STEVE THOMAS: Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guest today is Jessamyn West. She works in rural Vermont as a library technologist, as a community manager at MetaFilter.com. You can find her online at Librarian.net or Jessamyn.com.
Jessamyn, thank you for coming on the show for me today.
JESSAMYN WEST: Sure.
And my first question is something sort of related to what we were talking about before the interview officially started, I talked to Sarah Houghton to ask her if she had any specific questions I should ask you, and the main thing that she said I should ask is what is it like to be an international librarian rock star and work for teeny tiny libraries in Vermont?
[laughs] Well, it’s really interesting question actually because we think of libraries and librarianship as being this kind of ubiquitous oh okay everybody knows the people, everybody knows right? And in the early, the mid 90s I guess when I started my blog, there were very few library people who were also online people. And so you knew them all, and this was true with blogging too. You could know all the bloggers in 1997, for example. But, as more and more people got online, and more and more people developed their own interest areas, I feel like the old school people, and I think Sarah’s one of them, and I’m one of them, and there’s a tonne of people who are in that group. We all know each other, and we kind of know everybody who’s come in after us. But the people who have come in after us don’t necessarily know us. So, I travel and I talk about library stuff to audiences at library conferences, but the fame isn’t really the same kind of thing as if you were somebody say on television.
You know what I mean. I don’t walk into libraries and people are like,”Oh hey aren’t you…”
It’s Librarian.net lady [laughs]
[laughs] Right, don’t you know me? I have a blog! And so with the library thing, I have a bunch of different small in-town jobs, and I live in Randolph, Vermont where I love it. I just love it here. Town’s got about 4,500-5,000 people, and I fill in at the local library, they call me the intrepid part-timer because I don’t have a regular shift, but I work as they need me because I live walking distance from the library. And, they vaguely know that I’m, I guess what we says is I’m kind of a big deal on the internet, but in a small town nobody cares. It’s a serious non-issue when you think about, when I think about other people who I think of as famous, who live in Vermont. Like Louise Gooseman lives in Cabbot, or John Irving lives somewhere up here, and Grace Palin lived up in Versure for a really long time.
I think one of the reasons people who produce a lot, whatever that is, really enjoy living in a place like this is because they can just be one of the neighbors. I think of all my neighbors as people who are famous for their thing, it’s just that the internet has this amplifying effect, where you’re like, “Oh, you’ve got a lot of people following you on Twitter or Facebook” or whatever the thing is, but that doesn’t, that $2 will get you a cup of coffee, it doesn’t rank to people here in a more digitally divided area where whatever is a big deal on the internet doesn’t matter as much here as getting your name in the paper.
You know what I mean? And for me that’s really, not only refreshing, but a really good reminder when I’m talking about digital divide issues at a more national or international level. I spend a lot of time on a place that feels like a place, on the internet. I spend a lot of time in my internet community, I pay a lot of attention to Twitter, I share files and photos, and I interact with a a very large community generally speaking who know me, and have known me for over a decade now, but in town that is a place that isn’t a place, it’s not a place that’s real, you might as well say that you spend 7 hours a day playing Dungeons & Dragons, or something that to them they understand it. But, it’s not a real space, and so that tension I find very appealing. Plus, to me, the thing that’s really interesting is being a person who’s of one culture, and then taking that culture to another culture and talking about it. So, when I went to South By Southwest, for example, and I talk about the fact that my neighbors not only aren’t on Twitter, they don’t have email, people are trying to, “I don’t even, what are you, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
But, this is equally real if not one could argue more real because it’s a more mutually intelligible way to live with more people on the planet than the heavy, intensive, high-band with internet interactions. And, then I come back to town and I say, “I went to a conference, it was an interactive conference.” And they’re like, “What does that mean? You talk to other people?” And I’m like, “Sort of.” And then I talk about what it’s like there and I feel like that’s my big role, that’s where I fit in the world, is being a person who walks between these two cultures and can explain it to one and the other. So, to tech people I’m the librarian, to librarian people I’m a tech person, to offline people I live on the internet, to internet people I live in the woods.
You’re like Marco Polo going back between the cultures.
[laughs] Yeah, a little bit without all the domineering.
You’re like a nice Marco Polo. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, so that kind of thing is really great. I don’t think that I would enjoy living in Randolph so much if I couldn’t leave from time to time and see what people are doing in the larger world. But, I wouldn’t enjoy traveling anywhere near as much if I couldn’t come back to a town where I knew my neighbors and we’re having an open house at the school I work in on Thursday and so I got to get on Facebook and be like, “Come to the open house and you’ll get to meet the diesel mechanics teacher who also is the guy who’s running the local CSA who we all get our fruits and vegetables from.” And I think that everybody’s got their own way to live the good life. Marvel in their mind, but that to me is really part of the deal of it, is having something grounded in the real world as well as grounded in the internet world and being able to balance them both off each other.
Right. Are there other, I don’t know if this the right word, challenges, I guess, to living rurally when you’re such a techy geek?
Well yeah, you don’t get to share that, “Oh hey, neat new thing, excitement” with people in your real life. So the iPad 3 came out, we get them at work, this is my MetaFilter Community Manager job, but not only does no-one else have one here, I guess I have one friend now who has one, they don’t really care. Which is great because realistically it’s just a thing you bought off a shelf, like whatever, but for me it was really fun to look at the screen and be, “It’s so much better than the other screen and it does these new things.” And when the iPhone 4S came out with Siri, I was, “Oh I want someone to talk to about the way this computer can’t understand what I say.” And people were, “Well of course the computer can’t understand what you say, it’s a computer.” So the things that I’m geeking out on, not so much shared by my peer group, although people are interested, it’s just not their area. And, the other issue which has, I mean I guess the other really geeky thing is I have more of a, I guess what people describe as a hacker work ethic. I do the work til it’s done, I don’t have a job that I have to show up at between certain hours.
