The Sacking and Looting of Modern Libraries

I routinely order from ABE Books, an online database of used book dealers owned by Amazon.  More and more, the used books I get in the mail are former library books.   Recently I ordered 11 books on 19th century Boston and several of them have been culled from libraries around the country.  This is tremendously sad, much like the burning of the library at Alexandria in classical times.


Now I’m not saying people are stealing library books and selling them, although this does happen.  No, librarians are going through their collections and pulling titles that seldom get checked out and selling them.  They are thinning their shelves to make room for newer books.  Many of these ex-library books have the official word DISCARDED stamped on the inside.

Today I got a book The Legacy of Josiah Johnson Hawes: 19th Century Photographs of Boston edited by Rachel Johnston Homer.  It’s a discard from the Los Angels County Public Library that was first published in 1972, and has 5 returned date stamps:  Jul 10, 74, May 28, 1976, Oct 27, 1981, Jul 26, 1989, Aug 8, 1989.  There’s no telling when it was actually discarded, but that possibly means it’s been 23 years since someone has wanted this book.  It never was a popular book, but is that any reason to remove it from the library?  It has photographs of old Boston that few people will ever see, making it a treasure.

Libraries should be repositories of knowledge.  People complain that the Internet is no substitute for libraries, but have libraries given up?  Has the Internet replaced libraries?  I used to work in the Periodicals Department of a university library back in the 1980s and it had a staff of about 15 people.  There was also a Microforms Department that had a slightly smaller staff.  Both departments were always swamped with students doing their assignments which required looking up articles in bound and loose periodicals, newspapers, or from microfilm.  Today both of those departments are without staff, and are self-service with a little help from Reference because there’s no demand.  Students do their research online.

I’ve always been proud of Memphis Public Library’s collection of science fiction at the main branch.  It has several ranges of hardback science fiction, but the other day I went to their Friends of the Library book sale, and found several of those books pulled from the collection and for sale.  I bought The Humanoids by Jack Williamson and The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee.  (Is this anti-robot sentiment?)

I always thought the Memphis Public Library SF collection was preserving a historical record of science fiction for future generations.  I guess not.

If libraries aren’t storehouses of knowledge, then where does the task go?  What if civilization collapses?

I can do a fair amount of research on the Internet, but copyright and paywalls keep me from seeing most serious content.  It used to be if you wanted to know something you went to the library.  What if what you want to know is no longer there?

JWH – 6/2/12

Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online is a subscription library for computer books and tech training videos, with some additional subjects that also appeal to computer book readers, like digital photography.  They offer individual and corporate subscriptions, and many libraries are subscribers too, so you might check your library first.  Safari Books Online has a 10-day free trial if you just want to get the feel of how it works.  Right now they are offering a 5-Slot Bookshelf for $9.99/month, a 10-Slot Bookshelf for $22.99/month and the unlimited Safari Library for $42.99/month.  You only have access to Video Training and the Rough Cuts (prerelease books) titles with the Safari Library.

I got an offer for the 5-Slot Bookshelf when I registered one of my O’Reilly books to get a 45 day free access to the online edition.  For $10, I figured I’d try it out.  It’s a bit confusing how they work things.  With the 5 and 10 Slot Bookshelves, you can only read the full text of 5 or 10 books at a time, and you must keep your picks on your Bookshelf for at least 30 days.  You can preview all the books, but they only show the top third of each page.

At first I was cautious about filling up my 5 slots, but as I spent time actually studying books, time passed quickly and I usually seem to have 1-2 books ready to be checked back in so I could pick new ones.  I felt for $10 a month, this was a real bargain, but I was disappointed I couldn’t see the Video Training and Rough Cut titles.  Then one day Safari sent me an email offering a 20% discount to the Safari Library subscription, or just $34.99 a month for up to 12 months.  I figured, what the hell, and switched.  I can go back any time to my 5-Slot sub if I want to.

What a Bargain!

