Two GPL Librarians in England, Post #1: Fantastic Manchester Libraries: John Rylands, Deansgate, and Chetham’s Library

Chained books, Chetham’s Library, Manchester, UK

Frank Barefoot and I are now on holiday in the UK visiting former Greensboro Public Library colleague Heidi Schachtschneider-Williams and her husband Gareth, and yesterday we were lucky enough to see two very fine libraries in Manchester:  the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, which houses one of the UK’s finest manuscript and rare books collections, and Chetham’s Library, which has the distinction of being the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

The Chetham’s Library is particularly ancient-looking.  Dark and even a little foreboding, its shelves are filled with thousands of old leather and vellum tomes.  A reading room display even included a bookcase in which books were chained down so as to discourage theft, a practice which was apparently common from the Middle Ages until the 1700s.  Crude but effective, I would say!     

The John Rylands special collections are housed in a magnificent example of gothic Victorian architecture built about 1900.  The collections include important incunables (or examples from the first century of printing, 1455-1500) such as the Gutenberg Bible and the work of William Caxton, England’s first printer. 

In the Rylands exhibit area, I was lucky enough to see the second edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed by Caxton in 1483.  There we also saw a tiny piece of Greek papyri from the 2nd century which is believed to be the earliest surviving fragment from the New Testament.

Also, believe it or not, there was a book on exhibit in the John Rylands reading room which had been bound by a designer bookbinder from Greensboro!  This was a copy of Andrew Marvell’s The Garden and Other Poems; the exhibit included work by bookbinders from around the world.    

Frank and I are having a great time.  More posts from our journey will follow, including some pictures from Manchester’s Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night,  a huge event at the city’s Heaton Park which was held on Friday, November 5th, and attended by thousands.    

Recent ebook Webinar: More Thoughts on Libraries and ebooks

Ever since Ken Auletta’s New Yorker article on ebooks last spring, it seems like discussions on the topic among librarians have stepped up a notch or two.  In fact, things are moving so quickly that an online summit (or “webinar”) called Libraries:  The Tipping Point was held late last month in an attempt to hash out just how the ebooks phenomenon will ultimately affect libraries. 

What seems to be intended by the term “tipping point” is something like this:  though print will obviously remain the dominant medium for some years to come, we’re getting close to a peak for print with a simultaneous shift to electronic publishing.        

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on the webinar.  Participants were exposed to lots of ideas, and what follows are just a few things which I found particularly useful or insightful.  

First off, I suppose a lot of librarians wonder if there are any measures of the real impact of ebooks upon libraries?  The answer is that there isn’t much effect yet, but a far deeper and more profound one is believed to be just around the corner. 

According to Ian Singer, a VP for Media Source, Inc., who welcomed us to the webinar, library circulation of ebooks is up — increased 36% last year — and it’s anticipated that ebooks circulation will go up even more dramatically in the next few years — perhaps 150-200%.      

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who has been a pioneer in optical character recognition, delivered the keynote address.  Placing considerable emphasis upon the notion that information technology grows exponentially — much like the argument Alvin Toffler made about social change in his much-read Future Shock many years ago — he argues that the technological feasibility of ebooks (for such things as interactivity and processing power) is today far greater than it was just two or three years ago.

Kurzweil has helped develop Blio, a new, free of charge e-reader application introduced earlier this year, which can be used with numerous platforms.  Working with Charlotte-based Baker and Taylor, a major distributer of books, video and music products to libraries, there are plans to release a version of Blio for libraries next year with a million titles, many of which are public domain, though some will be newer books that users will purchase.  Kurzweil believes that business models which rely upon copyright must be preserved, but he foresees “an era of more flexibility” in which the “copyright wars” will be resolved.

Of the speakers who followed Kurzweil, I found the viewpoint of Michigan librarian Eli Neiburger most intriguing, though a little scary for library professionals.  Going forward, he foresees a “bleak scenario” for libraries owing to the fact that they are so heavily invested in an increasingly outmoded technology:  the codex. 