And so as a result, I’ll be, “Oh, hey, I have to go, I have to do a thing.” And I’m up late, and I sleep late and that’s just a little different usually than a lot of my colleagues. And I think I’ve always been this way, I just think that the geeky tech aspect of it gave me a reason to explain the way I already was to be honest. I’ve always been a little bit of a loner, hermit, in some ways who likes being attached to a community of practice in the library community as well as a community of interactivity and nerdy, nit-picking which is sort of my tech community. And now, it’s just easier to do because of where I am and how I live.
How long have you been able to be in that situation where you’ve been able to have, I assume in the past you’ve had jobs where you had to be there 8-5 this, that and the other. How long have you been able to be in this current position?
I think the last time I had a regularly scheduled, I mean right now I have some regularly scheduled work. My computer classes are regular every week, and my drop-in time, which is where I work at the Vocational High School and help people with their computer stuff, that’s fairly regular. But, the last time I worked probably more than 10 hours a week doing one specific thing must have been 2005, 2006. I had a part-time outreach librarian job with the Rutland Free Library, it was a grant-funded position, it was terrific. But it was a two-year job, and I got up every day and commuted over the mountain to go work at the library and I enjoyed that. But, it was hard to balance with the other stuff that I also wanted to do, which was writing and traveling and that kind of stuff which always makes it tricky. The big question I always have for myself is at the point at which I want to re-enter that world. If I wanted to work at a regular library, with a regular shift, how easy would that be because everything else that I do, I presume I’m home during the day, I presume that I can sleep until I wake up, I presume that whatever. Making those adjustments would be challenging, and yet its also nice to know that that’s, I keep my skill set sharp so that’s a thing I could do professionally if I wanted to, which I would enjoy and I wouldn’t enjoy the breakneck pace of the tech world. “Whoa, we’ve got a deliverable, everybody works til.” The work hard, play hard thing. I’m not a, I mean I’m a diligent worker but I don’t know if I’m a hard worker, and that play hard thing is mysterious to me.
I had a note here I was going to ask you what you do on an everyday basis for your job, and there doesn’t sound like there is an everyday.
Well, no actually there really, really is. In fact, my everyday is kind of interesting because it’s seven days a week, not five. Every day I get whenever I wake up, and usually that’s between 9 or 10 in the morning. I can tell if I’m oversleeping because I hear the train go through. The train comes through at 10.17. If I’m still in bed when the train goes through that means it’s time to get up. Make coffee, go into my office, check emails, see what’s going on. Usually there’s a lot to responding to emails, MetaFilter’s this big online community and one of the biggest things that we do to work there is a lot of customer service kind of stuff. Answering email, helping people with passwords, keeping people from fighting with each other, writing the FAQ, talking to the other moderators, I usually do that for a couple of hours. Go do errands in the middle of the day and then two days a week I go to the school and do drop-in time where I go to a classroom, everybody knows I’m going to be there, and for two and a half hours people come in and ask computer questions. So this week it was helping somebody with a Gmail mailing list, Gmail just redesigned and so now all of my elderly Gmail users are a little confused and need to relearn stuff. Helping people figure out how to forward email, helping people figure out how to search to their email, helping people to figure out. My landlady showed me the video of the tiger that has the little piglets that are all dressed up like tigers, you probably saw it 2, 3 years ago, she just saw it and wanted to share it with me because I’m her only friend who enjoys internet memes like that. Somebody came in to try and figure out, they’ve got an old Mac and they can’t upgrade Firefox anymore, so Firefox is in version 12 but he can’t use anything other than version 3 and now Gmail with the redesign doesn’t work, does that work etc etc. Do that. At night I teach a class one day a week.
And then usually in the evening that’s when I’m on shift being a Community Manager which means I’m the main person who is paying attention, answering questions, answering emails. So I work a little in the morning, middle of the day is kind of my own, work a little bit at night and then I usually play internet Scrabble with my boyfriend and go to bed.
[laughs] Yeah I saw where you had a picture, where you had a 500-something point game of Scrabble.
YEAH, YEAH, I mean my boyfriend lives in Massachusetts, where my family is and so we go back and forth, go visit him, he comes up to visit me, he’s got a kid in High School so he’s kind of locked there for now and yeah, we usually relax with a nice internet Scrabble game before bed. You know I really like Scrabble, my head shot, if you look at it really closely you can see the Scrabble game behind me on the bookshelf.
Is that the new head shot you just got? Or…
Yeah, yeah, just this weekend. Which is up on the Wikipedia page which is nice.
Yeah, I saw that because I had looked at it earlier when I had first talked to you about setting this up, I went and read your Wikipedia thing and then I went back yesterday when I was doing some last minute notes, and I was, “Oh wait a minute, that’s a new picture now.” And I wondered at first if you had put it up there, and then I saw that you had said, “Look, I have pictures but I can’t change my own page, so if.”
You’re not supposed to edit your own Wikipedia page. I mean technically I could probably do it, but I’m really one of those kind of, I really try to do letter of the law stuff with Wikipedia, because I believe in it as a resource and I shouldn’t really feel like it’s okay for me to break the rules, but not anybody else, so I just got a buddy to do it. Which involved having to email Wikipedia and say I’m the copyright holder to this image, it’s a work for hire, blah blah blah blah blah. But yeah, the old photo was six years old, yeah, it doesn’t look like me, it’s in a house I don’t live at anymore.
And also when I did first search you on Wikipedia, it comes up you’re Jessamyn West (librarian) because there’s a Jessamyn West (writer) and I know that there’s a story there that your parents say that it was a coincidence, that they named you that, but you had some correspondence with her when you were a child?
