We’re intimately familiar with the pressures on public libraries, and worried about closures and reductions of service. Independent bookstores have it worse, for a number of reasons. Indie bookstores’ fortunes decline as online retailers thrive, and as people move from print books to e-readers and non-literary, screen-based reading in general, while public libraries are able to adapt to these changes to an extent, by providing electronic services. There is a romantic attachment to indie bookstores just as there is to libraries, perhaps even moreso because they are more threatened. I have some comments to make about this, prompted by a brief article appearing on Salon.com today, titled, “Support your local indie bookstore!”
First, if something like indie bookstores, a traditional form or cultural touchstone, needs an appeal for support based on what it represents, then it may be a sign that it isn’t needed the way its supporters wish; otherwise the need for it in itself would lend the support. The article in Salon claims that most people simply don’t realize the role that indie bookstores play in shaping reading tastes, in bringing the good books to the market, but no evidence is supplied to support this claim, and I don’t really believe it. If a high proportion of book sales were through independent bookstores, then this claim would make some sense, although it would still be necessary to sort out whether booksellers market the books that they do based primarily on their own judgment or based on reviews and publicity (and I suspect that reviews and publicity have a more important role).
Is it a sad thing that independent bookstores are dying? Yes, of course. But as a niche publisher, I have a role in killing them, alongside Amazon and e-readers, because I am not able to be profitable and support indie bookstores at the same time. Independent bookstores, and larger brick-and-mortar bookstores for that matter, are based on a business model that is at odds with the growing sector of the publishing industry which is composed of smaller publishers who are focused on topical or geographic niches. In trade publishing, that is, the bigger part of the publishing industry that is based on books for general readers that are sold in bookstores, certain market structures prevail that allow bookstores to be profitable. Among these are a discount rate of 40 to 45 percent off the retail price and the expectation that bookstores will return a high proportion of copies to the publisher for a full refund. Additionally, bookstores and publishers depend on distributors, who generally take an additional 15% off the cover price. Publishers are able to be profitable under these conditions only through high sales volumes. That means that niche publishers, who by nature are going to have very low sales volumes by comparison, cannot afford the prevailing 60% discount or the high rates of returns, at least not without setting retail prices that readers are unlikely to pay. On the other hand, niche publishers are able to sell on Amazon and other online book retailers and give a discount to the retailer of as little as 20%, and can refuse to accept returns altogether as well. Those conditions allow niche publishers to be profitable. And in fact, at present it is niche publishing that is the profitable part of the trade market.
So, with much sadness, I say to indie bookstores that I am sorry to see them go, but I cannot sell to them on their current terms and have a viable publishing operation, and so far I have not found that I need their marketing in order to sell books.
Thoughts on this? I really do wish I could afford to sell to indie bookstores, but I can’t.
Essay by Lincoln Cushing in Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, Catalog for a 2011 exhibition at the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach. Exhibition curated by Ilee Kaplan and Carol A. Wells, Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
This article is a brief historical overview, with illustrations, of some of the print shops that were associated with the New Left in the United States. Like a lot of historical writing about the 60s, it’s both nostalgic and indirectly instructive, for people who might want to do analogous projects now. Lincoln is an important and knowledgeable writer in the history of left political printing and graphic design in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and since.
Librarians have responded to the internet and other technologies that have reduced people’s demand for our services in a couple of complementary ways over the past 20 years or so (or more). On the one hand, we have pointed out all of the reasons that libraries are still needed and still heavily used, and on the other hand we have embraced new roles as information technology designers. These strategies have worked fairly well for libraries as institutions, but not for all specializations in library work. At the reference desk (my own encampment), we have seen steadily declining interest in the service we offer, because most of the simple factual questions that people used to come to us with are now more easily answered via the web. When people do come to us with simple, factual questions, we often have a sense that these questions don’t demand much of our expertise as reference librarians, and could easily be handled by other staff or by student workers with a little training. Yes, there are times when the reference interview reveals that the real question is somewhat different than what we have been presented with, or that behind the question there are important considerations that we are able to help the patron incorporate. But most of the time, the simple, factual questions that people present make us feel as redundant as we are said to be.