Neiburger’s take is that libraries are literally “book temples” with values and physical facilities built around the codex.  Consequently, he sees the value of libraries as “rooted in the worth of a local copy.”  But, in the electronic world, he says, there’s no longer a difference between transmission and duplication.  For Neiburger, the local copy concept therefore no longer makes sense, because waiting for a digital object doesn’t make sense.

The position Neiburger has on the past and future of libraries reminds me of Tim Spalding’s (creator of LibraryThing) critique on how ebooks call into question the traditional role of libraries as “aggregators” of information.  That is, libraries have found their raison d’etre by 1) bringing information together in one convenient physical location, and 2) making possible multiple uses for a single use price.

Both Neiburger and Spalding would no doubt agree that ebooks, because they’re in cyberspace, break through the traditional physical barriers of brick and mortar libraries.  Ebooks in fact challenge the necessity of a whole host of things librarians have seemingly always done:  checking-in, checking-out, reshelving, processing and replacing materials, etc., etc.

The difference of course is that while Neiburger may be convinced that transmission and duplication are the same, for publishers and authors the control of copyright and/or digital rights is obviously essential to their survival.  Spaldings’ view here is more to the point:  the real crux of the issue is how libraries will survive in an ebook environment where they are not likely to receive multiple uses for a single use price.                        

Users of Greensboro Public Library’s ebooks available through Overdrive’s North Carolina Digital Library are no doubt familiar with the problem:  when you want a popular title, you usually have to make a “hold request.”  In essence, a print model for holds is artificially superimposed upon the ebook model.  Waiting may not make sense for transmission of a digital object, but there really seems to be little alternative if authors and publishers are going to make money.                      

There was lots more at the webinar, but I think the idea most important for libraries is that we’re going to have to find and maintain a niche in a rapidly evolving information eco-system — if we don’t, we won’t survive. 

Libraries of the future may need to focus more upon resources which are unique to them and their communities, such as special collections of imprints and manuscripts pertaining to local history and genealogy.  Similarly, we also need to be on watch for new opportunities in information services; for example, urban libraries could develop resource centers focused upon the “New Urbanism” trend toward downtown redevelopment and “walkability” — i.e., the idea that everything you need (work, groceries, entertainment, etc.) be within easy walking distance.  And areas where libraries excel, such as children’s programming, will have to be pushed even harder.

Anyway, a follow-up webinar on ebooks is planned for April of next year.

Grand Openings for McGirt-Horton Branch Library and Greensboro Historical Museum’s “Voices of a City” Exhibit

Part of the "Voices of a City" exhibit at Greensboro Historical Museum.

Just in case you don’t know, Summer 2010 has witnessed two very important events for the Greensboro Public Library system. 

First, just this past week our McGirt-Horton branch library moved into a beautiful new building.  

Just a bit of history:  In 1986 the McGirt-Horton Branch Library opened as a one-room community reading station in Claremont Courts.  The Library soon outgrew that space and moved in 1989 to a leased facility in a shopping center on Phillips Avenue.  In 2006, voters approved $3.5 million to construct a new 10,000 square foot library. 

The new building is located in the same shopping center where the branch was formerly located at the corner of Phillips and Woodbriar Avenue.  This building will be one of the first LEED Certified libraries in North Carolina.  LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is concerned with many aspects of “green building.”

When you’re in the neighborhood, please drop by the McGirt-Horton Library.  We’d love to see you!

Secondly, in late July, Greensboro Historical Museum opened its new state-of-the-art 8,000 square foot exhibit entitled “Voices of a City:  Greensboro, North Carolina,” consisting of a tapestry of first-person observations and remembrances that tell the story of Greensboro’s history dating back to the early 1700s.

The galleries that make up “Voices of a City” present Greensboro’s history in eight thematic sections, blending historical artifacts, photos, portraits, letters and other documents with the latest technology to enhance each museum visitor’s experience.  Multi-sensory media used in “Voices” include video stations, hand-held audio wands, interactive touch screens providing written and visual information, audio of oral history recordings and ambient sound.