Yeah, I mean you do this thing when you’re a kid and you’re in elementary school and everyone’s like, “Where did your name come from?” and so I asked my parents, “Where did my name come from?” Oh there’s a famous author whose name is Jessamyn West. And I was, “Oh, did you name me for her?” And they’re like, “No, we just knew about her.” And, it’s one of those things you don’t want to press too hard, why fight with your parents. But, I’m like, “That’s weird.”
Our last name just happened to be West, and you just happened to be.
Yeah, but then I grew up in the house and they read her books, so I grew up in the house where my name was on the spine of some of the books in the living room, which was kind of great. But, then when I was in fifth grade we had an assignment to write to somebody famous, it was one of those learn how to write a letter kind of thing. And, we had an assignment to write to somebody famous, and most people wrote to a movie star, a sport hero, or something like that, government person.
I remember we did an assignment like that and I wrote to the guy who wrote Bunnicula
[laughs] How did that work out for ya? Did they write back? Did he write back?
Yes, he wrote back and sent me a little pamphlet about himself that he signed, so it was nice. I had it at one point but I think it got attacked with moths or something and it was in tatters last time I saw it. Oh well.
Yeah, Jessamyn West, I wrote to her and I was, “Hi, I’m in fifth grade and we’ve got the same name and blah blah blah blah blah. And she wrote me back once, twice, three times I think. We’d write back and forth to each other. She’d be like, “Do you have any pets?” And I’d be like, “I do, blah blah blah, what’s it like living in California?” Because of course in the fifth grade I’d never been to California, it was like super far away. I was, “What is that like?” We didn’t have the internet to tell us what California was like, I had no idea. And so yeah we maintained a correspondence for a couple of years which was kind of neat, I have the letters, I have a little Jessamyn West bookshelf of my own now with her books, because I love her writing. And I have the little letters that I have with her. They’re linked up on Flickr somewhere. They’re just kind of neat to have because she died in, I guess, 1984 so kind of a long time ago at this point. So it’s kind of neat to still have letters from her from back then.
And on your bookshelf now you also have a book by yourself.
Two! Three! Two! Yeah I’ve got a couple.
Yes, but you have your new book, the digital divide book, and I saw, I read the, I thought, I’ve read part of the book, I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I thought what was almost more interesting was the article you wrote on the, “In the Library With The Lead Pipe” about writing the book. That was really interesting.
Oh good gracious, yeah. Yeah, well, the whole thing was, I was basically contacted by an editor at Libraries Unlimited, and they’re an imprint of ABC-Clio asking, “Hey, you gotta book you might want to write?” and I said, “Yeah actually I do. I’ve been really interested in the digital divide and doing a lot of research and I’d kind of like to put it all together in a book.”
And so she worked with me and she is great. My editor is wonderful. Barbara Etna wonderful, wonderful person and a very good editor at the same time. And I’ve always been a little bit, Wikipedia paints this anti-capitalist, but just suspicious of the motivations of big business, I guess, would be a better way to put it. And so working with her on getting the manuscript done was great. And then as soon as it went into the big machine that spits out a book, a lot of things became a slog. I used a lot of images that were from Wikipedia that were public domain images and they made me track down permissions, I had to fill out a bunch of permission forms, I used a bunch of screenshots, they required me to request permission to use those screenshots, ALA initially said I need permission for a screenshot from them and you can jump up and down as much as you want, talk about fair use, but if your publisher says we’re not going to publish it unless you get permission, you’re over a barrel. And we wound up with this stand off where I was, “I asked Facebook for permission and they didn’t get back to me, it’s a screenshot, it’s fair use.” And they were, “Well.” And I was, “Well.” And eventually they published the book anyhow, but it was just really weird. They offshore all of their copy editing to a company in India, who I feel like didn’t really read the book. And so they moved some paragraphs around which was weird and they were, it was one of those weird things. They were 15 hours different, so I would send them an email, but then I wouldn’t get an email back from them until the next day and they were very, I mean they were really nice people and very professional, but they made a lot of decisions that I found very difficult to understand. And there was nobody else really to talk to about, I’d be, “You’ve moved all these paragraphs around, now my chapters don’t say the same thing.” And they’d be, “Well, whatever, we had to because RRRRRR.” So there were several times when I had to go back and be, “With respect, I’m not [laughs] we’re not publishing this unless you fix it.” And I just kept feeling like anybody who was less assertive than me, or who really felt like they had to publish for work or for work, I guess, for tenure or to get paid or whatever the thing is, would really have been kind of in a bind and I felt like they. Now I’m a little bit of a fussy control freak and so things like, “Well the kerning that you choose for these URLs was weird because the colon slash slash doesn’t really line up right.” I can understand that that’s maybe nitpicking. But having the URL what wraps to the next line and they insert a hyphen in the middle of it as if it were a word? That’s a problem! A URL with a hyphen is actually a different URL.
Right, right, right.
Which to me is obvious, and to them was not only not obvious, but they couldn’t be bothered to care about it and so it highlighted to me some of the actual digital divide issues, which is that people who don’t live and breathe and speak technology make bad decisions about technological things that then trickle down to other people who become burdened by it. So basically the people who are creating these websites, creating these job application websites, creating these file for unemployment benefit websites and I think if we want to take it back to librarianship, the people who are creating these online catalogs, the people who are creating these business to business enterprise systems that we purchase from them are themselves not tech native.
