LITA President’s Program

I was intrigued by the opening questions Michael Lesk posed in the LITA President’s Program. “Notwithstanding technical, economic, or legal obstacles, how much will people want to read online? And what will it mean to them?” Yet as I sat in the front row I struggled to stay awake. My adrenaline level had fallen down, down, down, my metabolism bottoming out on a serious post-presentation sag from the effort and stress of being on the Top Tech Trends panel, and though Lesk was lively and funny, I drifted in and out of sleep, my head occasionally bumping the shoulder of the ITAL editor.

Every once in a while I would jerk awake long enough to catch a bon mot or acute observation. Regarding the truism that monkeys on a keyboard could eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, Lesk drily noted, “The web has proven that this is not true.” His slides were both simple and entertaining, such as the photo of the flatbed scanner rigged as an overhead scanner using parts culled from book trucks. Lesk’s discussion of the Million Book digitization project sifted into my brain with the image of a swirling amalgam of digitized knowledge thickening the Googlescape with content goodness.

Lesk pointed out that preselection is expensive, while digital tools have enabled cost-effective post-coordination–a theme that first came up at this conference Friday at the OCLC “Long Tail” symposium: “As time goes on it is cheaper to collect but more expensive to select; it is cheaper to search and more expensive to organize.” Lesk’s comparisons of general databases and Google also matched my personal experience (and probably yours): “It is hard to find a query that the professional resources do well but that Google cannot do at all.” Google reins supreme in the area of basic FAQ-style coverage of many topics, such as the example Lesk used of “neural nets.”

However, the sleepmaster sucked me under for the last twenty minutes, so I only woke up for two last pronouncements that sparked my brain back into quotidian consciousness. Lesk, pondering the future of the library, stated that if an academic library’s collections were digitized, the “overlap” in collections would make the public library’s collection redundant. As much as I believe that digital content will change public libraries in deep and unpredictable ways, Lesk’s statement is not evidence-driven. Collection overlap between academic and public libraries is negligible, as well it should be considering the very different missions of the two types of libraries. When was the last time Yale had a Toddler Time?

Finally, Lesk wrapped up his presentation with a call for more and better user education. I nodded approvingly until he used the example of a woman he had just heard on a panel who needed help playing an audiobook on her Treo. Wait, I thought, as people whipped around to stare in my direction, that’s me! But he fundamentally misunderstood my point at the Trends panel: I don’t need “help” playing an Overdrive audiobook on my Treo, at least not the way he means. I know exactly why I can’t play an Overdrive audiobook (paid for, as citizens are wont to say, with My Tax Dollars) on my Treo: it’s due to the complicated Digital Rights Management environment where Overdrive encrypts its books with Windows authentication so stringent that though I can physically move the Overdrive WMA file to my Treo’s memory card, I can’t play the file–and that’s entirely intentional. The file won’t even play through PTunes, a commercial sound Palm platform player that supports Windows files.

But I can’t blame Overdrive or the other big library ebook vendor, Recorded Books. Talk to the ebook vendors–and I have–and you find that if you want to vend ebooks you are in a hot-coal environment where publishers are antsy about piracy–forcing vendors to use draconian DRM if they want high-interest content–while a potentially big contender such as Apple is unwilling to play nice because it don’t want anything threatening its device-dependent cash cow, the iPod. Microsoft, to give the devil its due, is generous with its licensing, and has been a major enabler of ebook formats. In all cases, the imperative appears to be commercial.

Technically speaking, I can consider this whole mishagosh censorship and route around it. I can rip Overdrive WMA files to CD and then reimport them into Real or iTunes. So yes, I can play Overdrive files on my Treo—I’m just not supposed to. Nor is my local public library encouraged to tell me to subvert Overdrive’s DRM. And in the end, before I bother with all that I’ll download some of my favorite podcasts onto my Treo, tuck my Bluetooth earphone behind my ear, and enjoy the kind of information that really does want to be free.

It’s hard to sum up a presentation I largely slept through, but as I stood in the inevitable long line at the fifth-floor women’s room, I reflected that what I gleaned most from the President’s Program was a glimpse (however staccato) into a mass digitization project where out-of-copy books are being converted into online content goodness. It was a halcyon, entertaining, if mildly ivory-tower escape from messier questions of access, authentication, competing standards, and why I can check out a book I can’t–in the legal, not technical sense–listen to.