Archives for category: Libraries

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.


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

Well of course a digital record of a book or document may well be better than no record, but by no means can the two be held to be equivalent. The problem instanced at the end of Jill O’Neill’s Revisiting Nicholson Baker and Retention of Print at The Scholarly Kitchen isn’t (ever?) going to go away.

If you are a librarian you are going to be subject to conflicting forces. Yes, part of you wants to keep everything. And yes, part of you recognizes that funds to build ever more shelving and the buildings to hold it, cannot be infinite. Something’s got to give. Obviously it’s easier just to throw out the books after having scanned them.

Librarians buy many digital books from publishers, often on acrimonious terms which are really still to settle.* Many of these ebooks lack some pretty basic editorial functionality. Reading a straightforward ebook on my iPhone is absolutely fine for me, but as soon as you need too refer to an endnote, look at a table, flick back to that item a few pages earlier, or any other simple navigation task which we’ve been conditioned to find so easy in a printed book, well, then all hell breaks loose. If I wasn’t a fan of Steven Pinker I would have abandoned reading the ebook version of The better angels of our nature. As it was I had to leave aside some of the detailed arguments as they were just too hard to follow (and I don’t mean intellectually). Maybe it’s just that we as readers haven’t gotten comfortable with this navigation, and that as publishers we haven’t yet devised conventions for these sorts of maneuvers in an ebook.

But human nature being what we all know it to be, book publishers are probably never going to get their electronic books into a shape which might provide an equivalent of all the functionality which can be performed by a printed book. Going forward the outlook is a little less dire than looking back to books which were produced before we’d ever dreamed of an ebook. The sets of inadequacies Ms O’Neill discovered in Vintage’s ebook version of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold are inevitable and probably always going to be unavoidable. The grunts who get to do this sort of work can’t ever be paid enough to care. Thinking through how a book might possibly be used by a reader is something we as an industry have over the past five centuries become pretty good at — the copyeditor is our expert in this area — but our solutions are all print and paper based. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to engineer a book to allow for all possible future (or even current) technologies? Sorry, I just don’t think we are clever enough. (Nor, be it admitted, is there any immediate financial incentive to do so. Maybe in the long run we will get to a place where customers might be willing to pay more for a well-engineered ebook than for just an ebook.)

Nevertheless I do have to admit that even a hard-to-navigate digital version of a book is much better than no version. And in terms of the history of the ebook (and of course of the computer) it is still early days.


* Now from Publishers Weekly comes news that publishers are being drawn into an ebook price fixing lawsuit initially targeting Amazon only.

Two of Charles Darwin’s 1837 notebooks are missing from Cambridge University Library. They’ve actually been missing since 2001, but only now has the Library decided they must have been stolen. This has been reported to the Cambridgeshire police. The University Librarian asks us all to fess up if we have any information.

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Needless to say the library continues to search for the missing books. They’ve got a lot of places in which to look. “Overall, the University Library is home to more than 210km (130 miles) of shelving, roughly the distance by road from Cambridge to Southampton.” Their Ely back office has another 65-miles-worth.

Before they went missing the two notebooks had been digitized. You can examine them here: (Notebook B and Notebook C). Thus not all is lost: nice to have the real things back though.

There’s a bit of a thematic connection here to last week’s post, E-library?

American Libraries Magazine brings us a brief report (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.): “Overdrive reports that libraries all over the world collectively loaned more than 289 million ebooks in 2020, a 40% increase from 2019. Audiobooks also gained last year, but not as much as ebooks because people were commuting less. The report says 138 million audiobooks were checked out in 2020, a 20% increase from 2019.”

Now let us not be beguiled into over-interpreting this information, either as evidence of digital triumph or as presaging the death of print. Remember that most libraries were shut for most of the past year, and the library borrowing of physical books, in so far as it was allowed to take place, was hedged about with all sorts of restrictions. Thus we would expect people to have increased their borrowing of ebooks: it was just so much easier than getting hold of a printed library book. It does seem that reading qua reading had a bumper year in 2020 as we all looked around for things to do while stuck at home.

