(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Libraries

“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*…

Behold, a behemoth…

Take a look at this graph. The blue is Amazon’s share of book sales in the past six years. The orange is where we are headed if their average growth rate (8%) continues. If nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will control nearly 80% of the consumer book market by the end of 2025. Every single book lover should worry. After we’re done worrying, we must change the way we buy books.

Books are a fundamental social good that have an outsized impact on our development, individually and collectively. They move us forward. They have been fundamental to our moral and social evolution, our inner lives, and our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. What they give us is too precious to trust to a single entity for whom they are ultimately just a product, and whose algorithms value them only by the revenue and customers they bring in.

Popular books are so deeply discounted on Amazon that other bookstores have found it hard to compete. Why does Amazon sell books at prices so low they lose money? Cheap books are a loss-leader that devalue books to drive competitors out of business and help Amazon gain control of the market, leaving them with near-monopoly power.

What is lost if at the end of 2025, Amazon sells 80% of books in the US? If one mega-retailer has unprecedented control over what everyone reads?

For one thing, diversity. The vast majority of people will be reading the same top-selling books, as determined by Amazon. On Amazon, as The New York Times puts it, “Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers”. Amazon is algorithm driven; the books promoted by Amazon are the ones that are already selling well. That makes it very difficult for new authors to build audiences. It keeps lesser known, unconventional books from reaching the readers who would appreciate them. It narrows our national conversation down to a very fine point, and sands the edges off of human ideas and creativity. It excludes marginalized voices. It does to our culture what losing biodiversity does to our environment.

Authors and publishers need to worry. Once Amazon dominates 80% of the book market, who are authors working for? Authors will effectively be producing content for Amazon to sell on commission, and Amazon will have control over the terms. Everything we’ve seen from Amazon indicates that when they have leverage, they use it to squeeze the most profit for themselves at the expense of their partners.

Local bookstores are essential to a healthy culture around books. Independent bookshops are crucial for emerging authors, who find passionate advocates in the booksellers who hand-sell their books and can make their careers. They are where authors meet readers, where book clubs form, where children discover a love of reading, and where schools and businesses partner to increase the impact of worthy books. Every bookstore is an activist for the importance of books in our culture; they ar ethe fertile grounds where all kinds of wild narratives are nurtured and grow.

f Amazon succeeds in putting bookstores out of business, readership will decline and the importance of books in our culture will diminish. Books will not thrive without the advocacy, passion, and resourcefulness of our booksellers.

Booksellers are people so taken by the imagination and insights of books that they have dedicated their working lives to them. Only a very special person makes that choice, and independent bookstores are filled with remarkable people. People with enthusiasm and curiosity, who can press a new book into your hands that you would never have discovered otherwise. We need that humanity in the book market, not algorithms.

I created Bookshop.org, a public benefit corporation, to help independent bookstores compete for online sales. Bookshop.org has just hit a major milestone — in the past 16 months we’ve helped bookstores earn $15,000,000 in profit, providing a lifeline for many stores. We’ve made progress, capturing about 1% of Amazon’s book sales. But it’s not enough. We need to shore up the culture around books against the forces of consolidation and big business. We need to make this a movement…

Every Book Lover Should Fear This Graph“; Andy Hunter (@AndyHunter777) reminds us to take our book buying where it matters.

Note that the effect of Amazon’s growing monopoly power on competition isn’t the only concern for readers…

You may own a Kindle full of books, but in reality, the only thing you truly own is the Kindle. Buried in the spaghetti code that is Amazon’s Kindle license agreement is the truth: your eBooks are not yours. You have a license agreement to view those books, and Amazon can revoke it at any time…

Technology Review

And of course, even as we support our local booksellers, we must also support our libraries, both local and global.

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we vote with our dollars, we might send historically-accurate birthday greetings to James MacGregor Burns; he was born on this date in 1918. A historian, political scientist, presidential biographer, and authority on leadership studies, received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in History and Biography for his work on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd president, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 3, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…

Dorothy Porter in 1939, at her desk in the Carnegie Library at Howard University.

In a 1995 interview with Linton Weeks of the Washington Post, the Howard University librarian, collector, and self-described “bibliomaniac” Dorothy Porter (1905–95) reflected on the focus of her 43-year career: “The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows. What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?” For Porter, this mission involved not only collecting and preserving a wide range of materials related to the global Black experience, but also addressing how these works demanded new and specific qualitative and quantitative approaches in order to collect, assess, and catalog them…

As Thomas C. Battle writes in a 1988 essay on the history of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the breadth of the two collections showed the Howard librarians that “no American library had a suitable classification scheme for Black materials.” An “initial development of a satisfactory classification scheme,” writes Battle, was first undertaken by four women on the staff of the Howard University Library: Lula V. Allen, Edith Brown, Lula E. Conner, and Rosa C. Hershaw. The idea was to prioritize the scholarly and intellectual significance and coherence of materials that had been marginalized by Eurocentric conceptions of knowledge and knowledge production. These women paved the way for Dorothy Porter’s new system, which departed from the prevailing catalog classifications in important ways.

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

Consequently, instead of using the Dewey system, Porter classified works by genre and author to highlight the foundational role of Black people in all subject areas, which she identified as art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion.

