Fetishizing the container obscures the content, obviously.

vinyl library, originally uploaded by Luke Pineda.

Last night on LibPunk Radio we were talking about that #hcod drama. You know, the Harper Collins-Over Drive debacle.

Lots of stuff has been written and said about the whole affair and I’m not really going there. The thing I’m focused on is the “content vs. container” issue and how it really fits into this but hasn’t really been brought up as such. It’s clear that the current model is not sustainable, but I also think libraries are in a painful transition where we’re all coming to terms to the shift from the physical to digital… just like music did 10 years ago. David Lee King touched upon this a while back when he asked what’s a real book?

I think it’s time for us librarians to get over our paper fetish.

Content and container – the two are really, truly, different. Books are stories or a largish chunk of non-fiction text – novels, biographies, histories, etc. The format or container? This tends to change (though it hasn’t in a long time).

I think we all agree that physical books have to be treated somewhat different than ebooks, but it has to be reasonable to all involved, not punitive. We can all get behind Librarians Against DRM, but I don’t think we’ve moved to the shift yet. It’s not gonna happen overnight. I mean, look at how long we got to where we are with music.

I remember when Napster came on the scene. I remember how exciting it was and how nobody really thought about the legalities. Now, as the landscape has matured, it’s clear piracy won’t go away, but it’s also been shown that a lot of piracy is a reaction to crappy options. Until the publishers/labels/studios make a fairly priced, accessible, and convenient product, lots of people will continue to pirate. It’s obvious.

What’s this got to do with fetishizing the container? Well, I think the publishers and librarians are still doing it with the books. We haven’t accepted that an ebook/PDF is not the same thing. I mean, we know they aren’t but all parties involved aren’t really sure how to proceed, which has left to this #hcod debacle. So I really think we need to look to music. The only problem is that I don’t see how libraries can insert themselves into the solution.

People love iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store. eMusic has been a legal option for a long time. Labels have gotten into the game with offering download codes. What’s happened? Well, in 2010 vinyl had a 33% jump in sales. Now, of course it’s not to say that piracy is dead, but there are user friendly options that aren’t adversarial. Instead, they make people enjoy the product. It’s made it all easier for me to get back in love with vinyl. The sound, the feel, the collecting them like Pokemon. I’m all about it, but I think it’s easier for me to choose because I’m also subscribed to MOG.

So we need to work with the creators and the publishers to find the happy ground where we all benefit. We need to speak for the users.

2 thoughts on Fetishizing the container obscures the content, obviously.

  1. Kendra, I agree with much of this. A few rambling thoughts:

    IMHO in our particular library it’s not about preference/fetish/etc. in container: the crisis is with the print objects themselves. A large body of print materials are crumbling and/or sustain damage from our physical plant. Digital preservation can’t happen fast enough, container is irrelevant at this point, it’s all about preservation. Doesn’t fit in so well with the music industry analogy, but it’s huge part of the library equation.

    Analogy with the music industry–here’s what’s on my mind. Certain musicians/bands threw album/single sales to the wind and now make a grand living from performing. When the publishing industry collapses from illegal e-book sharing, how many authors can fall back on a live performance? David Sedaris, academics who never earned money from their books anyhow… and… not to many others really. What will that look like?

  2. I think part of the pushback is also the perfectly reasonable belief that a book is more than just undifferentiated ‘content’ that happens to be slapped between two covers. Form and content interplay differently for a cookbook or a travel book than they might for a literary memoir, for example.

    Who benefits from seeing a book as merely ‘content’ in a variety of containers? We might well ask that, and what such a view of books has lead to and might continue to lead to.

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