Archives for category: Libraries

As readers, and publishers, we should perhaps spend a few seconds reflecting on what a back-handed compliment it is that such a large segment of American society is intent on banning books. If you thought books were powerless to influence minds, you wouldn’t be wasting your breath calling for their suppression, would you? These book-banners almost seem more in awe of the power of a book than we in the business are ourselves. Could it be that the fewer you read the more powerful you think they must be?

To me, being told I wasn’t allowed to read something because it was too wicked for me to stomach would be one surefire way of making me want to rush out and get hold of it. And libraries across the country are making banned books available free to all — here’s a story from NPR about the New York Public Library’s initiative. Of course, I dare say most students in high school aren’t spending a lot of time paying attention to library do’s and don’ts — they’ve got more important business on their teenage minds — but telling kids they can’t read this or that can surely never work. If they’re readers, they’ll read it in spite of you; if they are not, they don’t need telling.

National Geographic has a piece on the history of book banning in America, which started very early. (Link via LitHub.) Back then it tended to take the form of book burning, and of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin suffered that fate. Burning seems mild compared to the fact that in 1857 “In Maryland, free Black minister Sam Green was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary for owning a copy of the book.” No doubt Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been harassed on social media if only that boon and marker of high civilization had been available then.

The pace only quickens these days: according to PEN America in the nine months between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, there were 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts. Bans took place in 26 states but 713 of the 1586 were in Texas alone. Doesn’t democracy demand that we respect voters’ rights to try to turn their state into a Republic of Gilead? Read; Discuss; Vote!

I held forth on book banning earlier this year.

Well, should I tempt providence by claiming never to have detected the action of bookworms in any of the many, many books I have been surrounded with all my life? Indeed I had wondered if it wasn’t all really an old-wife’s tale based on a metaphor. But Wikipedia gives us a distressingly long list of contenders for the “bookworm” title, and they have the pictures to back it up. There’s even one called the booklouse. And who’d have imagined there was a creature called the museum beetle, or worse the drugstore beetle or even the cigarette beetle? Silverfish and cockroaches can also become avid devourers of books.

Book worm, book worm,
Measuring the paperbacks,
Could it be, you stop and see
How beautiful they are.

— always loved Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen.

Maybe I really didn’t have the misfortune to host a bookworm, but I did once own a book dog, a Rottweiler who as a puppy developed a selective taste for bookbindings.

Rottweilers are intelligent, placid dogs, and are easy to train — and it’s important to train a dog that big who will control you on the street if not trained to answer your command — so when she was told not to eat books, she changed her diet forthwith.

I read recently that Eric Carle apparently originally wanted his Hungry Caterpillar to be a hungry bookworm. Sounds like a unlikely scenario though: a mite metamorphosing into a lesser grain borer is, when compared to caterpillar/butterfly, a bit, well, boring.

I think bookworm may be unusual in being a word more frequently met with in its metaphorical usage than in its base meaning. We live in a world where any child who reads more than two or three books runs the risk of being categorized as a bookworm. Such bookworms are of course served by lots of bookstores rejoicing in the same name. I find that Merriam-Webster has one definition of the term: “a person unusually devoted to reading and study”. The Oxford English Dictionary prioritizes the same definition, but gets to insects in its second definition, commenting thereon “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles. Compare booklouse n.,  book mite n.

This legal interlude, fantasizing about library terms of supply, all provided a nice little flurry of fun. And now it’s over.

Publishers Weekly reports on the end of Association of American Publishers’ lawsuit against the State of Maryland about their law attempting to force publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at discounted prices. The judge decided not to bother to issue an injunction forbidding Maryland from doing this: that the “State never enforced the law and represents it will not enforce it in the future is an important factor bearing on whether the Court should take the additional step to enjoin the State from enforcing the Act. The Court has declared the Maryland Act unconstitutional and may reasonably assume the State will abide by the declaration.” I suppose if the State changes its mind and really tries to make publishers sell ebooks cheaply to libraries, an injunction can easily be obtained.