Whether this “preference” for ebooks will turn into a permanent change of behavior remains to be seen. No reason to fear such an outcome however — publishers are in the business of facilitating reading after all. And librarians always have storage problems for all those print books. Still, for myself, I suspect things will revert to the norm when we are all liberated.

It is true of course that book publishers are still feeling our way forward on the “right” terms under which they should supply ebooks to libraries. We can work it out.

A new concierge service introduced by New York Public library. Tell them what your interested in and they’ll recommend five books. This is the sort of thing libraries should be doing in a world where their regular customers are unable to visit them.

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Here NYPL solicits our donations to help with this service. And for those who want to know, here they reveal their top ten checkouts for the year almost done with.

For myself I’m not in love with the idea of online recommendation sites: especially for books to read — my problem tends to be having too many books in the “read-me-next” pile, not too few. However, I guess I’d feel better about advice from NYPL or National Public Radio the US attempt to mimic BBC radio. Here’s the NPR 2020 Book Concierge offering.

They explain the rationale behind their year-end book selector at their website. You can select from 33 different categories, narrowing the search by layering a second and third category on top of your first, till you get to the ideal book for you. Well, that’s the theory anyway. See how it goes for you. They’ve been providing this service since 2013, and you can access these previous years’ data at the same link. There are buttons allowing you to purchase the books at Amazon or IndieBound, as well as a link to your local library.

See also Curation.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee has just released a report considering antitrust problems in the technology industries. When technology companies have become so successful, scrutiny from the government has become inevitable. Some sort of regulation seems almost certain.

TeleRead sends an early analysis of the Report by Chris Meadows, who, we are sorry to note, last week suffered an extremely serious bike accident in Indianapolis. He was riding an electric bike when he was hit by an SUV which fled the scene. He’s back on a respirator and is fighting for his life. Best wishes.

Mr Meadows comes at this Report from a library-lending-of-ebooks perspective. The battle lines here are clear. Librarians think ebooks are too expensive and resent limits on lending imposed by publishers as part of their terms of sale. Publishers fear, to put it at its most extreme, that a single ebook, released on the world without any control, could entirely replace demand for the book, so you could in theory end up selling only a single copy. Clearly the Judiciary Committee is focussed primarily on somewhat bigger game (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple), but library lending could possibly get impacted as collateral “damage”. Damage because a bold decision in favor of either side would clearly damage the other. Is there a compromise position?

Book publishers did have an antitrust run-in with the government before when they were shown to have colluded over pricing of ebooks at Apple. Agency pricing was the solution to the problem. Antitrust judgement has tended over the past fifty years to focus on whether this or that arrangement is good for the public. Clearly the public would benefit from having easier access to ebooks in their library, as they would from lower prices. The current rules under which publishers supply ebooks to libraries mean that you often have to get on line and wait while one reader “returns” the ebook, so you can as next on line be allowed access. — Sound a bit like putting a reserve on a hard copy book? But clearly the public also benefits from a viable and thriving publishing industry, so any decision which jeopardizes the health of publishing companies would not be in the long-term interest of the public. One has to imagine that there’s a compromise available. Increased funding for libraries is probably fundamental, then some sort of compensatory payments to publishers and authors could be arranged in return for expanded access to ebooks. 

LATER: Chris Meadows died on 14 October at the age of 47. What a loss. Here is TeleRead‘s obituary.

Let us remember the fact that he was the victim of a hit-and-run by an SUV while he was riding his bike. What can be done about such immorality?


This story from Atlas Obscura makes my recent post about Jorge Luis Borges licking a Scottish library book a bit more of a warning. The gravestone is in the cemetery at Goldfield, Nevada. Borges seems not to have suffered ill effects beyond his hangover.

Cynics have however suggested, as Atlas Obscura warns us, that the red paint is suspiciously fresh looking. This newspaper report might appear to support the case for the genuineness of the stone, though it could of course equally well have provided the inspiration for a prankster.