If you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, please come to the Museum to see this interesting new exhibit about the history of Greensboro.

“Annus Horribilis” for Public Libraries

Some years ago I remember Queen Elizabeth describing a particularly difficult year for the royal family as her annus horribilis.  I don’t know Latin, but the meaning is plain enough, and I think the Queen’s words well describe the kind of year many public libraries are having as they struggle to come to grips with budget cuts.     

Folks around here have heard plenty lately about Greensboro Public Library’s budget woes. 

But there are so many libraries around the country with funding problems this year, especially in our larger cities, some might get the impression that we are dangerously close to an institutional crisis:  i.e., a situation in which the survival of the public library as a vital and enduring part of American life — dedicated to providing unfettered information access to all — is literally at risk.  

Back in March we heard of the dire situation for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library (NC), which had to lay off staff, reduce hours and cut salaries just to get through FY 2009-10.  They now face the prospect of a 45.5% reduction for FY 2010-11 which would necessitate additional layoffs and the closure of sixteen branches.  Their budget, which in FY 2008-09 exceeded $40 million, may be cut to $17.67 million.

New York Public Library is facing a similar dilemma of over $36 million in cuts and may lose over one-third of its staff to layoffs.  As many as ten libraries there may be forced to close, and significant reductions in operating hours seem likely for those which will remain open. 

Dallas Public Library (TX), as this article describes, has gone from a $32 million budget of just a few years ago to the likelihood of being slashed to $13 million for the next fiscal year — if the budget currently proposed for the City of Dallas is approved.   

Even the Board of Trustees of the venerable Boston Public Library was forced to shutter four branches this year in order to close a $3.6 million dollar budget gap

If you care to do a Google search, you can find plenty more examples of libraries in trouble.  

Of course, the budget woes of public libraries have a great deal to do with the recession — no need to go into that here — but the real shame is that the people who need libraries the most during tough times — the unemployed seeking jobs, the “information have-nots,” the families who can’t afford supplemental reading materials and computers for their children — are the folks for whom tough times are the toughest.

The simple fact is that there are no easy answers for libraries.  Faced with shrinking revenues and forced to choose between the essential and the less essential, municipal governments more often than not place public libraries in the latter category.  And it is true that providing access to information is not tangible in the same way as some other governmental obligations, such as public safety (though the ability to search for things like a job or health information can be no less vital). 

However, a good bit of the institutional value of public libraries is really intangible and thus very difficult to measure, which is perhaps all too easy to forget in difficult times like these.  Support for a robust, healthy public library system is not just about the here and now:  it also shows that a community looks to and cares about its future.

By this I mean that institutions like libraries (as well as museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions) exist as public spaces where individuals and groups in a community can acquaint themselves with the ideas which transcend that community.  Public libraries thus offer us the power of knowledge (which I would define here as taking ideas and from them creating new ones), something hugely important to any community which seeks to grow in its understanding, to be dynamic, to quite literally make new community

This is in fact where the public library takes up the role sometimes described as the “people’s university.”  A public library exists not simply as a vehicle for receiving or accessing information, but also as an acknowledgment by a community that it values creativity (its existence is in a sense a civic statement to that effect).  A public library is a repository for general information, traditions, history, yes, but it is also a repository for the raw materials from which new traditions, ideas, art, etc., will come.  And perhaps above all, its perpetuation and preservation as a viable institution ensures everyone has access to those raw materials.

At any rate, I’ve rambled on too long.  I believe public libraries will weather this crisis.  They will likely be transformed in the future, perhaps in ways which we today would find virtually unrecognizable, but in a free society such as ours there will always be an institutional niche for something like a public library.

The Future of eBooks in Libraries: The Coming Revolution for the Book

“Das Buch ist nicht tot!”  The book is not dead.  So reads a sign in old German typeface which hangs in my cube, given to me awhile back by one of my librarian colleagues.