In academic libraries, we are often called on to do a little bit more, to engage with students in a learning process that has to do with helping them become competent in their new intellectual world. That is one avenue for expanding the role of reference librarians – to become more integrated into the teaching mission of the institution as educators. But I will leave that aside for now to talk about a different potential direction for reference librarians that can exist outside of educational settings, one that could involve provision of a new kind of public service.
I got the germ of the idea at a job I once had at a government special library. In the California State Library, a unit called the California Research Bureau provides reference service to the State Assembly and the Governor’s Office according to the model set by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. At the California example, librarians, and other employees with the job title of “researcher” (mostly with masters degrees in public policy), respond to requests from the offices of Assembly members. Reference questions typically had a turn-around time of one to two days, and the response, rather than a suggestion of some resources that the user might consult, was a packet of printed-out documents containing the information that the requester wanted. We selected documents with a high degree of attention to relevance, knowing that our users did not have time to wade through irrelevant matter. We used Lexis-Nexis, the physical collections of the State Library, policy papers that we found online or requested directly from research organizations, or other materials. The research we did for patrons – as reference librarians – often involved telephoning potential sources of relevant information and asking if they would share it with us. The jobs of the Researchers (the non-librarians) at the CRB was different. They were assigned research projects that took weeks or months to complete, according to the needs of legislators who wanted to write good policy, and they used social science methodologies. They did original research. Among the researchers there were people with backgrounds in different areas of policy, as specializations on top of their masters degrees. The reference librarians supported their research in addition to providing reference service directly to legislators. This organization worked with efficiency and smarts (and still does, I’m sure, I am just no longer there), constantly proving its worth to the legislature that was responsible for renewing its funding.
Since leaving there in the early 2000’s I have often felt dismay that the same degree of interest in good research to inform policy is not a part of the American political culture in general, especially in the news media. When political questions are debated it often occurs to me how good it would be to have certain relevant data, in order to check the assumptions that are in play (often contradictory assumptions). And when people toss numbers or other factoids into a discussion without knowing where they came from or how they are arrived at, without the slightest worry that they may be bunk, I feel that the services of reference librarians are very much in need, and painfully in need, but that few realize it. I think this is true with respect to many topics that interest people, whether they are policy questions or not.
So why not set up, as part of a public library organization, a “Public Library Reference Bureau,” that gathers up, sorts through and compiles already-published data in the service of clarifying the questions of the day? I will not worry here about the logistical issues around how to determine what questions are researched and for whom, except to say that one option could even be to develop the questions internally with the idea of sharing the results with the news media.
Let me provide some examples of the kind of research I think would be appropriate for this type of a service.
Regarding “Freedom” as a distinctive American value, distinguishing us from other societies, are there ways of measuring the degree of freedom that we enjoy in comparison to other countries? One possibility would be to gather information on how many activities in the United States require a license (with a fee, or a test, or both), whether granted federally, at the state level, or locally, as compared to other countries (e.g. Mexico). Another example would be a more micro-level analysis that researches all of the steps that a person would have to go through, and the severity of each barrier to entry along the way, in order to start a business doing a particular thing (e.g. selling fresh-squeezed juices) in a number of different countries. Parallel to this research would be to find information on the effectiveness of each of the regulations and license requirements that account for various barriers in terms of achieving their policy aims.
So that’s one example.