The University Library looming over the rather more handsome, early morning sunlit Wren Library in Trinity College. To the right of the Wren building can be seen a little bit of The Backs, that part of the Cam up and down which you punt.

The University’s original library was in the Old Schools, next to the Senate House. In the nineteen thirties moving had become essential. On the site of a former military hospital across the Cam, up went this red brick monument to industrialized learning. One wonders if the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, in opening the library in 1934 really did refer to it as “this magnificent erection”, but its tower does stick up as a landmark visible as you come over the hills at the edge of the fenland.

Well, it had to happen: you can’t just keep taking in books and expect them all to fit in a building dating from 1934. I would imagine they never throw a book away; but they do seem have a mere 9,000,000 volumes. Cambridge University Library is one of the UK’s six deposit libraries, and thus receives a copy of every book published in Britain in order to validate copyright in the book. This has been going on since 1710, so there are quite a few books involved.

The University Library now has a Library Storage Facility in Ely, just 15 miles to the north.

The library’s website has a show of the new place which opened in May 2018. It’s just taken in its one-millionth book. Cute how they arrange for the millionth book taken in, just like the first one, to be books written by Cambridge graduates.  “Built to store more than four million items, the self-regulating facility has a capacity equal to 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools [sounds like the books may get wet?] with shelving that measures 65 miles – the distance from Cambridge to London. The facility is now 25 per cent full.” Interesting to reflect that 4,000,000 books placed side by side would stretch from Cambridge to London. Never a dull moment on your journey. “Of making many books there is no end: and much study is a weariness of the flesh”, so I suppose there are wise heads considering what to do after 2030 when they expect to fill the LSF up as well. Stack ’em up along the road to Norwich?

Here Book Riot gives us a listing of the top ten largest libraries in the world. (Link via The Digital Reader.)


The oldest public library in Scotland is still open at Innerpeffray near Crieff in Perthshire. It was established in 1680 by David Drummond, Third Lord Madertie who directed that his 400 books be stored in the attic of St Mary’s Chapel (on the right) and made available to the public free of charge. The library’s collection was significantly increased in the 18th century when Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York commissioned the construction of the library building next door to the chapel and donated a large number of books concentrating on “Divinity, Classicks, History”. In 2013 the library received another donation from American bibliophile Janet Burns Saint Germain. Among this gift of rare Scottish books was what turned out to be Innerpeffray’s earliest book, the 1476 edition of the works of John Duns Scotus.

One of their treasures is their Borrowers’ Register which records names, addresses and occupations of borrowers from 1747 to 1968. They stopped lending out their books in 1968 but you can still consult them there or take a tour. Their catalog isn’t online, but their website features a sampling.

Once upon a time I did live in Perth about fifteen miles away but as far as I know I’ve never been to Innerpeffray; nor was I conscious of its existence till I recently saw their advertisement in the magazine of The National Trust for Scotland. As I was just five when I lived in Perth, my recollection is patchy: I can see the school and its playground where we lined up before doors marked Girls and Boys, and I believe I could still walk home from there. One of my fellow pupils’ granny fell off the bus and bloodied her lip while we all gawped through the iron railings. I also remember the park by the Tay, the Inches, which featured the first swans I ever saw. We lived in Perth because my stepfather was in the army camp at Findo Gask even closer to Innerpeffray. There I was introduced to Lieutenant Toursky who loved honey so much he was alleged to sweat it: a sweet man.

My military connection with the neighborhood continued at nearby Cultybraggan, which is revealed by Atlas Obscura to have been a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War. We didn’t know about this POW connection when as a teenager I was forced to go there for a week’s military training as part of the school’s Combined Cadet Force operation. (All CCF activity seemed to me like a prison sentence.) My only memory of “camp” is that we all went up Ben Lawers, which is about 30 miles away. A cloudy day unfortunately, so we couldn’t see Innerpeffray.

Can’t remember the title or author, but want to identify that book that won’t leave you alone? Here’s help provided by Make Use Of (Link via BoingBoing and LitHub.) Follow that link if you want to explore any of the options they give: they provide all the links.

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