Guilds, libraries, and a startup

This morning I was listening to a Planet Money podcast on guilds. (Digression: how can I not love a podcast whose staff is even nerdier than I am? So adorably excited about economic indicators, EU policy reports, and the 16th century!) Anyway, apparently the 16th century was briefly a hotbed of innovation in worsted fabric techniques in Germany, until some of the people making fabric noticed that other people might also make fabric and guilded themselves up, petitioning for a monopoly and accreting all the things hyperprofessionalized professions do, like rigid rules to entry and a highly specified career path and wage controls and so forth.

This was pretty great for the established woolsters (what do you call them?) for a while, but had some unsurprising long-run down sides: for instance, as higher-quality but more labor-intensive techniques were invented, there was no incentive for the laborers to actually do them, because they were paid by the pound — incentivized for speed, not quality. Similarly, of course, it was illegal to pay higher wages in order to attract or reward more capable personnel; everyone had to be treated the same. In the long run it’s the death of innovation; guilds immure the system, making it profitable for the established parties by preventing variability. And, as even the most casual student of evolution knows, variability is the underpinning of change. Of adaptation.

It’s not as if the guild members didn’t know the world was changing under them. They just couldn’t agree on what to do about that. And when you have single, inflexible rules binding the entire membership, you have to get everyone — or a sufficient approximation of everyone per your governance documents, at least — to agree.

As a chaos muppet who somehow keeps gravitating toward highly credentialed professions, I found this depressingly familiar. The structure and habits of ALA require large-scale coordinated action — nothing gets done without extensive documentation and discussion and votes (sometimes of impractically large bodies, and too often on a grindingly slow, every-six-months-at-best schedule).

The structure requires collective action, but the culture militates against it. Everyone — or a sufficient approximation thereof — has to agree. Everyone has to be consulted, and everyone is a special snowflake, and everyone has a highly idiosyncratic use case whose incompatibilities with the plan — if you have enough use cases one of them is always incompatible with the plan — can doom it for everyone. Perfectionism runs rampant and — while I believe criticism is hugely important to progress — any criticism whatsoever can derail a plan, because the criterion all too often seems to be that plans must be without flaw. Without risk of flaw. (There is no such plan.)

It’s not as if we don’t know the world is changing under us. We just can’t agree on what to do about it. And we don’t have a culture that permits us to agree to disagree, by running localized experiments, by piloting and innovating and accepting that a lot of it just won’t work, or won’t work for everyone, but that’s not a good reason not to do it. There are, to be sure, exceptions (a library pilgrimage drumbeat in my head, places I’ve gone or want to go: Darien. Princeton. Douglas County. Skokie. Allen County. University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. Anythink. Chesapeake. Doubtless more, once the coffee kicks in.) But they are notable for being exceptions.

I’m in one of those exceptions on the edge of libraryland, an ebook startup — really an “ebook and open access and Creative Commons and new markets and public commons and change and love startup”, but that doesn’t fit so well in casual conversation. Startups — we innovate. It’s what we do. We flail, we break things and pick them up and rebuild the world. Because that’s really really what we are, a “new and better world” startup.

We need libraries to succeed. Not just librarians, who have enthusiastically embraced our ideas, been ardent supporters. (I love the librarians. I’m so grateful to have ended up among us.) But libraries. Because ultimately a startup isn’t just an idea, isn’t just the fire and passion of it all; it’s a revenue stream. “Sustainability” is just another word for “a solid business plan”.

Libraries, with one notable exception (thanks, Leddy!), have been hard to get on board. And they all have the best of reasons, reasons to which I am personally highly sympathetic.

Some of it’s simple workflow, simple rules. They don’t have, and aren’t allowed to get, an Amazon payments account. The people who make the purchasing decisions are at the other end of a paperwork trail from the people who execute the transactions, and the paperwork doesn’t have any checkbox for “pledge to”, and the purchasing decisionmakers may simply not know how transactions are actually executed. They’re public institutions and they have both budgetary regulations and political constraints limiting how they can spend their money.

And some of it — yes, I am emotionally sympathetic, but I will also be bluntly critical — is sacrificing the future for the present. This was a big part of my talk at Computers in Libraries this year — that when you buy a book you are not only buying a book but making choices about the the entire book-buying system you live in and the values it encodes. If you keep buying into the same system, you will keep getting back the same set of choices. Don’t like those choices? Time to invest in new systems. (Say you don’t like them, but keep buying into the same systems? That’s just a convoluted way to say you like them.)

It’s possible the books in our five initial campaigns don’t fit within any given library’s collection development plan. Probable, even — there are only five of them, out of the entire universe of books. And in that sense, they don’t make sense as a short-term investment.

But here’s what it is. You’re not buying a book. I mean, yes, you are buying a book, you are, when campaigns succeed, getting an ebook that you can use without authentication, without DRM, without format limitations, without simultaneous use limitations, on your choice of device, forever. But what you’re really getting is the option of a new world. One where, increasingly, authors and publishers see this as a viable path for making a living, and are willing to experiment with putting out more books this way — eventually, books that are in any given library’s collection development policy. You’re getting the option of a world where there exists an ebook system that encodes library values: privacy, sharing, preservation, access.

It won’t fit on a checkbox in the paperwork. That’s what guilds do — create brittle and unitary rulesets which keep out the upstarts. Etherize the status quo and mummify it in paperwork. Invest in the people who benefit from it, at the expense of the ones who don’t, at the expense of innovation. Trade off the future for the present.

It’s what Eric said, really. We made some matches. Lighting them is up to you.

Wanna set the world on fire?

4 thoughts on “Guilds, libraries, and a startup

    1. Thanks for watching! I think it’s my favorite talk that I’ve given, honestly. It makes me happy when other people want to see it 🙂


    1. Well…yes. (I said they were nerdier than I am. I didn’t say I’m not nerdy. Who doesn’t write blog posts about economics, libraries, ebooks, and cultural change while in a subtropical paradise?)


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