“The digital audience wants different things,” and according to a recent article Why Big Publishers Think Genre Fiction Like Sci-Fi Is the Future of E-Books on Wired.com, they want fiction. There has been a large push for fiction titles since e-books became popular. One explanation is that the anonymity of e-readers allows people to be more comfortable reading strange books on their commute [e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey (which was originally self-published)] or that fiction lends itself to episodic books that leave the reader wanting to see what happens next as soon as possible. 1 But, maybe digital fiction is popular because it’s being contrasted against the unpopularity of digital non-fiction. Perhaps this is caused by the communal consensus that digital publications are not as trustworthy or authoritative as print.
Is something digital legitimate? It’s easier to copy and share, which is positive because it lowers the threshold to dispersing information. But, at the same time, anyone can post his or her thoughts online in a second, visible to anyone that’s willing to look. Who are these people? Is what they’re saying valid? Supported? We’ve lost the publisher’s role as gatekeeper. They used to be the largest determiner of what was worth printing and distributing. As Derrida put it in his book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:
“Why detain you with these worn-out stories? Why this wasted time? Why archive this? Why these investments in paper, in ink, in character? Why mobilize so much space and so much work, so much typographic composition? Does this merit printing?” 2
The logic would follow that if the weight of the decision to publish something is lessened by not having to invest the time and money in printing, less time and thought would be spent determining what is worth printing. Though large firms still manage most e-book publishing, these firms are offering services for individual authors and likely aren’t vetting every title that goes through their system. 3 The risks of publishing digitally are lower and the returns on successes higher; this encourages publishers to not only take chances on new writers and ideas, but also to put books into the world with less thoughtfulness.
Maybe the fact that fiction has taken off in digital form is because we don’t have to trust it. The author’s opinion doesn’t have to be supported; there are no footnotes to link to or glossary of terms to reference; and it doesn’t matter if the publisher actually screened the book or not. All that matters is if the writing is engaging enough and the right subject matter for the reader’s taste.
Another subconscious concern that may be driving consumers to continue buying non-fiction in print is archiving. There is a importance to non-fiction information and a feeling that it is more likely to be needed in the future. Readers want to ensure that they have the book on their shelf to reference later on, and, on a larger scale, to ensure that future generations can connect to past thoughts and determinations contained within. As Roy Rosenweig said, “Digital documents – precisely because they are in a new medium—have disrupted long-evolved systems of trust and authenticity, ownership, and preservation.” 4 Or, to put it more abruptly: “Digital Documents last forever—or five years, whichever comes first.” 5 Even in our own homes, we still want to ensure that factual information is kept around and we don’t fully trust digital media to do so. If your Kindle dies and all your fiction books are lost it is likely to be less upsetting than losing all of your non-fiction.
One possible upside of the ease of digital publishing is that it puts the power more into the hands of the readers. Not only do consumers push the publishers in certain directions based on their download statistics, but they can also share books that they like more easily. If a book is interesting or important enough to share you can send a link quickly and without too much effort. If you recommend a book to someone and they don’t like it, it wont be thrown out or kept on a shelf forever, a file is just deleted, so the information flow can be stopped just as easily.
Maybe this how it will be determined which published materials to archive in the digital sphere: whatever lasts. Whatever is handed from person to person, device to device, is reformatted with each upgrade. If it makes it through the social/collective hand-me-down for , say, ten years then it’s important enough to know in the future. Kind of a throw-it-out-and-see-what-sticks approach to archiving, similar to the approach the publishers seem to be taking with their distribution: “Digital publishing also allows books to go to market much more quickly than printed books, and offers publishers the benefit of both rapid consumer feedback and the ability to adapt to reader response.” 6
But if that’s the case, that power is still limited to those that can access digital collections, which is likely causing a further increase in the economic gap of knowledge. If you don’t have an e-reader or an internet connection, you aren’t able to consume or share digital-only materials and your voice isn’t a part of the conversation. “When something is rare or limited to a select number of individuals, such as an educational degree or cultural artifact, it has effective symbolic capital and provides the holder with a degree of symbolic power.” 7 So if the power of deciding what to publish moves more away from the publishers, it’s still moving to only a subsection of society, the section that can afford digital readers. Even though libraries now offer e-books to check out, very few of them also check out e-readers.
The popularity of digital publishing is increasing rapidly and encourages traditional publishers and self-publishers to try new things and allows them to receive consumer feedback faster, but readers don’t seem as eager to consume non-fiction text digitally and are favoring the fiction genres in digital form. Over time, as iPads and tablets become the norm, and more textbooks are distributed digitally, it’s safe to assume that non-fiction digital sales will increase. Digital writing will become more trustworthy and authentic as it becomes more normalized . It will be interesting to see how long it takes for non-fiction digital sales to catch up.