And so while I don’t necessarily entirely buy into the digital native idea, you know all kids today are born with a chip blah blah blah, I do really feel like there are people who understand technology and live in a technology rich world to an extent that they know what a good website is, they know what a bad website is, they know that there’s a difference, they understand what usability means and they know how to build a website that has good usability as opposed to just the, “It works! Ship it!” As soon as you get everything from the forum to submit and send you an email then you consider your job done and I feel like my publisher was very much like that. They were old-school, print-based and when the book actually came out, which oh my god it was just, the whole last six months were pulling teeth and frustrating to me and again, my editor wonderful. Publisher frustrating! By the time it finally came out, I was excited to be, “Okay, can I see the e-book?” And my publisher has their own e-book solution so to speak, which was basically a chapter by chapter htmlized version of my book. Behind a password on their website where every single hyperlink that I had in my book and this was hundreds because there’s tonne of references, there’s tonnes of citations, there’s tonnes of whatever. Every single one wasn’t a live URL and when I asked them about this because I was, “Surely there’s been some misunderstanding,” they were, “Well we don’t want to be responsible for outward linking URLs that might change after you put them in the book, so we’re just not going to link them.” And I was, “Oh god.” Deal breaker territory, I’m sorry you need to fix this. So they did eventually fix it, but it took a while, it took months actually. And when the Kindle version came out I couldn’t actually get a copy without purchasing it because they outsourced the Kindle production to another company, so the company that creates the Kindle version of my book is not my company and so I couldn’t get one without buying one, which I refused to do. And so I just crossed my arms and was, “Hope it’s not awful.” And they were, “RRRRRR” and I was, “RRRRRR.” And I just feel like when people talk about publishers and their revenue model and how are we dealing with e-books and whatever, I would pay some decent money for people who had a clue about navigating the e-book environment significantly more than making sure that my sacred cow publishers were able to keep bumbling along in whatever way they felt like they needed to. I’m aware it’s a bit of a holy war and I don’t want to get too into it because I’m actually a print book nerd myself, but when we talk about digital content I feel like the most important part is making sure we’re actually working with people who understand what the digital content environment is like. I went to a conference in Maine where there was a guy from AAP, Association of American Publishers I think, and he spent a lot of time talking about the eco-system and how we had to nurture and maintain the eco-system, even if it was rough and bumpy and my feeling was maybe, maybe not. Part of what’s involved in an eco-system is a survival of the fittest over time. I would like to see people making better efforts in order to maintain a relationship with libraries, not just being, “You’ll take it and shut up.”
I feel like that’s where we’re at with Overdrive. I feel like the people who run Overdrive are really nice people, but when I look at the websites that they require libraries who don’t have their own tech team to purchase at great cost, I don’t really feel like.
Not only do they not understand good design, we’re still hammering on them for issues like accessibility, much less understandability to our patrons who have their own concerns. The number of times I have to teach a person how to navigate the online world and then just be, “This is just a terribly designed website, it’s not your fault that you can’t use it. You’re not a bad person.”
It just bothers me because I feel like that’s avoidable and I feel like people who understand design and usability and accessibility can do better and I don’t know sometimes why they don’t.
Is your book available through Overdrive?
You know that’s a good question.
Does your publisher work with Overdrive? [laughs]
I have no idea! They’re ABC-Clio so maybe?
You would think so, but. [laughs]
I think somebody told me they had checked it out. I mean I had to give up at some point and the Buddhist sense of the whole, “This is suffering. I need to stop caring about this.” The whole sense of it, so as much as I’m happy if people like it, I’d like people to read it because I think it has good information. I haven’t really been, once it became available on Kindle, because I did have some people who were interested in it through that channel, I stopped paying attention to where people could find it. I think somebody did check it out on Overdrive, I’m a little embarrassed to not have any idea actually. The latest interesting part of the whole thing was when somebody emailed me and said a PDF of my book was available on one of those illegal content file sharing websites. Like not even on Bit Torrent. Here’s where you can just click and download a PDF of it. Which was kind of great because I didn’t have a PDF of it, so I, of course, went and downloaded a free copy of my own book and then, of course, I told my publisher, “Hey you might want to DMCA these guys.”
You pirated yourself.
Yes. Yes. And you know I feel, everybody’s got their own what do you think needs to happen in the next 10 years of librarianship thing. And I feel like one of the things that we need to do is have a few people who are really interested in pushing the limits on some of these stupid laws so that we can get guidelines for copyright and sharing and content that are just. But, I do feel like sometimes that’s got to be libraries being, “Actually, you know, we’re just going to show a movie and put the title of the movie in the paper.”
And you know what MPAA, you can come and take our library into jail because this rule is ridiculous. Or similar kinds of things. So I told people, “Hey anybody who feels like they can’t afford my book, here’s the link, go get the PDF.” And then I emailed my publisher and said, “You know you should probably take care of that at some level.” And I told people, “You know, this is about how much I get paid per copy of the book, owe me a beer, take me out for a cup of coffee if I ever meet you” because really I’m more concerned with getting the information out there than I am with getting paid. Now, clearly my publisher has different goals and concerns, but for the longest time they’ve been able to just be, “We’re the publisher, our right to this content is obvious, we don’t have to do anything, we can just sit here and the money just comes in.” And now they’ve had to consider that a little bit more. And it’s been interesting watching my personal publisher, but other people adjust to that in different ways. Maybe you end run the publisher, maybe you go straight to Kindle and sell a million copies of your book for a dollar, maybe that’s a better strategy. Who knows? But, I feel like a lot of the current block of publishers being grump, grump, grump, trying to triple the price of their books and stuff like that, that I feel like publishers are jockeying to try and maintain their status and their position and their bottom line obviously and I feel like it’s harder for libraries as an enduring cultural institution to do that kind of adjusting without moving outside their own comfort zone, moving outside of their patron’s comfort zone. You can’t really experiment in the same way in a lot of libraries which is the good news and the bad news I think in some ways. But I feel like we need to be pushing our own envelopes trying to figure out what’s going to work for us within the legally allowable bounds and if it turns out we’re coming up against weird legally allowable nonsense, we should speak out and say some of it is nonsense. I feel like the move to digital content is a great idea for all sorts of reasons, but realistically speaking the laws surrounding digital content are very different than the laws surrounding print content.