Another would be to find data relevant to the idea of domestic and foreign auto makers. We have an idea that may or may not still be valid that certain car manufacturers are American and certain others are foreign. Ford and General Motors are American companies, Toyota is a Japanese company, etc. But what do we mean when we say this? In fact, shares of large publicly traded companies are owned by international investment banks and by various equity funds that are located all over the world. Cars tend to be manufactured in factories that are as close as possible to the markets for those cars, meaning “foreign” cars are manufactured in U.S. factories by U.S. workers. Many “foreign” cars are also designed in the United States. And Americans are not always aware of the extent to which Ford and General Motors have a presence in other countries not as a foreign car manufacturer but as a domestic car manufacturer (especially Ford, but also General Motors brands like Vauxhall and Opel). Many cars are the product of joint ventures between companies that are based on different countries, or are licensed to be “badged” with the brand of a car company that had nothing to do with designing it or manufacturing it. Often an auto maker will own a large percentage of shares in another car company in another country. All of this isn’t to argue that there is no such thing as a foreign versus a domestic auto maker, but to say that we could use some data to find out to what extent that idea still makes sense. The data could be along the lines of the question: for each of the top ten global auto makers, what proportion of the workers doing manufacturing, engineering, design, marketing and management are located in what nations (and how much of the stock is held in what nations)? The numbers are out there for librarians to find and compile, and only by doing that can we get an accurate sense of what is a foreign or domestic automaker. (By the way, are the Big Three now Ford, General Motors, and Fiat?)
Another example is a very practical area for compiling information for the public: the hot policy issue of immigration and immigration reform. So many people have strong opinions with little to no awareness of the relevant numbers, just some basic “pro-” or “anti-” passions. But there are so many relevant questions to which answers already exist. How many non-citizens are there in the U.S.? How many are here legally on visas? On green cards? How many are here on overstayed visas? How many of those who are on overstayed visas are here because of paperwork delays at the INS, and how many of them are deliberately avoiding the INS? How many are here without visas at all? With all of those questions, from what countries? What are the existing immigration quotas, in terms of visas (and types of visas), green cards, and citizenship, by nation of origin? What is the history of those quotas, and their rationales? What is the history of amnesty? What are the types of amnesty? What are the policies in place that effect people who are here illegally? How much do illegal immigrants pay in taxes? (Not just whether they pay taxes.) What are illegal immigrants paid versus legal workers at the same jobs? How risky is it, in terms of the actual enforcement of the law, for employers to hire undocumented workers in various sectors and regions? What determines the policies on enforcement of the laws affecting employers versus immigrants? What rights do undocumented workers have or not have in the workplace, de facto and de jure? What is their contribution to the economy? How are they included or not included in economic statistics? What were the conditions of undocumented workers in their countries of origin, in terms of wages, rights, conditions? Etcetera. Personally, not knowing objective answers to these questions, I feel that I can have very little to say about immigration policy. (I do often say an aspect of immigration policy, broadly considered, is the de facto maintenance of an unenfranchised population who are here by choice; but I can’t say as much about that idea as I would like without having this kind of data.)
How nice it would be if reference librarians were given the role of finding, compiling, and critically presenting existing data as it relates to questions like these. It would be a way of putting our skills to work that is more efficient in terms of what we get out of it as a society. As a reference librarian, I may enjoy those times when someone comes to the desk with a question that is unusually challenging and meaningful, but how many people are helped by the research that we do together? Unless the patron is a researcher whose work is going somewhere, perhaps only the two of us. So wouldn’t it be good to find a way to leverage the higher-level work that we are able to do in such a way that many people can benefit from it? We could not only help individuals who came to the desk, but perhaps through some kind of media channel we could reach the public. Maybe some creative TV producer needs to help us out with this….
The conference is concerned with new media and new communication technologies and their broad implications. Presenters came to the conference with a multitude of disciplinary and methodological perspectives, but most are working in communications, media studies, or digital humanities. There were a number of librarians and archivists present (and presenting), but not everyone who spoke about libraries or archives had a library or archival studies background, which was refreshing and interesting.
The first of four plenary sessions in an auditorium started the conference, and it featured Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard; Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona College (with a book coming out soon on scholarly communication); Mark Leccese, a former journalist now teaching at Emerson College; and Klaus Peter Muller, of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany. These four addressed questions on the fate of narrative and the shape of the public sphere in the new media environment, and were asked to give visions for the future. The introduction of the subject of narrative at the start of the conference was very interesting; at all of the sessions I attended, people drew ties between what was being discussed and questions of narrative and narrativity. I guess it must be common to talk about narrative among scholars who regularly attend MLA, but I think it is really great to introduce or invoke ideas about narrative in a setting that has a lot of social scientists as well. To me it seems that there is a lot still to be gained from studying narrative (or narrative theory or narratology) and its role outside of the usual literary contexts where it is talked about (film, literature, etc.).
