Archives for category: Libraries

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.


* 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.


* 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.