And I feel like the people who are pushing in that direction aren’t always so cognizant that the landscape is very different and that we have a responsibility to the public not just the publishers to get something that’s just for our people, not just business. I mean I think realistically everyone can benefit, I don’t see this as, “RRRRRR F the publishers, they’re just total RRRRRR money-grubbing RRRRRR.” But they may need to change what they do and they may need to be willing to meet us more half way. I mean, you see these publishers tripling their prices because they feel that they can’t make the same amount of money and you’re, “Well maybe you’re just not going to get to. Sorry.”
Yeah, I always feel like, I mean they’re, they’ve got their, they’re just trying to shove their old business model and just shove it into the digital space. And the old business model just doesn’t work with digital.
No, it doesn’t work with digital and it’s not necessarily what people want and there are things that people do want, but yeah, there’s got to be a shift that isn’t just RRRRRRR keep buying.
I mean we saw that kind of with the iTunes music store. There’s good and bad things about the iTunes music store, but it’s a sustainable revenue model for selling digital content and we’ve watched it, there’s a lot of people who have a lot of valid concerns about Apple don’t get me wrong, but we’ve watched people embrace this kind of culture and we’ve also watched them move Apple farther from the center. So that now you can buy DRM free music or slightly cheaper DRM encumbered music and that has value. I mean I still feel weird about the walled garden of the apps store and that kind of thing, I mean there’s RRRRRR, there’s tonnes of issues, but I do feel like that is a revenue model that functions and it supports a big company with designers and employees and dental benefits and whatever. And artists get paid, not maybe as much as they would prefer, but artists also have other mechanisms for selling stuff. I mean the thing that I found so interesting in the world of digital content was watching stand-up comedians. I’m really into stand-up comedy, love it, love it, love stand-up comedians, watch everything on Comedy Central. Watching Louie CK decide he wasn’t gonna make a CD or make a DVD, he was going to create a digital file, he was going to sell it through his website in a way where, with no digital rights management and you could basically buy it from him for $5, which he felt was a reasonable price point or you could go steal it from the internet, your choice. And he included a little note, “Look, this is how I make money and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” And he made a billion.
Right, basically, “Please don’t steal this from me.” [laughs]
Yeah, don’t steal this from me, I think $5 is reasonable but whatever. And he made a million dollars in a weekend. A million dollars! And a lot of that money went to go pay back the people that helped him make the video and it was a professional video, I bought it. Now, of course, that only works if you have the cache of Louis CK, but he’s not the President. He’s very popular in a small niche of people and so the thing that’s interesting to me is we’re moving away from, I mean we’ve still got The New York Times best sellers and the Oprah best sellers and whatever. We’ve still got the big things that if your book gets on that list you sell tonnes of them immediately. But, we’ve got lots of lots and niches where if NPR tells you to buy something or Wired tells you to buy something or, in my little area, if Jonathan Colton tells you to buy something or Merlin Mann tells you to buy something. Everybody’s got their little niches and maybe if you can make do with less, because some of this content doesn’t actually require the crazy overhead of running a publishing house in order to do that, you could be a situation where people can pay the same amount and at the same time businesses could be sustained. Now, of course, the big question is what do you do if you want to buy Louis CK’s video for the library. And I’m not sure. And other stand-up comedians have followed, Paul F Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari, they all have done the same thing and done pretty well for it. I don’t know what it means for you though if you want to share the content, both because of the licensing, but also because what do you do? You burn it to a DVD and you put it in an envelope and you just start circulating it? I mean I’m not sure. And part of the reason I’m not sure is because this isn’t the area that I’ve extensively researched. But, I’m a little curious. Do I write to Louie CK and ask him whose got the rights to it? I assume he does. Do I have the right of first sale? I don’t think so, but what do I have? It’s foreign digital content.
Yeah, some of those laws are just like you talked about with your book is that even now fair use is basically, you don’t really know 100% if it’s fair use until you’ve gone to court and gotten a decision in your favor. [laughs]
Right, it’s like the Americans With Disability Act. All we have is case law supporting what it is and what it isn’t and best guesses by lawyers. That’s awkward, so if my publisher wants to jump up and down and be, “RRRRRRRRR maybe it’s fair use.” And to be fair, they have a lot to lose. I don’t have a lot to lose. And, in fact, I signed a contract which is pretty much, “Hey, legally, whatever, I’m responsible if this book breaks the law.” But yes, so in this case my publisher felt like they were had a little bit of exposure and so even though I signed a legal contract that said I was responsible if laws were broken because Facebook decided my screenshot wasn’t fair use, they hold the cards realistically and so they can make that call and I have to just make a choice. And like I said, we arrived at a standoff and it went okay as far as I was concerned, but otherwise we would have just still be sitting here waiting for the book because we’re waiting for Facebook to email us back. And I went through all the steps, I went to Facebook’s web page where you ask them for permission and all this stuff, but I just didn’t ever hear back from anybody.
So I assume you have not been sued by Facebook yet?
I haven’t been sued by anybody. No-one wants to sue me. Although, interesting story to be fair I do know people who have gotten scary letters from lawyers for their use of Bit Torrents so it’s not like no-ones getting sued, it’s just that those people tend to not be librarians, they tend to be people downloading pornography or Metallica albums and then uploading them again to the internet.
I did notice on your, the Ubuntu install video you’ve got that you’ve moved it over to Vimeo because you got a copyright letter challenging.