Regarding narrative, the discussion seemed to show that the public at large is more aware of narrative structures in the media they consume than they possibly were in the past, as a result of the participatory online culture, fan culture, etcetera. Joshua Benton noted that “ancillary objects” surrounding news stories (i.e. links and commentary) affect the narrative by providing additional perspectives (alternate narratives) and additional entry and exit points. This makes it seem possible (to me) that people could be growing sharper about how narratives are used to manipulate them and might be becoming empowered by an enhanced ability to see through manipulative narratives (political, commercial, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for this that I can see though, considering how the masses (forgive me for using the term straightforwardly) continue to be moved by narratives that arise out of the facts but don’t do them justice. As refreshing as it was to me to find questions of narrative addressed throughout the conference, I would have been happier to see connections drawn between narratives and narrativity and social influence and control. That these connections weren’t drawn probably has to do with the fact that narrative is mostly a topic of discussion in the humanities rather than in the social sciences. (Please comment if you have something to suggest in this connection.)
There were two sessions following the opening plenary session on the first day. In the first I heard papers on the media and the Space Race of the 1960s, the 19th century telegraph system as a new communications medium, 19th century fan fic, and late 19th century American literature evidencing responses to media shift. In the second I heard papers on a discourse analysis of internet RFC’s to look for the history of information policies (Sandra Braman); Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists”; and the influence of the Interop conferences on the development of the internet. These two sessions were not the only ones where the point was made that “it was ever thus” or “this is not the first time” that we have been anxious and excited about the impact of new media technologies. I particularly like the insights that can be derived from historical studies such as these, and I began speaking with a couple of presenters about a possible series for Litwin Books in this area.
The conference went on to have three more plenary sessions and five more call sessions, in which I attended panels called Reading and Writing; Legal and Social Links; Classrooms and Libraries in Transition; Capital, Time and Media Bias; and Publishing in Transition. Highlights were talks by librarian Margaret Heller and her collaborator Nell Taylor, Paul van den Hoven, Bob Hanke, Paulina Mickiewicz, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Karen Hellekson.
Margaret Heller and Nell Taylor talked about an interesting, informal community-based library project that is building a collection of locally-published materials representing the diverse communities of Chicago and putting the catalog online in a social-media-rich way. It seems to be a very successful project, which, frankly, is unusual for things that are that innovative.
Paul van den Hoven does media studies of the legal system in Holland, and talked about the way the expanding, democratized media environment has outstripped the judicial system’s ability to handle the proliferation of narratives surrounding cases that have a public nature. His discussion helped me focus my own thinking about the current trend toward democratization of media and the de-authorization of institutions, in the sense that in the context of the law it is clear, to me anyway, how top-down institutions can protect people from the consequences of an irrational, narrative-driven public. Sandra Braman could certainly explain to me why my sense of security in feeling protected by the judicial system is a false one; nevertheless, there is still more to be said than we usually hear, it seems to me, about the dangers of de-authorizing institutions and empowering the masses (again, apologies for using the term in a straightforward manner).
Bob Hanke read a difficult paper (that he was kind enough to send me so that I could study it) addressing the technologization of the university and the changes that have emerged through the process. His paper was political, and addressed “media effects” (a term he avoided) of technology from a Canadian, media-studies point of view, but incorporating a political-economic structural viewpoint as well. Now having read his paper I am afraid to say I still find it difficult to understand in parts; but perhaps I just need to read some of the people he is citing.
Paulina Mickiewicz read a very interesting paper (with slides) about a major work of public architecture and its connection to the media environment: the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec. Mickiewicz’s background is in media studies, and her reading has so far not included much from the library literature. Her focus is on the architect’s thinking in designing the building, and how architectural decisions in building this and other innovative libraries define, or at least aim to define, the meaning of the library as an information place for the community. I will be interested to see her work as it progresses.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Karen Hellekson both gave papers in the Publishing in Transition session, and both were fascinating and informative, on the subjects of trade book publishing and scholarly journal publishing respectively.