And while that sentiment may well be accurate, we’re nonetheless at the beginnings of a sea-change for the book, probably the most dramatic change since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  For the “codex” (the basic format of the modern book with separate pages bound together, which supplanted scrolls by the 6th century AD) is at last beginning to be displaced — by a book in digital form.

In case you don’t know, they call these new digital or electronic books “ebooks.”     

Late last month, journalist and media expert Ken Auletta published a much talked about article in the New Yorker which addresses the pricing of ebooks and how this has been especially influenced by competition between Amazon and Apple.  Though Auletta estimates ebooks to represent no more than 3-5% of book sales at present, sales grew 177% last year and could eventually account for 25-50% of all book sales.  Obviously, whoever can control the ebooks market can make a lot of money.     

Auletta tells a fascinating story.  For the last several years, Amazon, as he recounts, has been selling ebooks which can be viewed on Amazon’s own reading device called the Kindle.  It’s now estimated there may be as many as three million Kindles out there. 

But in order to gain market share and sell Kindles, Amazon was actually selling ebooks for less ($9.99) than they were paying for them ($13.00).  Publishers felt this was too low and would eventually hurt their profits by devaluing ebooks.  And they were also concerned about an Amazon monopoly.         

To the publishers’ rescue has thus come Apple and its much ballyhooed iPad, which, among other things, can also function as an ebook reader.  Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs has managed to fashion an agreement with five of the six top U.S. publishers to price ebooks at what is for them a more satisfactory $14.99.  (Giving publishers control over pricing is referred to as the “agency model.”)  In addition, the iPad offers a multi-media potential which the Kindle lacks — for example, with an iPad you could be reading a book and then link to an associated video clip.     

Also in the future ebooks equation is Google and their Google Books project.  Google, as many of you will know, has digitized millions of books.  Though the project, which has ambitions to be literally the largest library in the world, has become bogged down in litigation over copyright and other issues, there are nonetheless plans to open an ebooks store called Google Editions later this year.  Google will allow the publishers to set their own prices for ebooks, and Google’s ebooks have the advantage of being readable on any device.       

How all of this will ultimately shake out (as well as how quickly) is unclear.  As Auletta pointed out in a follow-up interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Apple’s iTunes application (introduced in 2001) challenged the free-for-all/pirating culture of the internet by introducing the notion of paying for content.  Now, much as with the music business, publishers are seizing upon another Apple development (the iPad) as a way to breathe a new digital life into an “old media” industry which, in order to survive, must somehow be paid for digital content.        

Auletta said nothing about what all this may mean for libraries.  His focus was more upon the symbiotic fates of the publishing industry and independent booksellers.  But there is likely to be an effect upon libraries, and it could be substantial.

First of all, and though print will be the principal medium for books for at least a few more years, we have to assume that ebooks will nonetheless gradually evolve into the medium of choice for many library readers, and they will want free access to these ebooks.  But will libraries be able to afford to provide new fiction and non-fiction bestsellers in digital form to its readers if they must pay publishers $10-15 for each download?

Secondly, if a dedicated device such as an iPad or a Kindle is required to download an ebook, will libraries be able to buy these devices and loan them to patrons who cannot afford them?  And if this proves impractical, how will libraries ensure access to ebooks for less affluent patrons who cannot afford the special devices necessary to view them?      

Another issue is the possibility that some publishers (or even authors themselves, bypassing publishers) may go straight to digital publishing, perhaps not even producing print editions of books.  Digital publishing, as a music industry phenomenon for example, drove many retail music sellers out of business.  How can libraries ensure that the same fate does not befall them and the digital divide between information haves and have-nots does not widen even further?

Lastly, even if libraries are able to resolve ebook access problems, there will still be information literacy issues.  Patrons, many of whom may have inadequate computer skills, must be taught how to download ebooks and use the devices necessary to view them.                    