Yeah, and that was really funny. YouTube, I used a Bosolay song which is a fun, accordion song in the background and its owned, they are on a major label and YouTube just has a machine that goes through to figure out if the music matches music held by the people who care about this kind of thing. And so there was a match and this was back in the day when your only option on YouTube was to take the music down and replace it with some other music. Now, of course, the soundtrack to this little movie that I made had me talking and a bunch of other stuff on it, so I couldn’t replace the audio with different audio. I would have had to have re-uploaded the whole thing and then, of course, this is just my vanity issue because it’s got 100,000 views and I was, “Oh my god, my adoring public.” Which is ridiculous. Nowadays what YouTube does is if they find content matches, they just put ads next to your videos. So you get to keep your video up there but there’s a little ad that says, “This music comes from wherever” and you can click through to buy it. I think some people still get take down notices if really all you’re doing is pirating music to put on, there’s lots of YouTube videos are just like.
Yeah, here’s an album cover, I’m going to play the album behind it. But yeah, so that happened during a hole when YouTube was a lot more aggressive. They’re actually less aggressive now, at least concerning this than they used to be, but I moved the video over to Vimeo anyhow because screw em. But, trying to maintain an understanding of what that landscape looks like, I only know about that because I’m a heavy user of YouTube. Other people don’t know, they don’t know what they can and can’t do, there’s a lot of threatening language that implies maybe you might have to get a lawyer and so there’s a chilling effect because people don’t understand copyright laws. They err on the side of never copying anything and I’m not entirely sure that is a win for culture as we know it unfortunately.
Right, right. So, one of the big things that I wanted to talk to you about was what your book is about, the digital divide. What made you, when somebody, when they came to you and asked you do you want to write a book, what made you want to take that as your topic?
Well, I feel like, like I’ve talked about, about these kind of niches and different people cover different topics. I feel like being somebody who lives in a rural area by choice and who sees the struggles that people in areas have because not only don’t they have access to broadband. So not only don’t they have broadband, they don’t have it at their house. They can’t get it in a lot of cases and the reason why they can’t get it is more complicated than they live on a mountain top. Some of these people live on what’s functionally the main drag in their town and they still can’t get it. And now we’re finding people in my town can’t get it because all the DSL Central Offices are at capacity, so that’s kind of weird. So there’s that one problem. But then there’s the other issue where a lot of them don’t even understand what the big deal is. Why would you want a computer? Why would you want broadband? Why isn’t dial up enough? Why do I care about this? And I feel like that’s a valid way to feel, but we’re getting to the point in America where at least having access to broadband and being able to use a computer, you don’t have to have one, you don’t have to like it, is becoming necessary to be a citizen. You’re seeing your government is putting content online and they’re allowing you to interact with them online, in fact, in some cases they’re requiring you to interact with them online, we’ve seen a lot of states where the only way you can get your tax forms are through the internet, a lot of states where if you want to apply for unemployment benefits or food stamps through the internet and, of course, the people who are affected by this the most are. Who’s applying for food stamps? People without a lot of money or people who are down on their luck or people who are having trouble. Those are the same people that aren’t on the internet in the first place. And so what we’re seeing is a bunch of people who don’t have these skills, who are in this situation where they’re almost forced to obtain them and the only place they can get them is either asking a friend, going back to school or some sort of adult education or they go to the library and these are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, not kids per se. And so the library winds up with this bizarre, unfunded mandate to educate and inform these people and a lot of times the library’s who have already been making do with less, doing more with less for the last 20 years aren’t themselves entirely equipped, whether it’s actually physically equipped, we don’t have the computers, we don’t have the space, we don’t have the broadband, although that’s less and less a problem. But, often they’re not socially equipped.
You’ve got staff who themselves don’t have computers at home and suddenly they’re shoved into this computer instructor role and it becomes really problematic. And I feel like that area, the gap, which sometimes people talk about the digital divide as being that. I feel like that’s really misunderstood and it’s not well explicated. People assume as soon as DSL comes to town everybody gets on it and goes and buys a computer and we all live happily ever after. And it’s totally not true and especially if you look at the urban digital divide where everybody’s got access to broadband, for the most part, they’ve got physical access to it but they maybe can’t afford it, they maybe don’t have social access, they don’t understand it and you see people who still aren’t online. Or maybe they’re online mobiley, but how is being online mobiley different than being online with a computer in your home? All of these issues are really tricky and all of them aren’t really understood very well and I feel like, I grew up in a very tech saturated household and I moved to the rural, I moved to rural America because I really wanted to be a rural librarian and once I got here I realized that somebody with my skill set isn’t a real good fit for the rural library, isn’t a good fit for running a rural library. Those jobs actually require slightly different skill sets than mine and that my skill set, being good with technology and being good with education, isn’t that. I can do other things. And so wanting to write about it because there’s lots of libraries, lots of rural libraries where people are asking why is this like this? People are asking why is this hard? And then people are asking specifically how do we confront this? How do we approach it? How do we deal with it? And so the book is part let’s talk about why this is the way it is and it’s part let’s talk about how to teach a class on how to use a keyboard and then it’s part here’s a million of places to go for more information if you want to read about usability, if you want to read about accessibility for people with disability, if you want to read about adaptive technology. I’ve curated this stuff and I’ve put it in print because a lot of people aren’t going to Pinterest, going to Facebook, going to Tumblr to get more information. They’re still reading books and it’s harder and harder to find books that talk about technology in a good way because people who were writing about technology tend to write about it online.
Right, right, yeah. Do you think you’ll write another book?
[laughs] Not with this publisher.
[laughs] Well yeah and if you did, would you go through a big publisher again? Or do you think you’d try and self publish? Or.