Now the court has ruled in favor of the AAP, indicating that Maryland, or any state, cannot just decide to override laws passed by Congress — in this case the copyright law — one can perhaps imagine that this would be the end of such legislation. But as Publishers Weekly told us in February “Library e-book bills are now pending in five state legislatures, MassachusettsRhode Island, IllinoisTennessee, and Missouri, and such bills have already passed unanimously in Maryland and New York.” Subsequently Connecticut joined the queue. The Governor of New York already vetoed that bill, and I don’t know where the other states stand, as well as any others who may have found the ebook bandwagon irresistible, but basic equity seems pretty clear. Prices are determined by the seller: if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

Now of course you can see why legislators would favor bills like this, whatever their chances of success. Makes them look like they are sticking up for the rights of their constituents without much chance of their having to do anything about it. But to me, any law or lawsuit based upon the words “reasonable prices” must be doomed: one man’s reasonable is another man’s exorbitant, is another man’s way too cheap. Pricing of ebooks for libraries still remains in flux: it hasn’t been all that many years after all. A solution needs to be negotiated not litigated or legislated or enforced. If librarians want their customers to be able to borrow ebooks, then the price they pay for them has (obviously) got to be a price publishers and authors are willing to receive. You can’t in any price negotiation say “This is ridiculous, I refuse to pay more than this much”. Well of course you can, but you have to expect your negotiating partner to walk away from the table, which just leaves you high and dry.

Let us take for an instant the extreme position — how damaging to the world would it actually be if ebooks could not be borrowed from libraries at all? To publishers? Not a bit: or if at all, very little. After all, the publisher would in theory rather that every reader should buy their own copy (even of a printed book — though of course everyone has bought in on the social desirability of a library system where barriers to reading are at least not financial). To authors? Maybe a little: it’s always nice to have another reader, even one who’s a non-buyer. To libraries? Maybe a bit annoying, especially if many people protest and start bending the librarian’s ear. To readers and library users? It’s just a matter of money. If I have to pay, will I nevertheless still read? Well of course that depends — and there always remains the free physical library book as an option. But in no way does the world as we know it cease to function if I can’t get a free ebook from the library. I am not advocating such a position. Nor is the publishing industry even thinking of such a thing, although it might reduce tensions between publishers and an important market segment.

Bite your tongue ye commentators, and be patient: a pricing solution will be reached. Surely it’s obvious that futile lawsuits are not a great way to win friends and influence your suppliers. I’m no lawyer, and have to assume that lawyers must have advised all these states that there’s some ground for proceeding, mustn’t they? — but just what ground that is I’ve no idea. Just because I wrote a book and people would like to read it for free, why must I be made to supply it at a cheap price to my local library? This doesn’t seem to me any more reasonable than that because eating is important to the public, farmers should be required to sell meat and milk at discounted prices. Now of course we have to recognize, yet again, that this “movement” is all based upon the erroneous “common knowledge” that ebooks cost nothing to produce! THEY DON’T.

In Libraries and ebooks I previously beat the drum of getting ebooks out of the library and having publishers “rent” them to readers.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries?.

Ever cringed at the sight of someone licking their thumb in order to flick over the pages of a library book? Or their own book, for that matter? Or maybe even just the thought of unwashed sweaty fingers is enough to keep you away from the public library. We keep getting told how there’s a whole mass of sloughed-off skin cells lurking in our bedding: I even got an email the other day proposing to sell me a product which would help me to get rid of them! Well, even without thumb-licking we cannot avoid leaving our personal traces all over any book we read. (You’ve never found a hair in a gutter?) I try to comfort myself that the effects of such traces wear off after a few days and will be gone by the time I borrow the book, but of course that’s nonsense. Don’t get too upset though — this is true of anything we handle, so don’t stop reading. Maybe wash your hands more often as instructed by the CDC while singing Happy Birthday twice through.

