The Future of the Book

By jrobbins


NYU recently hosted an NYU Media Talk of the topic The Future of the Book. The panel included speakers from the publishing industry, as well as the director of strategic partnerships at Google, Tom Turvey, who manages Google’s content licensing arrangements with all print media companies globally (including books, magazines, news and journals).  Google is, of course, the gorilla in any book publishing/library room, with ambitious plans through Google Books: “Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.”[1]  In addition, Google is working with 20 library “partners,” including (in New York) Columbia University and the New York Public Library in their Library Project.


In addition to Google’s Tom Turvey, the panel included a publisher who discussed the growing importance of self-published authors to the bottom line of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing (Judith Curr, President and Publisher, Atria Publishing), an author/producer of television/editor and President of Random House Studio (Peter Gethers), and the VP and Director of John Wiley and Sons Business Development, Global Digital Books division (Peter Balis). All spoke of the need to connect books/authors with readers. As publishing is changing, the traditional progression of a “work” from the author’s brain to the reader through layers of agents, editors, publishers and librarians is changing.  The way that readers learn about books they may want to read is also evolving quickly.  All the panelists discussed the crucial role for authors of self-promotion, and of the power of bloggers to reach readers.


One theme that emerged was the importance of access to readers.  The discussion pointed out that booksellers are contracting, advertising in traditional print media reaches fewer readers. As stated above, Google’s project, ambitious in scope, proposes to put ALL books in a keyword-searchable form, with access to Tables of Contents and preview pages available.  Turvey said that Google has expanded into 30 countries with this effort.  He talked about the difficulties that arise when the different members of the project lack international cataloging standards.[2]


The primary concern cited by the panelists revolved around finding new ways to connect readers to their audience. A growing number of authors begin by expanding their online recognition, working the social media by blogging, tweeting and Facebook.  These authors frequently self-publish.  Once they demonstrate that they have an extensive following that buys their books, they can get a publisher interested in their work.  A publisher can leverage that public exposure and interested, loyal fan base by becoming the author’s publisher and by searching for other outlets such as television and film for the author’s work.  Atria’s publisher spoke of working to create a “community” of self-published authors and their readers as a way to publicize and sell more books.  Random House Studio’s Gethers spoke of the importance of flexibility in selling and marketing authors.  His company has increased the types of projects to which authors can be attached.  Random House is aggressively seeking television, documentary and fiction film projects for their authors. One cookery blogger became a self-published cookbook author and then a Random House author with a cable-based cooking show.


Some of these trends in publishing appear to democratize publishing by allowing pathways for more authors to directly reach readers, without the (arguably elitist) intervention of the gatekeepers of the corporate media world and the libraries.  In a world without gatekeepers, though, the amount of published material increases and guidance for readers by their traditional “curators” like booksellers and librarians becomes harder to find.  The difficulty becomes the evaporation of a crucial part of reader engagement: trust. Few publishers have built that trust directly with readers; Gethers mentioned Penguin UK and Harlequin as examples of publishers who have done so.


It is easy to imagine readers becoming increasingly reliant on Google-style searches to find books and access them, either by buying them or by borrowing them, either as e-books or as printed books.  Libraries are under pressure to provide comparable search capacity in their catalogs, and private vendors already are available to contract those services for libraries.[3]  It seems highly likely that book-related searches will be treated as highly valuable information commodities by Google, by publishers or other corporate interests and even, possibly, by libraries.  While libraries have, in the past, resisted the pressure to reveal to the government the nature of library user’s book searches and borrowing histories, pressure may mount.  In Liquid Surveillance[4], the authors discussed the increase in a sort of self-surveillance by participation in the online and remote consumer and credit networks.  Consumers’ ability to search for books and to link to book resources remotely may provide just the opening that government surveillance seeks.




[4] Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. (2013) Liquid Surveillance: A conversation. Cambridge: Polity Press.