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of tech publishers where I could have a shorter turn around time, who could get stuff on the shelves of places where people would still want to read it and who maybe would be a little bit more responsive as far as dealing with stuff like, I mean you know stupid stuff like URLs and not moving my content around. I have a lot of friends who write for tech publishers, they write for O’Reilly, they write for Peachtree, they write for smaller tech publishers, or even Tor who publishes fiction, but they’re savvy in the ways of the web.
And I see people having good experiences with that. I’d love to be able to bring my editor along and do something like that and the only thing that, at least at this point I would really want to do, is I’m still not totally gung ho on writing foreign digital content yet because so many of the people I want to talk to aren’t immersed in the world of digital content, I would want something that was at least available to be printed. I think a lot about writing a pamphlet series, a lot of 16 page pamphlets about how to do this, that and the other that you sell for $2, $3, $4. And people can print out a really nice looking PDF, or they can download it from Kindle or they can say something something something. But, I really enjoyed writing a book, but it’s a terrible time sink. The pay is awful and as much as it’s been really rewarding to me personally and I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on the book, I feel like there’s other ways for accomplishing exactly the same thing. I’m trying to do more writing on my blog that I transmit more widely, I really like Twitter for discovering new things, it feels weird to say, but it’s true. Twitter and Facebook and talking to people. A lot of what generates content for me is what I get from face-to-face conversations at conferences when I meet people in other places, or for interacting with my students and the things they know and don’t know about computers that I then go write about. I’m not sure if that is translating in the same way in a long form the way maybe it did effectively five years ago, or I felt like it did five years ago.
Right, and you go around and visit a lot of libraries. Do you, it doesn’t look like you go to a lot of library conferences any more. Is that?
I go to a lot of state library conferences, so I probably travel to 12-16 places a year and a lot of times those are state library conferences, or I do a lot of in surface day kind of things. So the last thing I went to was Indiana Library Federation District Six, so ILF is the state organization for Indiana, District Six is a sub-division of them and Michael Stevens and I both gave key note presentations at their one all-day thing. Before that I went to the Tennessee Library Association conference, before that I went to Columbia, Missouri and had a great talk to a bunch of really interested and interesting library school students, which is really one of my favorite things to do and I also do it really cheaply so maybe that’s why people ask me to go do it. For anybody listening I will come to your library school for travel expenses and a burrito. No matter where it is because I love speaking to library students and library school students and I feel like that’s really important, that that has value. I’m speaking at the Maine State Library Association conference. I’m doing a little less traveling this year in 2012 than I did last year. I felt like I was saying yes to everybody and running myself ragged. But, what I don’t do anymore is I don’t go to ALA. And there’s nothing wrong with ALA and I miss the vibrant culture of the ALA conferences, as well as the fun ALA think tank people who were all doing stuff that’s really interesting. So instead of going to something big like ALA, I went to something big like South By Southwest and was really excited to see what the library people were doing there. There was a strong librarian presence at South By Southwest that I felt honored to be even a tiny part of and I met some really fascinating people like Carson Block and a bunch of library school students and saw a great panel of the usual favorites who were not speaking to the typical audience.
Amy Buckland and Char Booth and Michael Porter and Nate Hill were all at that conference giving these dynamite presentations that I felt really had a different kind of value than presentations at ALA, which I also think are useful but I feel like people have that covered. I feel like if I don’t go to ALA other people can go do what I do. But, if I don’t go to South By Southwest or something like that, there may not be another person who would do what I do there.
Right, going to ALA and doing presentations, I mean you’re, to some extent you’re preaching to the choir where as South By Southwest you’re reaching out to new people who may or may not even know why libraries are doing these things.
Yeah, absolutely. I figure library people to a large extent, if they’re interested in the same kinds of things that I’m interested in, they kind of already know about me and what I talk about, but there’s a lot of people at South By Southwest who were, “Digital divide, that’s still around?” And you’re, “Oh god, I can’t believe RRRRRRRR.” But, that has value, being, “No, actually did you know that 20% of America doesn’t have broadband internet, doesn’t have any internet at home at all?” “What?” And you think you’re living in this vast online world and you think if you put content on the internet it’s available to everybody and it’s, it’s. Not only is it not true, but it’s really not true. And people don’t understand that because they don’t know these people because their world is urban, it’s digital, it’s wired, it’s networked and it’s hard to even remember what it was like before you could text people, geolocate yourself within 3 feet of where you were standing, that kind of stuff.
Yeah, go ahead.
Oh, no, But it’s just, it’s a big difference and I think a lot of people just have a hard time, or they think it’s like their mom having a hard time understanding the computer, but their mom is actually college educated, middle-class, she has a lot of things in her corner that people without a High School education, who don’t speak English very well, who live in a really rural area don’t have going for them and the difference between those two types of people in terms of how much they’re online and how much they do online, huge, really huge.
Yeah, I was just going to say that one of the good examples is, again from that Lead Pipe article that you wrote, that they’re still style guides that want you to capitalize internet and do website as two different words and capitalize world wide web.
Computers In Libraries has this style guide where if your URL starts with www they drop the HTTP and if it doesn’t start with www, then it’s got HTTP in front of it. It makes no sense.
Yeah, it’s just.
And it will put, you write for Computers In Libraries your column isn’t online, which is kind of a funny joke, but it’s true. Yeah, and that was one of the things I told my publisher. I require the style guide to be, the word website is just a word and it starts with a small “w.” The word internet is just a word. The word email doesn’t have a hyphen in it, that kind of stuff. And I was, “You’ve got to let me write this way because this is how people talk about the technology.” If your style guide overwrites how people really talk, it makes me look ridiculous, sorry.”
