stands for Guidelines on Subject Access to Individual Works of Fiction, Drama, Etc. It is an ALA (American Library Association) cataloging classification system, realized in MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging, a system developed in the sixties at the Library of Congress). At WorldCat we can find this helpful-ish direction with regard to Autobiographical fiction designation, “Use for works in which the events in the writer’s life slightly disguised are presented as fiction. Samuel Butler’s The way of all flesh is an example of autobiographical fiction.‏” But we learn at Marcive that Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms for Library and Archival Materials (LCGFT), is replacing GSAFD. Keep up. Got to pay attention.

Once upon a time it was enough to just publish a book and trust to the ability of booksellers and readers to be able to work out if it was a history book, a biography, or a novel. The way of all flesh even managed to find its place without anyone being told to classify it as Autobiographical fiction. Then we dreamt up computers and you had to tell the damn things what the book was really about. (Forget all those ideas about computers being better at figuring things out than we are: they’re really dumb: you have to tell them everything. Maybe we’ll get to a point where artificial intelligence will enable Amazon to read every book, and classify it infallibly. But don’t hold your breath.) Thus were invented BISAC subject headings (Book Industry Standards And Communications). You get to choose from an ever growing list of options the subjects which best describe you book: for example here are the 43 options for Biography and Autobiography.

In the meantime it behooves you to be alert and rigorous with your metadata. After all, BISG (Book Industry Study Group) have just issued an updated list of subject codes. You want to be sure that anyone showing even the slightest interest in, say, Autobiographical fiction gets your book thrust before them.

If you love acronyms, please see my earlier post Acronyms.

Oops: easy to get dizzy with this stuff. LCSH stands for Library of Congress Subject Headings.

BookRiot alerts us to an article in The Guardian reporting on AuthorSHARE an organization set up in Britain by two second-hand-book dealers, Bookbarn International and World of Books Group. They plan to send authors a bit of a royalty on second-hand sales of their books. Funding of £200,000 is based upon donations, and payments will be capped at £1,000. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society will administer the scheme based on information about online sales provided by participating retailers. The founders are soliciting other book dealers to join in.

American readers perhaps need to be reminded of Public Lending Right, a UK scheme delivering income to authors to reward them for library lending of their books; over here we live nearer to the jungle on this sort of thing. Maybe the British government can ultimately be persuaded to fund AuthorSHARE too.

Medieval Cistercian monks, and their current descendants at UCL, delighted in numerical invention.

Click on the arrow in the middle of the image above, and you get to witness a couple of hundred numbers passing before your eyes.

The monks’ invention came at about the same time as the Arabic numbers we all know and love were being introduced into Europe. With better timing this Cistercian method might have turned out to be the way we worked. The numbers could be presented with the vertical axis aligned horizontally, and this was obviously more convenient in text. Here, from Wikipedia, is an example. The numbers have been rotated anti-clockwise.

The entry for the word ‘aqua’ in an early-thirteenth-century concordance from Brussels. Each character is a page/column number. These early Cistercian forms, with 3 and 4 swapped for 7 and 8, plus single and double dots for 5 and 6 and a triangular 9, are found in only one other surviving manuscript. The numbers are,
21, 41, 81, 85, 106, 115,
146, 148, 150, 169, 194, 198,
267, 268, 272, 281, 284, 295,
296, 317, 343, 368, 378, 387,
403, 404, 405, 420, 434, 435,
436, 446, 476, 506, 508, 552,
566, 591, 601, 604, 628, 635,
659, 678, 686, 697, 724, 759,
779, 783, 803, 818, 834, 858.

Not quite sure I understand the reasons behind the swapping that’s described in the caption. I’d want the second number to be 81, but I can’t face the mental contortion of refiguring the whys and wherefores.

These strokes were doubtless more convenient for large numbers than the contemporary alternative of Roman numerals, although to us they are obviously harder to interpret. Practice might make perfect, but I’m unlikely to put this to the test — although I am currently involved in an ongoing variously encoded correspondence with my great-nephew and this might represent a killer escalation! I can see it combined with runes!

 In a recent comment David Rothman mentioned the idea of a library endowment, designed to create a fund to ensure the flourishing survival of our public library system. It would also, as a side effect, enable us to make some real progress on expanding the audience for book content.

He and his coadjutors have a proposal which can be found here. Their Library Endowment website is here. They are seeking an endowment of $20 billion — a lot no doubt, but about half Harvard’s endowment — so it can be done.

Everyone (in the book business) would I’m sure agree that libraries are essential. Even before the pandemic public libraries were under funding pressure, especially in the UK where many have been closed in recent years. When nobody’s paying attention government loves to starve all cultural institutions of funds. They know that if the public was paying attention many of them might opine that helping the library was more important than building another battleship — helping a lot of libraries in that example. But of course you can’t allow people to express such opinions, so you wait until they are looking the other way, and bang, bang, library opening hours are cut before anyone can object.

Publishers Weekly had a story just before the coronavirus upended everything, wondering if our super-rich might like to pitch in. Seems to me that funding libraries ought to be a government responsibility — libraries benefit everyone, almost being an extension of the educational system, and enhancing the general smarts of the population brings economic benefits of the sort which government seems exclusively focussed upon. Still, no reason the rich guys shouldn’t be asked to help. After all our public libraries got going as a result of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy: it would be apt if current millionaires chipped in to keep them going and extend their reach.  The Library Endowment is on their trail.

We need to remember that the local library provides help on a wide range of issues — access to computers and wifi has been a recent instance. NPR had  story on 28 March about how the library is a vital facilitator of the passage from prison back into society. It’s not just about books and reading.