This Africana approach to cataloging was very much in line with the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance, as described by Howard University professor Alain Locke in his period-defining essay of 1925, “Enter the New Negro.” Heralding the death of the “Old Negro” as an object of study and a problem for whites to manage, Locke proclaimed, “It is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts.” Scholarship from a Black perspective, Locke argued, would combat racist stereotypes and false narratives while celebrating the advent of Black self-representation in art and politics. Porter’s classification system challenged racism where it was produced by centering work by and about Black people within scholarly conversations around the world.

How Dorothy Porter assembled and organized a premier Africana research collection– and helped change academia: “Cataloging Black Knowledge.”

See also “African American Print Culture.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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As we contemplate cataloguing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1909 that a group including W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and Ida B. Wells formed the NAACP— The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– an interracial organization dedicated to advancing justice for African Americans. 112 years later, its work continues.

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“Wherever I found a library, I immediately felt at home”*…

 

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The nation’s smallest library (now closed), Hartland Four Corners, Vt., 1994. “At the time I made this photograph, its entire collection of 70 boxes of books had been sold to a local used-book dealer for $125.”

 

In celebration of National Library Week, (Roughly) Daily is revisiting photographer Robert Dawson

There are over 17,000 public libraries in this country. Since I began the project in 1994, I have photographed hundreds of libraries in 48 states. From Alaska to Florida, New England to the West Coast, the photographs reveal a vibrant, essential, yet threatened system.

A public library can mean different things to different people. For me, the library offers our best example of the public commons. For many, the library upholds the 19th-century belief that the future of democracy is contingent upon an educated citizenry. For others, the library simply means free access to the Internet, or a warm place to take shelter, a chance for an education, or the endless possibilities that jump to life in your imagination the moment you open the cover of a book…

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Library, Death Valley National Park, Calif., 2009. “This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles.”

See more at American Library, peruse Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, and visit his site.

And while physical libraries are closed for the time being, don’t forget “7 digital libraries you can visit from your couch“– and the mother of all online library resources, the Internet Archive.

* Charles Simic

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As we check it out, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“A great library contains the diary of the human race”*…

 

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In 48 BCE, embroiled in a campaign against his rival Pompey, Julius Caesar laid siege to the Egyptian city of Alexandria…

The Roman ruler laid siege to the city and decided there was only one way to break the stalemate and maintain military control of the harbor — he lit his docked fleet on fire.

The ensuing blaze quickly spread through the city as fires were wont to do in the days of wooden ships and nonexistent fire departments. The flames soon reached the beloved Library of Alexandria. It is believed that nearly 10 percent of the building went up in flames that day, although the specifics of what was burned and the extent of the damage are unknown.

It was the first time the library — a grand church of universal knowledge and scholarship the likes of which the world had never seen — was attacked. It wouldn’t be the last… [source]

But what if things had unfolded differently?

Julius Caesar’s Egyptian excursion almost ended in catastrophe. Battles broke out in Alexandria, and from the burning ships, the flames moved to the structure of the great, famous library. Already a good 200 years old, it contained the entirety of ancient knowledge and culture. It’s frightening just to think what dark ages would have fallen on the Earth if we had lost this invaluable collection of books.

We owe the rescue of this treasure to Julius Caesar himself. It was he, seeing that the building with tens of thousands of books was threatened, who ordered the Roman soldiers to halt their attack, and threw himself into the battle against the flames. While putting out the fire he was severely burned, losing his left thumb. It was then that he said the famous words: “When books are burning, it’s time to lay down the sword.” Ever since that moment, the divine Julius has been sculpted and painted without his left thumb. And the Roman salute – the left hand raised, with the thumb hidden – gained popularity as a sign of people who are educated and hungry for wisdom….

In this engaging alternative history, the literature preserved in the library, notably Greek writings about steam power, are enough to kick-start an industrial revolution in ancient Rome.  Roman steamships cross the Atlantic and discover America.  The great historic event of 1492 was the first Moon landing.  Contemplate it in its entirety: “Empire of the Alexandrinas: An alternative literary history.”  [Via The Browser]

For more on the actual history of Alexandria’s amazing library, see “The Library of Alexandria Is Long-Gone – And All Around Us.”

* George Mercer Dawson

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As we explore the road not taken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1520 that Martin Luther burned his copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine outside Wittenberg’s Elster Gate.  The Bull had been published the prior June, in response to Luther’s teachings (which, of course, opposed the views of the Church).  It censured forty one propositions extracted from Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and subsequent writings, and threatened him with excommunication unless he recanted.  Luther refused and responded instead by composing polemical tracts lashing out at the papacy– and by publicly torching a copy of the bull.  As a result, Luther was indeed excommunicated in 1521.

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Title page of the first printed edition of Exsurge Domine

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”*…

 

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A “Pack Horse Librarian” returning for a new supply of books

 

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time…

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. “Libraries” were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week…

A New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in the most remote areas: “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.”

* Stephen King, On Writing

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As we check it out, we might send shocking birthday greetings to the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854.  In his adolescence and early adulthood (he wrote his final work when he was 21), and with his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s   – Paul Valéry

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

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