Culture Report The fight to save endangered ebooks

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Culture Report The fight to save endangered ebooks.

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A Dan Thompson contribution

Culture Report The fight to save endangered ebooks.
Libraries take on the tricky question of digital preservation.
By Adi Robertson.

originally published in The Verge found on the NFB Newsline.

(Contributed by Mr. Reif)

If libraries can’t get or keep these books, it doesn’t bode

One night in 2011, the New York gallery Boo-Hooray hosted an exhibit of
infamous B-movie director Ed Wood’s trash paperback novels . Woods wrote
the books in mere days and sold them to pornographic publishers under a
variety of pseudonyms. At the time, his novels of suburban iniquity and
cross-dressing contract killers were disposable dreck. Today, they’re
carefully preserved in Cornell University’s rare-books collection. A press
release emphasized the difficulty of tracking down Wood’s
digitization-defying work: “The paperbacks are truly rare, even in an age of
mass-searchable used book engines, and Google ferocity. Boo-Hooray’s
curators went to great lengths tracking down Wood’s novels, but their jobs
could have been harder, if not impossible, if Wood had been writing today.
Like many prolific pulp authors, he might have been selling ebooks through
Kindle or another self-publishing platform. But while paper books might be
harder to distribute, they have one huge advantage over ebooks: as long as
an archivist or collector can keep them from falling apart, they’ll be as
readable in a century as they will in a year. Keeping ebooks in the
historical record is harder. How do you preserve something that can’t be
locked in an archive, sold in a secondhand bookstore, or even converted to a
new format without first navigating an arcane copyright system? So far major
publishers have done little more than flirt with digital-only releases.
Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information and a
strong proponent of ebook preservation, sees this as a temporary calm. “I
believe that that is going to change, and probably change pretty suddenly
and pretty soon,” he says. When it does, libraries will have to figure out a
way to keep them on shelves after publishers have changed formats, stopped
licensing them, or closed up shop altogether. The idea of a ‘copy’ no longer
makes sense For years, archival work was aided by the first-sale doctrine:
if someone bought a copy of a book, movie, or album, they were free to
resell it, rent it out, or keep it forever. Digital media upset this model.
The very idea of a “copy” no longer makes sense technically, just syncing a
file to a Kindle makes a new copy, let alone “lending” it to someone else.
In 2010, an appeals court decision effectively shut down any digital version
of the first-sale doctrine. Vernor v. Autodesk established that you
couldn’t “buy” a piece of software, only at best acquire a permanent and
non-transferable license to it. For libraries and mass-market publishers,
this has proved a point of contention. “If you look at the whole history of
public libraries and ebooks, it’s been very ugly, frankly,” says Lynch.
Penguin froze its ebook-lending program in 2011, citing “new concerns about
the security of our digital editions. The same year, HarperCollins
instituted a 26-loan cap for each license. Libraries often end up getting
temporary access to ebooks in a particular format, while publishers worry
that a single library ebook will end up being shared as widely as a pirated
one. It wasn’t until last year that all six (now five) major publishers got
on board , and ebooks are still wrapped in complicated and clunky DRM
systems. Rare books at Harvard’s Houghton Library (Flickr / DiscourseMarker
) Public libraries, which often just want large numbers of popular books and
don’t deal in preservation, can compromise on licensing. Research libraries,
where books are kept for the historical record, are a different story. In
academia, library archivists can make sure ebooks survive by brokering deals
with publishers and third-party storage services like Portico , which hold
scholarly literature in a kind of escrow. Publishers allow Portico to keep
future-proof copies of a book or journal in its database, and libraries buy
access to its services. In the event of a “trigger,” which could include the
work going out of circulation or the publisher ceasing operations
altogether, Portico releases the material to its members. But the more
adversarial relationship between libraries and mass-market publishers, as
well as libraries’ relatively weak bargaining position, makes a non-academic
version of Portico a non-starter. “You’re speaking to an institution that is
in its birth pangs. As long as publishers keep selling physical books along
with ebooks, the latter can safely be ephemeral. But Amazon has already
begun to experiment with exclusive digital-only pieces from high-profile
authors like Amy Tan and Chuck Palahniuk. (And in 2009, alongside the
release of the Kindle 2, Stephen King published an exclusive digital novella
about a mysterious pink Kindle that connects its reader to parallel
dimensions.) Where authors get the freedom to experiment with new formats
and pricing models, Amazon has the power to quietly revise or delete books
without notice in one bizarrely poetic incident, it temporarily removed