Of the options which libraries will undoubtedly explore in their efforts to provide access to ebooks, one will likely be the formation of consortia.  Consortia afford a model whereby libraries can share costs and jointly provide access.  Even now, through the NCLive network, Greensboro Public Library and most other libraries across the state of North Carolina have access to tens of thousands of full text newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, as well as books and even videos.  And several thousand audio and electronic books are already available through the North Carolina Digital Library

As for the special devices needed to view many ebooks (if indeed the necessity of a dedicated device, contra Google, becomes the norm), it does seem likely that the cost of these devices should drop dramatically over time — much as other technologies such as calculators, televisions, etc. — and perhaps much sooner than we think.

Here at Greensboro Public Library, information literacy is already a major focus, and each week our reference staff teach classes on how to use personal computers, the internet, Microsoft Word, and so forth.  As we move further toward a future in which the use of ebooks will be commonplace, we will probably need to incorporate classes on how to use ebooks and/or dedicated ebook readers into our already intensive information literacy efforts — at least during the coming period in which virtually all of us will have to transition from print to digital.         

Anyway, za book may not be dead.  But it’s changing mighty fast, and libraries and librarians need to start thinking about its future before events overtake them.

Don’t Forget! Friends of Greensboro Public Library Book Sale Coming Up Saturday, May 1st!

If you’re a booklover and want to spend your May Day having a blast, why not come to our semi-annual Friends of Greensboro Public Library book sale?  The sale is held at Central Library, located in Greensboro at 219 N. Church St., starts at 9 AM Saturday, just as the library opens, and runs until 2 PM with a bag sale to follow from 2:30-3:30 PM.    

You’re sure to find all kinds of great bargains! 

Also, while you’re here, be sure to stop by our Friends of the Library Booklovers Shop.  They’ve got plenty of books at bargain prices too!  And, just in case you have some “gently used” books you ‘d like to give to a worthy cause, the Booklovers Shop is where our book donations are accepted. 

Please, if you are donating, we’d prefer not to receive magazines, textbooks or condensed books.  Tax receipts are available. 

Interested in the next sale?  Well, mark your calendars for Saturday, November 6th.

All proceeds go to the Friends of the Library. 

Remember, Central Library, May 1st, 9 AM.  Be there or be square!

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library System Hit by Major Budget Crisis

Librarians and library patrons across North Carolina have no doubt been stunned by developments in Mecklenburg County this past week, where for a few days it appeared that a huge budget gap would necessitate the closing of half of the County’s public library branches.

The library’s problems originated with a $34.6 million dollar shortfall in Mecklenburg County’s budget for FY 2009-10.  As a consequence, departments throughout Mecklenburg County government were asked to reduce their budgets and the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County had to find $2 million in reductions. 

Faced with only grim alternatives, on March 18th Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s board of trustees voted to close twelve of the system’s twenty-four branches effective April 3rd.  Under this proposal, 148 staff would also have been laid off.   

However, following a sustained public outcry — including a fund-raising effort which has now reached almost $250,000 — on Wednesday of this week the trustees rescinded the decision to close the branches.  Instead, they decided to reduce staff salaries 5-20%, lay off fewer staff (82-84), and reduce hours/days of operation and services.  The new hours take effect April 5th. 

The latest plan is nonetheless hardly cause to breathe a sigh of relief, and projections for next year’s budget for Charlotte-Mecklenburg continue to be dire.  According to this article, “the real pain” is coming in the budget for 2010-11 when county officials face the possibility of close to $100 million in cuts to the current $1.4 billion dollar county budget.  As many as 500 county staff may lose their jobs.

Charlotte-Meck’s library system is not the only one in North Carolina with budget woes.  For example, Wake County may have to close their Southeast Regional branch in Garner in order to close a $1.2 budget gap next year.

According to this New York Times article, state and local governments across the country cut 45,000 jobs during January and February, and more layoffs are expected as these governments begin to plan their budgets for the next fiscal year.  

Times are simply tough all around.  And libraries are no exception.