Proteomics is the study of proteins — and as proteins tend to survive better than much genetic material they are an important source of knowledge about ancient DNA. Paleoproteomics is the result. It’s not about Jurassic-Park-like dinosaur cloning — proteomics can potentially reveal information about ancient peoples and artifacts.

Of course it’s hard to get hold a bit of any ancient relic in order to grind it up and subject it to testing. Matthew Collins, Professor of Palaeoproteomics in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (happy to see the Cambridge archaeology department is still out front on the science of archaeology), emphasizes how difficult it is for conservators to yield up for testing any tiny bit of their unique charges, and this obviously slows down the analysis of ancient materials. In order to obtain samples for analysis Professor Collins makes use of the rubbings that conservators routinely make with erasers when they are cleaning their charges. “Since 2011, Collins has used the rubbings to gather biological information about medieval European cattle, sheep, and goats.”

Professor Collins is quoted in a New Yorker piece (referenced by Emma Smith: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022) describing the work of Pier Giorgio Righetti and Gleb Zilberstein on testing old manuscripts for what biological evidence they might retain. But of course it doesn’t just have to be manuscript you test: “In 2015, researchers at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., swabbed the gutter of a Bible from 1637 and found DNA belonging to at least one Northern European, who had acne.” Kissing the bible was not uncommon behavior (probably still is) among the committed: traces of proteins from drips from medieval lips and noses have been detected on the tenth century York Gospels. Learning that, if you’re upset about skin cells in your bedding (or worse bedbugs in library books), you’re probably never going to open any second-hand book again. But it’s obvious that such research can potentially yield fascinating information about who’s handled a particular book. Presumably, for instance, we might be able to prove just how much attention Samuel Richardson actually paid to Lady Bradshaigh’s annotations of Clarissa by finding his dabs all over it. Or finding traces of the sweat of Ezra Pound’s brow all over the manuscript of “The Wasteland” could be interesting — more interesting if it was some other poem I suppose.

Confronting the testing = destruction problem, Zilberstein has adapted a food packaging ethylene-vinyl-acetate film to pick up a range of chemicals from old and valuable objects without damaging them. Finding morphine all over Michael Bulgakov’s manuscripts may not be too earth-shattering, since we kind of knew he was addicted, but a second test “picked up twenty-nine human proteins, mostly from sweat and saliva, including three biomarkers of the renal disease that killed Bulgakov, in March, 1940.”

The Folger research referenced above comes from their Project Dustbunny, described here in Washingtonian. That test took place in 2015 and inaugurated the project.

Dustbunny involves going through the books swabbing the gutter margin: presumably not every gutter of every book. The dust thus recovered is stored in a bio-archive, where it will sit until it can be scientifically analyzed. Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts says “It’s not just a collection of texts but this biological archive that we need to preserve for future research we can’t even conceive of.” Professor Collins has been advising the Library on how they might best proceed with testing.


* Always a bit risky to embark on the explication of a pun: but my title is a bit of a pun. The word “reading”, as well as its obvious sense, is also the British term more or less equivalent to what in America we mean by “majoring in”.

This is unfortunately a topic we all need to think about. We might like to think that libraries and academic institutions would not be potential targets for hackers, but it seems this isn’t the case. Seems ransoms can be raised in fairly unexpected quarters. A book manufacturer’s operations were recently paralyzed for a few weeks by what I believe was a ransom-ware attack. The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a warning that attacks on libraries and educational institutions are on the rise and now that there’s a war in Europe such activity, a Russian speciality, becomes ever more likely as Jisc warns (Jisc = the Joint Information Systems Committee, a UK digital resources company for higher education and research institutions).

I can’t help thinking that as far as digital books, and indeed all social media and internet dealings are concerned it’s still early days. I see us as stumbling around in the dark, a bunch of innocents wondering about what it is we should perhaps be looking at, more amazed than concerned — but give us bit of time and we’ll have a better understanding of what it is we are doing, and how we might better secure our communications. (We might along the way also discover how to make our ebooks more useful, less like books just dumped online, more capable of new types of usage as well as the old ones done better.) Of course by the time we’ve figured out security systems the wide boys will probably have moved on to more valuable and easier pickings — let’s hope, anyway.

