Authors, Books, Business Models, Experimentation, Reading, Social Role, Technology, Tools, Usability

Stick to Your Ribs: The Library With No Books In It

(Editor’s Note: This post is being republished to coincide with the launch of the Digital Public Library,)

Empty Shelves

Empty Shelves (Photo credit: Dominic’s pics)

The recent unlocking of a sealed vault at the Schroedinger Archive has brought a great buzz of interest within the scholarly community. Sealed for over 50 years, the vault contains a large and surprising collection of documents. It is unknown who sealed these documents into the vault, nor is the provenance of many of the materials self-evident.

Particularly puzzling is a collection of short fabulist fiction, most of which concerns matters of scholarly communications. The authorship of these tales is unknown, though there is speculation that these may be “lost” works of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino. I am myself doubtful of these attributions, as a great number of anachronisms make it impossible for either man to have written these particular tales. For example, there are numerous references to information technology that was not even invented until long after the deaths of these authors, and in one story, the narrator speaks of sleeping overnight while waiting in line to purchase the very first iPhone 6, a product that has not even been announced at the present day. There are anomalies here that are hard to explain, but the good news is that some of the top researchers in the field are studying this now and promise that a number of publications on the Schroedinger phenomenon will appear shortly. Librarians everywhere will eagerly run to purchase them.

The short fiction is itself surrounded by a miscellany of apparently unrelated documents: a Zemblan translation of the Declaration of Independence; an original poster for the Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete dated July 6, 1957, featuring the Quarry Men; a braille edition of a report on the National Digital Infrastructure Project; etc.

Among these documents is one that at least superficially appears to be related to the fables, the transcript of a “subversive proposal” purporting to outline a progressive path for scholarly communications, but this peculiar document is dated June 27, 1994, over 30 years after the vault was sealed. Perhaps the aim of making research information available freely to all users is not bounded by even the space-time continuum.

Why these documents and not others is unknown. But it is the stories and not the historical artifacts that have excited the most attention.

The short fables cover a broad area. In “We Are All Such Good People Here” an academic community takes a vow to eschew material gain and publishes research material without compensation. The story takes a curious turn when it is concluded that even recognition as an author is an inappropriate act of self-aggrandizement. The community thus decides that all future publication will be anonymous. But deprived of both income and reputation, few authors continue to write and publish.  In a short period of time, the activities of the research community come to a silent halt.

In “The Man Who Read Everything” a scholar at the Laurence Sterne Institute resolves to study every single document in his field regardless of where it was first published. Acknowledging the sheer amount of material to cover, he invents a potion that enables him to work for years without sleeping. But his determination to read everything proves to be his undoing, as even in his own narrow field, the amount of new material continues to grow at a pace faster than he can consume it.

There are other small gems to be found here — “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for an OPAC”; “Financing Third World Development through Inter-library Loan”; “The Meta-Meta-Metadata Problem” — but the most notable (and the longest) tale is “The Library with No Books in It.”

The library has no books not because the print collection has been converted entirely to digital editions but because the library has no texts of any kind, print or digital, for anything published since the autumn of 1993.  For works published prior to that date, what one character calls “the dawn of Mosaic,” the librarians work assiduously:  cataloguing texts, carefully preserving both print and digital materials, establishing copious layers of metadata, and attending conferences. But for later works the library stumbled on the unintended consequences of a plan to create an uber-library, a library of libraries that would contain all texts, which would be available to all users.

The uber-library began with the simple plan to collect digital copies of all books. A budget was established to acquire these titles, and publishers of all kinds made their works available, though some grumbled initially about the pricing, which they thought was very low. They successfully countered this by putting certain usage restrictions on the digital copies. Thus a book in the library was theoretically available to everyone everywhere, but only one person could read it at a time. At first this did not present a large problem, as many of the books were on highly specialized topics.

The first unexpected development derived from the fact that the library did indeed have a budget and a mandate to spend the money — as one would expect. But a number of publishers perceived that this money could be diverted to new publications — in effect, the library had created an entirely new market, unconnected to the reading proclivities of the public. And since the library wanted to include everything that could be considered intelligent and respectable (and who was to judge what was not?), the volume of works published soared. This in turn put strains on the librarians’ ability to be selective, which resulted in their purchasing titles in bulk, curated by vendors. The vendors naturally sought to increase the size of their aggregations, which led to yet another increase in the number of publications — all because of the guarantee that every book would find a willing buyer.  Over time even the considerable budgets of the uber-library were pushed to their limits, triggering a crisis.

Meanwhile, the library’s patrons — that is, everybody — came to resent the long wait to get access to certain titles. Waiting for a book to reenter circulation was nothing new to anyone who had used a library before, but the wait at a local institution (a public or university library) was nothing compared to how long it would take for something to become available when the library’s constituency was literally coextensive with the global population. Key texts in medicine could take years to become available; works on an impending political crisis would not become available until after a coup d’etat; and new guidelines on food safety entered circulation only after the deaths of children by food poisoning. While many frustrated patrons turned to commercial sources for the publications, those in charge of the library lobbied hard for legislation to require that the limitation on the number of users per title be lifted.

Thus it came to pass that a book that was placed in the library could be instantly accessed by anyone anywhere at no cost to the user. The new policies of the library were an outstanding success. Usage grew and grew. It was to be a new golden age for literacy and a knowledge-based society.

But in a curious plot twist, the people who actually created and invested in these works began to realize that the ubiquity of access from the uber-library was taking a toll on other means by which people historically had acquired books. The fact is that the library had done an amazing job — no one would even think of getting a book anywhere but from the library.

With the number of titles continuing to grow and the downward pressure on the library’s budget increasing, the publishers began to have second thoughts about the desirability of the library. Few could continue to invest in materials since there was in effect only one customer, the uber-library; and that single customer could not underwrite the cost of creating material for dissemination throughout the world. Thus, after a rapid increase in the number of books published, publishers and authors began to look elsewhere, beyond the world of books. Some became teachers, some went to Wall Street, a talented few became magicians. One disgruntled character in the tale, an unemployed author, cries out:  “The library was at its best when it did the least!”

This is a tale with many surprising reversals. At the end of the story, those responsible for the library rejoice, as they no longer need to be troubled by new books to consider and process. They in turn put their attention to all the books that had been published before, carefully preserving them against the possibility that someone might like to read them.

I may have an opportunity to report further on the collection of the Schroedinger Archive.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

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