So for those of you who didn’t catch it on Twitter or see me at ALA or whatever, I’ve had a job since May, and it’s awesome. I’m working at Gluejar. My business card says “digital projects and library outreach” — I run the web site and handle much of the internal IT infrastructure and I listen to librarians and think about how to make our unglued ebooks work for libraries — but really, it’s a startup; our to-do list is “everything”, the deadline is “yesterday”, and I’m doing whatever needs doing. I’m the scrappy young thing surrounded by experienced, knowledgeable, smart (and super-personable) coworkers, trying to rapidly assimilate enormous piles of information on often unfamiliar terrain (publishing economics! copyright law! Drupal!) and do six impossible things before breakfast, living inside a giant possibility machine that sprawls across too much terrain to fit into any one person’s head, trying to make dreams into reality.
Well. I guess that makes it obvious why I’m excited about my new job :).
Not just that, though. Here’s a question I’ve been asking lately, and I want to hear your perspective on: what would you do with infinite free copies of a book? I find the answers to this really interesting because I don’t think we’re used to thinking in these terms in libraryland — we’re used to having finite (even when digital), expensive copies — it’s a constraint so basic it’s become an assumption, and I get to watch people start to think their way out of that assumption.
I was talking this morning with Justin Hoenke (a great way to fill up with sunshine and optimism), and he said — tell him why unglued ebooks are exciting. And I asked — what would you do with infinite free copies of a book? And the resulting conversation clarified my thinking, which is thus:
Unglued ebooks are exciting — well, not just because they’re a new model, and building the future is always exciting. They’re exciting because collections are boring, and connections are not.
OK, so collections aren’t always boring. I do value that I can go to my library and get books. I ❤ books! And there are, here and there, libraries for which collections really, really matter. I mean, my best friend, for her dissertation, went to a library in Armenia run by elderly and disapproving monks, whom you had to supplicate with properly formatted requests on cards at most once per day, because she really needed to read a particular 14th (?) century manuscript, and there are just not a whole lot of places you can do that. And thank goodness for the premier research universities and national libraries of the world.
But also, these days? Collections are easy. It is not hard for me to get access to information, assuming I do not need a 14th century Armenian manuscript. Libraries don’t add much value if their premise is “the place you get the books”. (Given the unhelpful hours my local branch is open, it may actually be subtracting value on this front.)
Libraries add value in connections. Connections and community and curation and collaboration, all those other tasty C words: the kinds of connections we can make between, and among, people and information. Libraries can do things on those fronts, real and local and human things, that no one else can.
So why am I excited about unglued ebooks? Because they offer the potential, long-term, for libraries to spend less of their limited funds on collections, and more on connections. More on the places that they are genuinely special and skilled and distinctive and magical.
So I ask again: what would you do with infinite free copies of a book? And what would it free you to do?