Printing Impressions brings us a reflection on data security needs for printers.

Nancy Pearl is our most famous and influential librarian. She received the 2021 National Book Foundation Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Reports carried by Publishers Weekly and Seattle Times can be found here.

Here Publishers Weekly gives us a brief round-up of Ms Pearl achievements under the heading “PW Notable”. Clearly having your own action figure makes you notable.

In 1581 Francisco Sanchez (c.1550–1623) estimated in Quod nihil scitur that it would take ten million years to read all the books in the world. Maybe a speed-reading course might knock a couple of tens of thousands of years off that — who’d know? Obviously since then things have just gotten worse. Wondering when was the last moment at which someone might have been able in a normal lifetime to read every book in the world is probably less interesting than wondering at what point it might have been worth anyone’s while to try. Surely anyone who has read more than a couple of books will be aware that lots of them aren’t worth opening.

In 2010, when they cared, Google told us there were 129,864,880 books in the world. Hernando Colon (1488–1539), Christopher Columbus’ second son conceived the ambition to read all the books in existence at the time — clearly a number well south of 130 million or even 1581’s more modest total. He amassed a huge library (he must have been rather well off) and set to. Only 3,000 books from the Biblioteca Hernandina survive, and nobody seems sure just how many books he did actually manage to consume, summarize, and index. His biographer, Edward Wilson-Lee tells us, “It simply became impossible for one man to read everything. Maybe in his youth, it would have been possible — there would have been few enough printed books. But as his library grew, he realised he needed to employ readers to work through each book and provide him with a summary – in effect the forerunner of the Reader’s Digest.” Dr Wilson-Lee would seem to have been giving Mr Colon a running start by restricting his reading to printed books only, but he seems overly optimistic even in that restricted category. Almost every early book, printed or not, has failed to survive. The earliest dated book is The Diamond Sutra, dated to 868 CE. The first firmly dated book printed from movable type, Jikji, comes from Korea and dates to 1377, but we know that they were using movable types in China two or three hundred years earlier. There’s just no measuring in a hazy category like this.

JikjiSelected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters, the earliest known book printed with movable type, 1377. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

What keeps jumping out at me in all this is that Gutenberg’s innovation was less a technical one than a business one. He didn’t “invent printing”; he didn’t even “invent” moveable type, though there’s no evidence that he picked up the idea from Chinese and Korean precursors, so he probably did come up with the idea himself. His working in the gold-smithing and wine trades could be seen as having prepared his mind. But what he really did invent was the mass-market book business.

The Archdiocese of Southwark has cancelled a talk in a school it controls apparently because the proposed speaker is gay. They also fired some of the school’s governing board who objected to the policy. BookRiot has the story.

Rare is the school anywhere in which the teachers will strike in protest at censorship. It’s just too common. What is it about our times? We are in the middle of a frenzy of book banning. “PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, tallied 1,586 book bans in schools over the past nine months, targeting 1,145 books” The Washington Post tells us. The Library Association reports last year three times as many attempts to remove books and other materials from library shelves as in 2020. To hear the constant drumbeat of news about book banning you’d think everyone was utterly dissatisfied with their children’s schools — but an NPR-Ipsos poll announced a few days ago shows that 88% of parents think schools are doing just fine. The protests, mostly from the right, are made to seem more vociferous by being repeatedly reported on. (We are still innocents in techniques for dealing with social media. One day we’ll work out how to cope with filtering the nonsense.)

Now don’t you have to think your kids are pretty dumb if you can get yourself into a tizzy about their being preferentially directed towards a particular sexual orientation by hearing a gay man speak? I don’t need to speculate about the Archdiocesan council: these guys must rarely come out of the ivory tower, and Catholic education does tend to be rather “conservative”.* But lots of ordinary folks are allowing their knickers to get into a twist about something that’s not really anything. I suspect that many school board protesters are not really aiming to protect their children; they are quite simply trying to harass people who think differently from them. This is the same impulse that detects election fraud whenever someone with different political views from yours casts a vote.