Destroying the Archive

By jrobbins

In “Search for The Great Community,” Dewey argues that democracy is not created by individuals acting in intelligent self-interest, or by “democratic” forms of governing (suffrage, elections, majority rule). Rather, it is created by individuals acting in relation to others, in a community, with the recognition that the community’s needs must be upheld. Communication between members of the community is the crucial tool furthering that recognition. Dewey suggests that knowledge is a function of association and communication.

Communication transmits the symbols and indicators of meaning. Derrida and Foucault posit that archives are a way to control the meaning of history by communicating that meaning. The symbols and indicators, in the archive context, are the classification systems, the taxonomies, the tools of knowledge organization. That is how the data or information in the archive is contextualized and presented to the world.

Destroying an archive, then, can appear to be a profoundly rational (but arguably misguided) political decision. Mali, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Poland, Yugoslavia, China, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Burma, the United States, Wales, Mexico and Guatemala, the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Persia, Ancient China – the list of archives or libraries that have been destroyed by hostile political forces is truly extensive. Destroying the archives disrupts the intellectual habits of the community, creating the possibility of a societal “tabula rasa,” allowing new habits to be imposed. According to Dewey, though, the creation of a “tabula rasa” in order to permit the creation of a new order is “so impossible as to set at naught both the hope of buoyant revolutionaries and the timidity of scared conservatives.”

Dewey posits that when old habits, particularly of opinion, are thrown out, the first change that results is the disintegration of old beliefs and the substitution of “floating, volatile and accidentally snatched up opinions.” This is far from the ideal condition to harbor democracy. The political volatility of countries implicated in the “Arab Spring” may be, in part, related to the overthrowing of old habits of opinion.

Instead, Dewey suggests that freedom of social inquiry and freedom of distribution of its conclusions would be crucial conditions that would allow individuals to perceive the community context of knowledge. As Dewey puts it: “No [person] and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone.” It is hard not to be reminded of our own political situation, with a vocal and obstreperous minority of Republicans arguing that democracy would be best served by government leaving its citizens alone. It may not be coincidence that there is overlap between Tea Party members and religious fundamentalists and climate change deniers. Fundamentalists often insist that the Bible be read literally, with no reference to historical context, prevailing social mores or current affairs. Climate change deniers ignore the weight of opinion in the scientific community. Each position prizes isolation of thought.

Dewey, writing in 1927, says that our ability to collect information has outrun our ability to inquire into and organize its results by placing them into their community context. In a presentation this year at the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research highlighted that same concern when she pointed out that people are ill-informed of the ways in which “big data,” i.e. the wealth of data collected by monitoring of internet use and social media, is used to impinge on their rights. Crawford pointed to efforts by insurers to discover what health problems people research online to enable the insurer to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. She argues that a new legal right to “data due process” may be necessary to protect people from infringements on their right of privacy. The immense archive of information that is generated on the internet is being effectively used by commerce but is outrunning our ability to organize it in a community context, with appropriate protections.

One way to ensure that archives convey meaning that supports communities, and thus supports democracy, would be to make the classification systems more open, to allow different members of the community to say what they believe the meaning of the archive is. How this idea could be applied to the classification of internet-derived information remains to be seen.

You Just Made My Day! Observations at the DUMBO Arts Fest’s Urban Librarians Unite Mini-Library Display

By jrobbins

You don’t generally expect a library to be located on a cobble-stoned sidewalk in front of a cabaret hall under the open sky.  But during the DUMBO Arts Fest, that was where Urban Librarians Unite their display for two-and-a-half days, while a hugely diverse, curious crowd came to see hundreds of art installations and activities.  A volunteer with the group, I helped set up on Friday afternoon, and staffed the display on Saturday during the noon-five PM shift with two fellow volunteers.  The display included a bright orange plastic Mini-Library, a bright yellow reference cart, and a mobile hot spot loaded with public access books for downloading.