It was a very good conference. In addition to the people mentioned above, I felt fortunate to hear papers and comments by William Uricchio, Kelley Kreitz, Heidi Gautschi, Andrew Feldstein, Julia Noordegraaf, and Goran Bolin.
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to a couple of librarians from MIT libraries who were present: Patsy Baudoin and Marlene Manoff. I look forward to seeing them again in 2013 if not sooner.
MiT7 was a great conference – intimate, warm, stimulating, interdisciplinary, and cutting-edge. There were some brilliant minds at work. I plan to post a few comments on the conference later. For now, here are links to podcasts from the three topical plenary sessions:
Jason Epstein has a review of John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century in the current New York Review of Books: “Books: Onward to the Digital Revolution.” The book is published by Polity Press and seems to be an important snapshot of the publishing industry in its current (but familiar) state of crisis. The reviewer is a longtime editor at Random House.
Just a brief item of interest. West Publishing is being forced to pay $2.5 million in damages to two authors who had stopped updating their legal treatise, but were named by West as authors of a new update that contained virtually no new material. Sounds like an example of a business practice that could be called “slazy,” if you get my drift. Personally, I find it encouraging that the courts are taking questions of authorship as seriously as this.
Every society has its pecking order, and printing is no exception. Equipment matters. At the top of the heap are the big presses—the giant Goss web machines that churn out daily newspapers, the high-speed Solna sheetfeds for beautiful color posters, the elegant Heidelberg Windmill letterpresses for art prints. At the bottom are the lowly duplicators—not even called presses—that are the Volkswagen Bugs of the reproduction world. People of a certain age might remember the two offset workhorses of this stratum, the A.B. Dick 360 and the Multilith 1250. But even below these machines, at the very dark recesses of the reproduction food chain, lie the spirit duplicators and mimeographs… [more]
I am always on the lookout for reviews of books that we have published, and am usually gratified to read them. If there is a complaint in the review, it is most often that the book has typos or needed better copy editing. One recent review of one of our books, and I will not name its author, stated that the book “appeared to have been put together quickly.” I have a comment about that judgment, in that particular review and possibly in others.
First, that reviewer wrote the review already aware that the book was published by my press and that I operate my business as a sideline to my job as a librarian. Other reviewers, though they may not know that I am a librarian, know that Library Juice Press and Litwin Books are very small and new imprints. It strikes me that with this in mind, these reviewers are inspecting the books for signs that they were put together quickly, with less attention to detail than a dedicated publishing house would give it. I suspect this because I happen to know that in the publishing industry as a whole, publishers have cut back their expenses wherever possible and are attempting to reduce their overhead in order to stay alive, and as a result are now allowing typos and proofreading errors to reach the final published editions of their books. Anyone who reads new books is aware of this. Yet reviews of books from major publishers that suffer the same imperfections seldom mention it. It seems to me that reviewers are assuming that I am rushing books to press much faster than a traditional publisher, and that I should therefore not be given a “pass” when it comes to typos. I think it is selective scrutiny.
The error is in the assumption that I am rushing books to press faster than a traditional publisher. I know some things about one academic publisher in particular, whom I will not name, because he has given me a lot of very helpful information and advice. They are publishing approximately 300 books per year, with an editorial staff of nine. That works out to 33 books per year per editor. I think that kind of a ratio between the number of books published annually and the editorial staff may be representative of the industry. I am publishing between five and ten books per year, admittedly on top of a full time job as a librarian. Those numbers indicate that despite operating with a lower overhead, I am not rushing books to press faster than a traditional publisher. In fact, some authors have been disappointed with the fact that the process of getting their book to press has taken such a long time. (One of the reasons it takes a long time is that the books are copy-edited multiple times.)
So, what I am asserting is that the reason a reviewer says one of our books “appears to have been put together quickly” has more to do with a desire to indicate our shoe-string nature than it is a fair judgment in relative terms. Though there may be typographical errors, reviewers should show an awareness of current industry standards if they choose to focus on them in a review of a book published by an upstart press. In fact, a book that it is claimed “appears to have been put together quickly” might not strike a reader that way if she is not already motivated to draw that conclusion. (I think the book reviewed in this particular case looks very good.)