In something of a counter-move New York Public Library is allowing free access to anyone over 13 to all books which have been banned. Perhaps it needs to be said that democracy mandates that it is absolutely justifiable for a majority of the people in a particular jurisdiction to decide to do this or that, however much a minority may object. If there’s really a majority supporting the opposite point of view, they need to get out there and vote. Not sure lawsuits suffice, but I’m no lawyer: CNN tells us “Seven residents in Llano County, Texas, are suing county officials, claiming their First and 14th Amendment rights were violated when books deemed inappropriate by some people in the community and Republican lawmakers were removed from public libraries or access was restricted.” (Link via The Passive Voice.) Well, they obviously got a lawyer to take the case, but . . .

I know there are lots of things we’d all prefer didn’t get too much of an airing, but surely we have to let divergent opinion be heard. A world in which we only hear what we already want to hear will stunt the intellect. No harm, I guess, in a group of academics deploring Oxford University Press’s decision to publish a book by Holly Lawford-Smith on Gender Critical Feminism, even if they are objecting before the book’s published, and thus they have not been able to read it. Opinion can and should be free, and OUP has published books the objectors approve of, so (in some sense) almost has an obligation to publish differing research. A second group made up largely of employees calls however for cancellation of the publication of the book — and this, to my mind, is a step too far. You can’t honestly argue against a particular viewpoint if you don’t allow that viewpoint to be expressed.

The basic problem might seem to be that it’s now so simple to express an opinion and instantly have an audience of thousands hear your rant. Not sure what we can do about this — just learn to accept it, and not overreact is no doubt the only option. In the meantime one source of comfort in this might be the reflection that these book banners are showing a vast respect for the power of the written word. And banning ideas is a pretty difficult thing to achieve. If my own youthful experience is anything to go by, I’d have to reflect that being told not to do something was always a strong motivator to make me want to go to considerable lengths to do that very thing, if only to find out what the fuss was all about. Banning a book may turn out to be a secret marketing weapon!

In indexing this post I find I wrote under this exact heading last year.


* I am put in mind of a striking event when, as a recent graduate, I was a supply teacher (substitute teacher) at a Catholic secondary school in Middlesex. One boy had done something wrong, so the entire school was gathered in a ring in the playground while the culprit and the biggest boy in the school were put in the middle. We then all watched the big guy beat the bejeezus out of the criminal. But don’t worry — it was all fair and humane — they were given boxing gloves!

Well, I suppose it’s appropriate in a way — but not I fear in the right way. These book-bollards are to be found in front of the University Library in Cambridge. Who is it, in a position of authority, who thought “Oh what a good idea. We’ve got lots of books in here. Let’s have some of these cute bollards in the shape of books out front”? As if bare bollards weren’t enough, one of the bollards even allows the top book to turn on its axis! — are we meant to think “Open sesame. Behold the key to all knowledge”? Books are (or can be), I’ll admit, fun; but books are not in the UL for fun; they are there as serious business — even the fun ones are there as serious business. The Library is a serious place, and whimsy like this is just out of place.

Of course I’m overreacting — probably most people never even notice these dumb bollards, though every library user has to go past them.

The University Library is a deposit library, and as such, I’d like to think, has certain responsibilities: primary among them a responsibility to act as a careful custodian of the books it’s getting for free. In Britain the copyright law includes a legal deposit requirement which requires publishers to provide a copy of every work they publish in the UK to the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Library (Oxford’s University Library), the University Library, Cambridge, and the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. This includes pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, sheet music and maps, as well as books. Wikipedia‘s article on legal deposit around the world tells us that in a reciprocal deal the five non-Irish libraries also get to receive a copy of every Irish publication. The requirement that in order to obtain copyright protection a book must be sent to each of these six institutions has existed in English law since 1662. Other libraries have from time to time been included, and have on their “retirement” been offered financial compensation to enable them to buy a like number of books for themselves. Since 2013 legal deposit regulations have also included digital publications. The stated purpose of legal deposit is to “preserve knowledge and information for future generations and ‘maintain the national published archive of the British Isles'”. Noble aims.