The No Child Left Behind Act was introduced by the Bush Administration back in 2001 and went into effect in 2002. The stated intention was to hold schools and teachers accountable by developing a standardized test for each state to ensure that students were learning what was necessary before graduation from high school. Schools whose students did not meet the approved standards with their test scores would be subject to “federally mandated interventions”1, which usually take the form of budget cuts. Many teachers said, prior to the law passing, that this would cause a lot of formulaic teaching in the classroom and an extreme emphasis on math and reading. Unfortunately, in the years since 2002, they were proved to be correct.
In Steven Bell’s Library Journal article entitled No Child Left Behind Comes to Campus he highlights that the students entering universities now are largely the result of the formulaic teaching that resulted from No Child Left Behind.2 The freshman that entered college this year would have been in 2nd or 3rd grade when the law went into effect, meaning that if they were within the public school system, the vast majority of their education has been dictated by the questions in their state’s standardized test. This is all besides the larger issue that the tests, and therefore student results, are different across each state. How is an admissions officer in any state supposed to compare a Michigan student’s scores against a California student’s?
The test has had an affect on public school libraries as well. Not only do the budget cuts for low-performance schools automatically mean cuts in the library’s spending budget, it also means that librarians could be sacrificed in order to keep a classroom teacher that can teach to the test. And though the test emphasizes reading, it doesn’t encourage library use or information literacy. University librarians are actually being forewarned that the students they will be receiving soon will have very little knowledge of how to write a proper research paper, let alone how to find their way around the stacks and resources the library has.2
Though there are no blatant indications of censorship or threats to access to information, it’s surprising that librarians, even non-academic, have not had a larger reaction to this law from the start. As André Cossette highlights in his essay Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, one of the major roles of librarians is as an educator.3 The No Child Left Behind Act is both inhibiting students from learning analytical thinking, but also discouraging the discovery of new and varying information. Information that could be found in their library. Steven Joyce would agree that librarians should be a loud voice in this conversation because they not only have opinions on information access, intellectual freedom and literacy, but also exist in the social and political realm and cannot be separated from it.4
Though many librarians outside of the school system, may think that the No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t affect them, or that it isn’t their place to stick their noses—whether out of a belief of the necessity of remaining a neutral librarian or general apathy—they might soon be seeing the effects in their own libraries. If younger generations aren’t being taught the importance of libraries and the information they can provide, they are very unlikely to use them as they get older. As Wedgeworth put it, “If librarians decide that the issues vital to society are irrelevant to librarians as librarians, then society may find that librarians are irrelevant to it.”5 Luckily, university-level librarians may be able to undo some of the damage that has been done in middle and high school, since they don’t have to answer to a standardized test (yet), but not only does this put a lot of pressure on those librarians to educate a massive group of students, but it also misses those students that don’t continue on to higher education.
The No Child Left Behind Act now appears to be failing all over the country. Texas, the state that the principles of the Act were based on, has just been granted a waiver allowing more wiggle room on how to measure the student’s achievements “in exchange for a state plan to prepare students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership.”1 But, wait, wasn’t that supposed to be what the No Child Left Behind Act encouraged? Texas isn’t the only state that has requested a waiver, forty-one states and Washington DC have as well.1 So, it appears that the Act isn’t working. As the standards have increased over the years, more and more schools have failed to reach the standards and have had their funding cut as a result. At this point, not only are the students failing, the schools are as well.
The law has been up for renewal since 2007, but congress hasn’t addressed it at all, which is why the Obama Administration is issuing so many waivers.1 It seems that now would be a good time for librarians to to take a stand against this, because, as Robert Jensen would say, not speaking up is the same as supporting the oppressor.6
1. Associated Press. (2013, September 30). Feds Grant Texas No Child Left Behind Waiver. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2013/09/30/us/politics/ap-us-education-waiver-texas.html?ref=nochildleftbehindact&_r=0 ↩
2. Bell, S. (2013, March 20). No Child Left Behind Comes to Campus. The Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/03/opinion/steven-bell/no-child-left-behind-comes-to-campus-from-the-bell-tower/ ↩
3. Cossette, A. (2009). Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. (Litwin, R., Trans.). Deluth, MN: Library Juice Press. (Original work published 1976)↩
4. Joyce, S. (1998). A Few Gates Redux: An Examination of the Social Responsibilities Debate in the Early 1970s and 1990s. In Lewis, Alison (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality (pp. 33-65). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 35. ↩
5. Ibid., 43↩
6. Jensen, R. (2004). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. In Lewis, Alison (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 91.↩