The Passive Voice, reliably anti-traditional publishing, writes a post commenting on a proposed bill in the Maryland legislature. He thinks it’d be just fine for Maryland to pass a law mandating the licensing of ebooks “on reasonable terms” to libraries, as long as they didn’t allow the law to touch self-published books. After all, he tells us, “As an example, if the State of Maryland presented the author with a ‘standard’ ebook license that pays the author $1.00 per year for licensing an unlimited number of copies of her ebook to every library in the state, such a license might deprive the author of a significant amount of royalties compared with the royalties the author might have received from Maryland readers for a $2.99 ebook listed on Amazon.”

Now I can’t argue with that — it’s true after all. What I can wonder at is why such protection should be desirable only for authors who have published their books themselves. Why would it be “one thing if the Random Houses of the world were governed by such a law and another if indie authors were also subject to such a law” when the effects on authors published by “the Random Houses of the world” would amount to an identical loss of income? Theft surely is theft whether you approve of the victim’s life choices or not. Just because her wicked fat-cat husband would suffer too doesn’t make it OK to swipe a wealthy woman’s wallet, while leaving it wrong to rob the poor.

We do need to keep in mind the danger of a compulsory license without restrictions on access. Such a deal would have a very negative effect on book sales. If each library system just has to buy one copy “on reasonable terms” whether that’s at $3.99 or $14.95, then nobody has ever to bother buying another copy. All demand can be satisfied for free at the library. Whatever your view of the publishing business you have to accept, don’t you, that this isn’t an attractive business proposition? And be it noted, exactly the same problem exists for the self-published book.

“Books are less trustworthy in an era when anyone can publish electronically or on paper. What’s more, even major publishing houses can skimp on fact-checking — one more reason why we need librarians to help smarten up digital-era readers.” This they tell us at the Library Endowment website.

Well I can see how you might want to make this argument in favor of ensuring universal access to libraries and expert librarians. If we can’t trust what we hear or read, then obviously being able to have access to reliable sources of information becomes even more important.

However have books really become less trustworthy in our digital age? Worriers about Wikipedia wonder about its accuracy — though it’s so easy to correct that I suspect any inaccuracies must be short-lived. We know there’s lots of wrong info on the web, but there’s almost always a correct version lurking at the next search result. Google is daily giving us an education on critical intelligence and error detection. And of course plenty of old books contain plenty of wrong information. For example Richard Hakluyt writes in his The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) about “people without heads, called Blemines, having their eyes and mouth in their breast”. We do not believe him, I think, though Sir Walter Raleigh confirms the “fact”, which dates back at least to Herodotus.

The suggestion that publishers “can skimp on fact-checking” is strangely enough another example of a false belief based on print communication. In fact publishers don’t employ fact checkers at all (well, except for the rarest of occasions, when they may hire a freelancer to check things on a special project)— only The New Yorker does regular fact-checking. If a book contains potentially dangerous information the publishers will (one hopes) print a disclaimer in the front pointing out that they don’t really know what’ll happen if you follow the advice in their book. But they will not regard it as their obligation to check that all’s well. The correctness of the facts in a book is the responsibility of the author — and the author’s contract will contain an indemnity clause holding the publisher free and blameless in this regard. The publisher might in a particularly risky instance hire an outside expert to read the manuscript, but there might well be a subsequent effort to bill this cost to the author.

In a world, however, where only a sixth of the books published in any year is published by traditional publishers, the claim advanced by Library Endowment comes across as a bit of a slur on self-published books. Obviously self-published books are not subjected to the gatekeeping function which traditional publishing is often criticized for applying. If you make the assumption that traditional publishers are guaranteeing the accuracy of their books, then this might look like a bit of a red flag. However, when you accept that the “fact checkers” employed by traditional publishers are exactly the same individuals as the fact checkers employed by indie publishers — i.e. the authors themselves — then the distinction melts away. In fact the rate of error in books is probably pretty much the same today as it was a hundred years ago. It may be a little bit better than it was two or three hundred years ago. It’s almost certainly better than it was five or more centuries ago. This might be thought of as an embarrassment for book publishing, but I guess it’s not a big enough one for the industry to feel it has to do anything about it. As ever, caveat emptor.

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* The Pajama Game, for anyone who cares.

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Image via a Neglected Books tweet.

No date available for this detective feat I fear. A book called The Burglary Business and You by Peter Burden was published in 1980 by Macmillan. It was reviewed that year in The British Journal of Criminology along with Break-Ins: Burglary from Private Houses by Dermot Walsh (1980, Constable — appropriate choice of publisher?). The Autobiography of a Thief appears to be from a slightly different stable, being the autobiography of Bruce Reynolds, the leader of the gang who pulled off the Great Train Robbery in 1963. Inspiring perhaps, but not of much use as a guide to breaking and entering. The Autobiography of a Thief was originally published in 1995.

 

Covid has been a disaster. But its effects on book publishing finances have been surprisingly benign* as this bar chart shows. Benigner for some categories than for others of course.

A balanced and sensible status report has been issued. COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021 by Cliff Guren, Thad McIlroy and Steve Sieck has been reviewed by Mike Shatzkin. You can download a PDF or an ebook at the link to the title. Here’s the Contents list.

Everyone concerned with the book business will benefit from reading this state-of-play report. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. Striking, if ultimately unsurprising, is the difference between the effects on various types of business. One constant is that trends which were already at work have been accelerated by the pandemic. We might now say that ordering online has taken over from standing on line. Subscription services have been apparently effortlessly successful. Streaming: good. Physical: OK as long as delivered to your door. Just what higher education is going to look like in the future is hard to discern — beyond the almost inevitable “very different”. Will this affect university presses? Sure; but it may not turn out to be too bad an effect.

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* Money, yes; people, no. Many, including my friend, colleague, and neighbor Hector Gonzalez, will be missed for ever.