Was it even a library?  One visitor insisted that it wasn’t – we were giving away books and public domain e-books (not lending them). But Wikipedia says there may be room for discussion there:

library (from French “librairie”; Latin “liber” = book) is an organized collection of information resources made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to material, and may be a physical building or room, or a virtual space, or both.

Anyway, we also offered reference services: we were willing and able to research any question with the reference books on our mobile cart. Visitors gave encouragement – “Kudos to you guys! I’m going to spread the word.” “I love this stuff!”  “Have you gotten politicians involved?” “Get the books to the people!”  We gave away kids’ books to a lot of happy kids of many ages, from 2 to 19 (and above).  And we read aloud to kids all day long.

Only two people downloaded while I was on duty, and many people said they are holding out against e-books.  One woman said the only book she would consider downloading was the Bible!  Our mobile hot spot was powered by software called Library Box, created by Jason Griffey (  The beauty of Library Box is that you can load all kinds of digital resources on it and provide access even when power is out or there is no computer network access.

Highlights of the day included the couple from Washington DC, who said they are planning to build a “Little Library” (like this one: on their front lawn so neighbors can swap used books, a college student who found a Roald Dahl book he read in grade school and went off transported with happiness (“You just made my day!”), and a woman from Dallas who loved the idea of advocating for public libraries and plans to start doing at home.  Plus this young user!:


ULU is a professional group created to promote and support libraries, library staff, and librarianship in urban areas. ( After Hurricane Sandy flooded out NYC public library branches, ULU provided free mini-libraries, and children’s story time services, to areas with no library service.

So how does the ULU service model I saw fit into the readings from our Information Professions class?  If, as André Cossette suggests in Humanism and Libraries, the aim of librarianship is to assure a maximum of information access for the human community (p.33), then I’d say it fits perfectly.  There are limits to what even the best public library can do for its users.  One significant one is that public libraries are still, largely, bricks-and-mortar institutions.  If they are flooded, if the books or computers or other information resources are destroyed, if the power isn’t working, then the people can’t access the information.  Hurricane Sandy shut down a number of libraries – several remain closed to this day.  ULU’s Mini Libraries brought the libraries to the people by setting up their pop-up libraries and hosting story time for kids outside the Sandy-damaged libraries.

ULU also acts to foster another, possibly historical and sometimes hegemonic, goal of libraries:  creating informed citizens of democracy.  Not by providing them with copies of the United States constitution, or the Federalist Papers, though.  At a previous outing with ULU, outside the Brooklyn Flea, I spent several hours approaching folks attending the Flea, and passing by, to ask them to sign a postcard indicating their support for public libraries in the New York City budget process.  ULU then gathered the postcards and delivered them to the New York City Council to demonstrate the potential voting power of library supporters.  As a demonstration of how citizens can create grassroots support for a cause and push a bureaucracy to protect the public interest, the postcard-gathering works.  And ULU hosts other grassroots consciousness-raising events, like the 24 Hour Public Read-In outside the Brooklyn Public Library on a fine, sunny day in June this year, to raise the public’s awareness of libraries.

ULU appears, based on my own experiences with the organization, to have renounced the idea of librarian neutrality, if “neutrality” means being politically non-controversial.  Far from being an enabler of elitism, ULU hopes to foster community and access to information.  Public access to information resources, even public access books for download, and to book-based reference sources, puts the library in the service of the public.  The street library becomes the “third space” that creates a democratic community where ideas are exchanged, allowing the public to interact, learn and take action.  After all, while we read aloud to the kids, the parents had time to talk to each other.  20130928_154236

The social role of public libraries, finally, may depend on not just the library being physically available, but on people (librarians) showing that they are trying to meet the needs of library users.  If a librarian is a “street-level” bureaucrat, in a job characterized by a scarcity of resources, the stress of public interaction, and unattainable job performance expectations, then based on what I saw during my DUMBO volunteer/observation, taking the library to the streets is a good way to flip the tables, bring resources to the public and help keep the public in control of their own information needs.




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