Libraries in a Digital Age: Books as a Service

25 August 2013 in Future of Publishing | Comments (0)

I attended Media Evolution in Malmo, Sweden last week. It’s only the second time I’ve been to Sweden. I like Sweden. This was a lively and wide-ranging conference, with sessions on topics as diverse as Space Hacks and How We Learn. I’d been invited by Jonas Lennermo of - to speak during a two-hour strand on Libraries in a Digital Age. Publit published a manifesto for the conference, also called Libraries in a Digital Age, which isn’t online yet, but which contains their plan for The Swedish Model, a new digital platform where libraries and publishers can collaborate on the provision of e-books to readers – (there’s a summary of The Swedish Model here on The Literary Platform. What follows is a mish-mash of thoughts and ideas sparked by the conference.

The panel was very interesting – much of the conference was live-streamed an then archived, including James Bridle’s elegant keynote: you can see all the sessions, even mine, here. Richard Nash, editor and publisher, now of Small Demons, was also on my panel. His talk, ‘On the Business of Literature’, was a version of a piece he wrote for the Virginia Quarterly earlier this year, (also included in the Publit manifesto), where he argues that the ‘publisher is an orchestrator in the world of book culture, not a machine for sorting manuscripts’. In his talk he took his arguments a few steps further. When we buy an e-book, we don’t actually buy it, we license the right to read it; if we are licensing our reading material, e-books are no longer artefacts, but a service.  Nash quotes Peggy Nelson, who states that readers and writers aren’t types of people, but that reading and writing are types of behaviour. And once you begin to think of reading as a behaviour, and supplying e-books as a service, you can then begin to think about reading in terms of current developments around life-logging and ‘the quantified self’ – the business of people measuring, logging, and assessing their own data. I know a lot of people now who wear armbands that collect data on how many steps they take, how many calories they burn, and how well they sleep. Would it be useful or interesting to be able to add data on how we read, what we read, how we discuss what we read, to this dataflow?

Data and privacy is a rather large subject at the moment (!). In his keynote Bridle discussed how public discourse and debate around data and privacy is a decade behind the technology itself; he used the recent example of the rubbish bins in the City of London that turned out to be capturing data from the phones of passers-by.  The idea that people might not want their private data captured in this manner doesn’t seem to have occurred to the technologists and city planners involved in implementing these bins; Bridle said he thought the bins would be removed but that, in a way, he’d prefer it if they were not, but instead, became a focus for debate. 

Amazon captures a vast amount of data about how people read the e-books Amazon licenses to us; it would be an interesting thing if readers and writers – or those among us who exhibit reading and writing behaviours – could access that data. Damian Walter’s recent piece in the Guardian, Who Owns the Networked Future of Reading?, states, ‘Readmill and other indie developers might yet deliver the future of reading back in to the hands of readers and writers. But if this utopian ideal is to become a reality, we’re going to have to rethink what it means to own a book, or any kind of information, even if you created it. Issues such as piracy and filesharing suggest the principle of ownership and the highest potential of our information revolution are not compatible.’

Piracy came up over and over again at Media Evolution, in particular the Swedish tribe, Pirate Bay. Peter Sunde, one of the founders of Pirate Bay, spoke via Skype from a secret location; he claimed that sometimes more than half the traffic on the entire internet is going through Pirate Bay. His talk was entertaining and not without controversy (he stated that ‘copying’ is not ‘theft’ and that ‘Disney are the real content thieves’). He talked about Flattr, a platform Pirate Bay has developed that simplifies paying creators for their work, enabling people to make micro-payments to creators whose work they ‘like’ online; he said that ‘distributing money online is as difficult as distributing content’. Sebastian Posth, another speaker on my panel, told us that there is a German e-book pirate site that is so successful they’ve begun offering a monthly paid e-book subscription service; a librarian from Stockholm’s Digital Library said that he has 5000 DVDs in his collection that no one ever borrows because ‘why would they when they can get everything more quickly, more easily, from Pirate Bay’? 

Some of the most interesting experiments in libraries have been around local, or community, publishing. For me, the most interesting approach to the extraordinary rise of self-publishing is to think of self-publishing as a new form of participatory social media, and self-publishing as part of the quantified self movement. In this context, rethinking books as a service, and the book data we generate as readers, as part of the quantified self, could be fruitful territory for writers and publishers (or people who exhibit writing and publishing behaviours!). Is the role of the library of the future to move beyond containing content to helping people develop themselves as readers, writers, and, perhaps, publishers; is the library also an orchestrator in the world of book culture?