Ralph Shaw was an academic librarian, an educator, and in 1950, the founder of Scarecrow press. He was known as an outspoken guy who forged his career more on the basis of saying what he thought than making friends. I first read about him in Ken Kister’s biography of Eric Moon, which is a great book for learning about the library scene of the mid-20th century. Ralph Shaw’s efforts have inspired me as I have been building up Library Juice Press and Litwin Books along some of the same lines. The barriers to publishing were higher then, and came down most significantly around 1990, when the cost of printing dramatically dropped and many small presses such as mind sprouted up. The way he did it at that time though, as an academic librarian jumping into the scholarly book market, was a method that still applies in my case: operating on extremely low overhead and hustling to find good books that major publisher either miss or don’t want to risk their less-efficient money on. (Don’t read into that that Library Juice Press has lower standards than other publishers in the field. On the contrary, we have directed several projects to better-known publishers over quality concerns, who have taken them on.)
All of this is to introduce a link to an old article that is now freely available on the web: “To Remember Ralph Shaw,” from Current Contents #23, June 5, 1978. I am not sure why the library at U Penn has posted the article, but I’m glad that they did. The article is from Eugene Garfield’s regular column, titled, “Essays of an Information Scientist.” (Eugene Garfield founded ISI.)
Authors: Michael Bugeja and Daniela Dimitrova Price: $18.00 Published: Summer 2010 ISBN: 978-1-936117-14-7
Printed on acid-free paper
A decade ago, most research was done in the library rather than through its Web site, and scholars, editors, graduate directors and librarians were meticulous about the integrity of footnotes. They knew that citation was the backbone of research, from agronomy to zoology in the sciences and from art history to Zen studies in the humanities. The footnote upheld standards because it allowed others to test hypotheses or replicate experiments. In sum, the footnote safeguarded scientific method and peer review upon which academe is based, from papers by first-year and transfer students to books by postdoc and professor.
Since 2003, authors Michael Bugeja and Daniela Dimitrova (Iowa State University of Science and Technology) have been at the forefront of research on the erosion of online footnotes and its implication for scholarship. Their research has been showcased in The Chronicle of Higher Education and a number of academic journals, including The Serials Librarian, portal: Libraries and the Academy, New Media and Society and Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, among others. Their book documents the vanishing act in flagship communication journals and provides readers with methods to mitigate the effect.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University where he also serves on the board of the Institute of Science and Society. He is the author of 20 books, including the acclaimed Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005) and Living Ethics across media platforms, and writes for several magazines, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. His comments about ethics appear in Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Quill, Editor & Publisher and other publications.
Dr. Dimitrova’s research focuses on Information and Communication Technologies, Internet Diffusion, and Political Communication (ICTs). Her dissertation examined Internet adoption in the post-communist countries and proposed a multidimensional framework to predict Internet diffusion globally. Another interest is online news coverage of conflict (wars and terrorist attacks).
Editors: Toni Samek, Moyra Lang and K.R. Roberto Price: $30.00 Published: June 2010 ISBN: 978-0-9802004-9-2
Printed on acid-free paper
She Was a Booklegger: Remembering Celeste West is a compilation of reflections and tales from friends and other admirers who were influenced and inspired by this larger than life feminist librarian, lesbian, publisher, and activist. Celeste passed away in San Francisco on January 3, 2008 at the age of 65. She was a pioneering progressive librarian and one of the founders of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), Booklegger Press, Synergy [Magazine], and Booklegger Magazine. She was also co-editor of the now classic title Revolting Librarians. From 1989 until 2006, Celeste worked as the library director at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a radical library worker whose practice challenged established library traditions by encouraging librarians to speak up about the need for systematic change. West initiated questions and challenged assumptions (such as library neutrality) that continue to be central issues examined in critical librarianship today. However, while Celeste released a lot of work to the world as author and editor, not much was ever shared about her as subject. This memorial volume provides a written record for those who wish to learn about this remarkable woman.