See also UL LCF.

“For popular e-books, libraries pay $55 for a copy that expires after two years, or $550 for a copy for 20 years, compared with the about $15 that a consumer would pay, according to the American Library Association (ALA).”

Clearly Sludge (link via The Passive Voice) thinks this bare assertion requires no discussion: case over, off with his head — unambiguous case of publisher profiteering. Why should a library be forced to pay so much more than an individual? — Well, because an individual can read their ebook, just as they can their print book, to themselves, or in rare cases out loud to a small gathering. They can reread their ebook as often as they like, but unlike the hard copy edition, they can’t resell the ebook, give it away or even (without difficulty) lend it to someone else. Such access as they have acquired is theirs and theirs alone. If a library were able to “buy” outright the same ebook, they could then lend it to as many readers as they liked, put it on the interlibrary loan system, give it away to all and sundry, and thus deprive the author (and yes, the publisher) of any more income from that publication. Librarians of course recognize that there is a problem here, but they often fail to recognize that the logic of their pricing gripes can lead to exactly this sort of situation.

That Sludge shouldn’t know exactly what they are talking about is perhaps understandable — their focus is elsewhere, as their banner “Relentlessly exposing corruption” indicates, but they quote a group called Library Futures which, given its name, should know better than to make this nonsensical assertion — “Libraries simply can no longer be forced to rent their e-book collections with restrictions and pricing that are designed to minimize the libraries’ ability to provide access to the public, while maximizing publisher profits over that library mission”. But hang on a minute: Libraries cannot do anything other than rent their ebooks. Ebooks are not available for “sale” in any other way. No purchaser can do anything other than rent their ebooks. Ebooks are available only for rent. When you “buy” an ebook you are in reality buying access to a website where the book is available to be read. If libraries don’t like renting ebooks, the answer is clear: save your money and spend it on some other stuff you can really own.

The Sludge solution comes about because they have seen that the State of Maryland passed a “law that aims to increase public libraries’ access to e-books, with support from a powerful copyright lobbying group”. What the law actually does (did, as it’s not going to be happening, as nor will similar laws passed by other states) is to order publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at “reasonable” prices — reasonableness to be determined by the state. We can all agree that it’s a wonderful thing that during the pandemic borrowing of ebooks from libraries increased, but it’s dishonest to yoke an argument justifying expropriation of property to the tragedy of covid. Just because lots of people enjoyed a free ebook during their illness or confinement to home, is, unfortunately, no argument for why their library should be allowed to get the things at a knockdown price.

We go back and forth on how much it is right for a publisher to charge a library for access to an ebook: it’s just impossible to predict how many library patrons will want to borrow this or that book, which makes it difficult to know what an appropriate charge might look like. The debate goes on. But, how about this as a response to all the carping about library pricing terms — let’s decide that ebooks should never be available at all through the library? Given the mechanics of what’s actually happening in the case of a library loan of an ebook, would it not make sense for the library just to get out of the way, and leave the lending to the publishers or their agents? Funding given to libraries could be redirected in part to the publisher or their agents in proportion to the amount of lending going on with each title — computers are after all notoriously good at bean counting — so all this could be arranged relatively easily. (And of course, in Britain at least, we already have such a system in place for library lending.) That library patrons should like to get free access to all sorts of books is understandable enough; that publishers and authors should be made to give away their products at a punitively discounted price is not. Nobody’s happy. Let’s see what the Gordian-knot-chopper argument about not letting libraries get hold of ebooks at all does to the concentration of minds.

See also Ebooks and libraries and Going into overdrive on library ebooks.