copies of 1984 from users’ Kindle libraries. Earlier this year, Stephen King
pulled his 1977 book Rage from print, but it remained available if somewhat
pricey in the used market. If he chose to do the same for the
Amazon-exclusive essay where he wrote about that decision, you’d have to
hope it was republished elsewhere and hold tight to your Kindle in the
meantime. While publishers and libraries work through these issues, there’s
one entity that can theoretically get around almost any restrictions: the
Library of Congress, tasked with preserving historically meaningful media
long after its commercial value is gone. Whenever an author or publisher
wants to officially register a copyright for a print book or ebook, they
submit two copies to the US Copyright Office, and the Library of Congress
can pick noteworthy titles to store. It also has its own relationships with
publishers, which are willing to work with it in exchange for metadata like
Dewey decimal classification and subject headings. Yet the Library of
Congress is only beginning to address these problems. Card catalog, Library
of Congress (Flickr / Paulo Ordoveza ) “You’re speaking to an institution
that is in its birth pangs,” says Library of Congress project manager Carl
Fleischhauer of digital preservation. He and Lynch are both preoc’cup’ied
with technical questions as well as legal ones. The Library of Congress
works with publishers to get DRM-free files that can be migrated to
different formats over time, a luxury that rules against breaking copy
protection can make dicey. It also works on developing tools to prevent
content from being degraded or corrupted, including a piece of software
called BagIt, which wraps content into self-contained, folder-like digital
“bags” complete with a manifest listing everything that should be preserved.
As troublesome as preserving text-only files can be, it’s relatively
straightforward compared to what ebooks could one day become: interactive
pieces of media that blur the line between website, game, and database. Even
mathematical symbols have turned out to be hard to format correctly.
“Culturally, we still seem to have this sort of dichotomy in our heads,”
says Lynch, between ebooks and other digital artifacts like websites and
games. “We’re having a terrible time intellectually, as well as technically,
understanding what preservation means for this latter menagerie of things in
the digital world. “Think about your ability to buy a physical book, read
it, put it in the attic for 50 years, or give it to a grandchild. Setting
aside the problems of complicated multimedia projects, self-published pulp
ebooks from places like Smashwords or Kindle are particularly vulnerable.
The age of vanity-press books, says Lynch, is giving way to one where
leaving big publishers behind is a “hard-nosed business decision,” but
archival work hasn’t caught up and books can slip under libraries’ radar
especially if they’re not written by authors who are already well known.
Self-published books are harder to collect in bulk than ones put out by
major publishing houses, and it’s doubtful that all smaller authors will
take the time to send preservation copies of their books to the Copyright
Office. Even if they do, the files could just end up as casualties of the
Library of Congress’ culling process. Most of those casualties will not be
great. Many of them will be trash, rarely purchased and quickly forgotten.
But today’s niche fiction and even patently offensive mistakes are
tomorrow’s historical record, and they may be in the greatest danger. Genres
that were considered juvenile or unimportant in their day pulp science
fiction, romance novels, comic books have since proved to have lasting
literary value or cultural importance. “Libraries, mostly research
libraries, missed these things when they first came out,” Lynch says. “They
just dismissed them. Later, they filled out their shelves with secondhand
copies from collectors. But no one will be able to donate their favorite
ebooks to a library or send them to a used bookstore. There’s no market in
seeking “rare copies” of items that a buyer could duplicate endlessly but
never distribute. “One of the things that is interesting about digital is
that it’s hard to be a collector,” says Lynch. “Think about your ability to
buy a physical book, read it, put it in the attic for 50 years, or give it
to a grandchild. As opposed to getting something on your Kindle and
hopefully having it still available in 50 years, and being able to give it
to anyone. Kindles and copyright, it turns out, may be killing the
collector. And even if you never look for a yellowed copy of Orgy of the
Dead or Suburbia Confidential in some library archive, it’s a loss for all
of us.

Weekly Thought:

During My Trials Keep Me Sweet

During my trials keep me sweet
In victories and in defeat.
Give to me Your strength to endure
Temptations, that I may never forget
It is not about me…..instead it is all
About Your perfect will being done!
Use me as Your instrument of peace
To impact souls for the Kingdom of
Heaven so that Your plan of Salvation
Would not be in vain!

During my trials keep me sweet
In victories and in defeat…that
I would remember it is only in Jesus
Christ am I victorious, and it
Is Your abundant Love which keeps
Me sweet, with Your Grace in every
Trial!

Written By:
Margaret C Mullings

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