You don’t want to have to say web log. [laughs]
Right, right, right.
So, living where you do and you do get to travel a lot, who in the library world do you find inspiration from when you’re, I mean I know you have to interact mostly online and things like that now since you don’t work directly with a large library. I mean, I’m sure the local people you work with you find inspiring in their own ways as well. But, who in the big idea kind of people in the library world and then outside the library world do you get inspiration from?
Well, Sarah, of course, like Librarian In Black Sarah. It’s been great watching her work her way up the food chain through a series of very frustrating jobs, to the point where she’s now the director of her library, getting to actually implement stuff. I mean one of the things that has been great about being a mid-career librarian is a lot of the people that I’ve been following for now decades are people who have now achieved levels of stature at their institution so that they can actually get things done. So Jenna Friedman is doing really interesting things with the Zine Library at Barnard and being able to be a radical librarian at the same time as she holds down a normal job. Watching a lot of the younger people, the ALA Think Tank people, I don’t know if you know them very much at all, but they’re a group of people, mostly on Facebook, who are very inclusive and welcoming, but who really, their whole, they’ve got two slogans – “Party Hard” and “Make It Happen.” And the whole thing is go do the stuff, quit talking about the stuff that you want to have happen and go do it now. Like have you done it? Go! But they’re friendly, they’re not not boot campy people, they’re, “And let us know what you need us to do to help.” And so they have a really chatty, fun Facebook environment, but then they’re also doing real stuff at real conferences. I think it grew out of some of the people who went through ALA’s Emerging Leaders program and so JP Picarro and Justin, I don’t even know how you pronounce Justin’s last name, and Edgar Sia and Julie, Julia, a whole bunch of nice, younger people who, oh Jamie sorry, a whole bunch of nice, younger people, that younger than me, a little bit, who are really being, “Let’s do it, let’s make it happen now, now! Now!” It’s amazing watching it happen and then the people that were part of what I perceived as the movement before that, which was the Library Society Of The World, so you’ve got Josh Nash and Laura Crosset and Steve Lawson and Iris and all those people who are still working at a higher level getting things done.
And then, of course, Jenny Levine and all the amazing stuff she’s been able to get done at the American, at the American Library Association and that people who have spun off and done their own consulting stuff, so Nate Hill and Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etchers Johnson and Carson Block, who I just met, and I was, “Oh my god, where have you been this whole bio life?” Char Booth is one of the earlier people, Eli Neiberger and what he’s been able to get done at Ann Arbour District Library with their gaming program and their interactivity in their website. And, of course, the people at Darien, John Blyberg and some of the people who have moved, Ann Gretchen, some of the people who have moved on from that like Kate Sheehan. Kate Sheehan has a new married name that I don’t know. Those people at the same time it’s really been cool to watch people who move through their careers and continue to be able to do really terrific stuff no matter where, Jason Griffy, why am I? I can’t believe I forgot Jason Griffey, Jason Griffey’s amazing. Nicole Engard who’s been working for Biwater doing a lot of Coharn Evergreen support. Biwater in general. The Equinox people at Evergreen, Karen Schneider who now works for a Catholic school library and is getting amazing stuff done there. Dan Chednoff who does amazing stuff at the Library Of Congress, I probably need to shut up because this will just be the next 10 minutes of me being, “Oh and Clayton Chever who’s in Boston Public Library and Tom Blake who’s in Boston Public Library and the Coleford guys at Boston Public Library, who were working with Open Library in order to lend books.” Digital Content through Open Library’s interface, everybody at the internet archive, Jason Scott who’s been able to, who’s been able to save digital content. Mark Matienzo who works at Yale doing digital archiving, da, da, da, da, da. It’s hard because everybody I’m, David Lee King who has his virtual branch in Kansas, Donna Ackheart who’s in Kansas. I’m literally staring at my screen and looking at everybody who’s on my Instant Messenger list and being, “They’re all amazing!” Sharon November, she works for Penguin. I guess I’m really lucky because I’m inspired by most of the people I work with regularly and the people who don’t inspire me become these anti-inspiration. Well, I don’t want to be like that, so I should be more like these other people who are doing incredible stuff.
It’s like when I’m making the list of people that I want to interview for the podcast, I think the list’s at 150 right now and I’m, I only do this monthly, I’m never going to get through this all.
[laughs] Well, maybe you have to do some short take podcasts where you do 15 minutes with four different people or something like that. Cause, yeah, otherwise you are doomed.
Yeah I just sort of have it down where I interviewed a whole bunch of the people that were on the Movers and Shakers list this year so it was 10 people all at once, and just get them all out of the way.
How about those Movers And Shakers, consistently Library Journal picks a really interesting group of people. It’s, I feel like we need more real fun awards as a profession. And more award ceremonies that are cool and watching what Library Journal’s been able to do with something that they basically just made up.
Every year people read that to see who the people are and what they’re doing and it’s been incredibly effective and I just, it’s exciting. Josh Hadro who works at Library Journal and Luis Bather, all the people who work at Library Journal. You know, same thing, I mean they’ve dealt with some serious nonsense where they’ve gotten the thing sold out from under them a couple of times and being able to continue working and turning out quality content. George Everheart, John Berry, the more old-school people, Francine Fiarkhov, running the publications that we regularly read. Big deal, really big deal.
And there’s lots of great people we can learn from in the profession.
Yes, no joke!
Okay, well Jessamyn thank you so much for talking to me for the show. It was a pleasure to talk to you and to “meet you” on Skype.
[laughs] I’m really glad we managed to, we managed to make the whole thing work. I’m always happy to get a chance to chit-chat more about this stuff and it was good to talk to you.
All right, well I will talk to you again soon, thank you very much.
You’re welcome. Take care.