One reason Safari Books Online appealed to me was because I was having to switch my entire programming paradigm at work form ASP to PHP and I was about to go out and buy a bunch of new computer books for PHP, jQuery, CSS 2, XHTML 1.1, CodeIgniter and Eclipse.  I tend to buy computer books, use them for awhile, let them sit on the shelf for five years, and then put them out on the free book table at work.  Spending $120 a year and having access up to 60 titles seemed like a real deal.  More than likely I’d probably only read 10-20 books for real, but even that is a huge bargain over buying the books.

Reading Online

Most people don’t like reading books at their computer screen, but if you’re reading computer programming books while programming, ebooks work out great.  At work I have a dual monitor setup and I even turned my left monitor to portrait mode so I can enlarge a full page of a Safari book so I see the entire page at once with about a 50% magnification.  Of course this now makes me want to have a triple monitor setup, with Safari book on left, Eclipse IDE in the middle, and browsers on the right.  But don’t get me wrong. reading a Safari book on the same screen as the editor isn’t bad either.

Books can be viewed in two modes:  page mode and HTML.  I prefer looking at the page mode because it’s just like the printed book, but cutting and pasting is easier from the HTML mode.  However, reading is less pleasant from the HTML model unless I up the browser magnification and narrow the window so the scan line width is reasonable.  In page mode you have nice big margins and the print and fonts are the same as the printed book.  If the original book was hard to read, then page mode is also hard to read.

Slowly I’m learning that hanging on to page mode is limiting.  Once books are freed from the confines of pages, content can be presented in new ways.  I expect Safari to discover this in the future and invent new ways of looking at the material.  Books like the Head First series beg for this kind of treatment.  I also expect in the future there won’t be a division between printed books and video training titles.  If authors start writing titles specifically for Safari Online Books they could teach in new ways.


As of today, I can select from 9,902 books and 631 videos.  Plus lots of great computer book publishers are a part of Safari Online Books:

  • O’Reilly (Head First, Missing Manual)
  • Sams (Teach Yourself)
  • Packt Publishing
  • Addison-Wesley Professional
  • New Riders
  • Microsoft Press
  • Peachpit Press
  • Manning Publications
  • Adobe
  • Que
  • Apress
  • Sitepoint
  • Sybex
  • John Wiley & Sons
  • Prentice Hall

Most of the titles relate to computers in some way, but there’s lots of books on photography, and occasionally there’s a book that relates to investment or retiring.  I have 80 books flagged that I want to read.

The Future of Books

For special purposes, like these technical books, a subscription library really makes sense, and I’m perfectly happy to do without the printed edition.  I expect publishers to even do away with the page mode and eventually optimize everything for HTML mode which also works with mobile devices and ebook readers.  I would even buy a subscription to a science and history book library if I owned something like an iPad.  For fiction I prefer audio books or a device like a Kindle.  I wonder if subscription libraries for other subjects will catch on.

I think the future of books is paperless publishing, and Safari Online Books even hints that rental libraries might become an alternative to owning books.  However, rental libraries are rather specialized.  I’d be interested in a science and history rental library if its selection was as broad as the Safari Books Online is for computer books.  Also, I imagine that a rental library for school textbooks would be appealing to kids if durable iPad like devices caught on.

In my quest to give up paper, I’ve stopped getting magazines and newspapers, and now I have an alternative for technical books.  For fiction I prefer audiobooks.  Before now, I would have said art/photography books could never be replaced by ebooks, but while my second monitor was in portrait mode, my desktop background cycled through some art pieces, and they were very impressive magnified that way.  Freed of the confines of the printed page, art might do very well in ebook editions.  I saw a comic book on the iPad which had a mode of showing the page panel by panel and it was obvious the iPad is now the best way to look at a comic.

JWH – 4/25/10

Xmind Mapping LibraryThing Tags

I’ve finished entering in all my books into LibraryThing and I’m now working on organizing my collection by tags.  Tags are like a simplified Dewey Decimal system, but you can also think of them as virtual bookshelves.  Tagging lets me see how my library reflects lifelong interests.  But tagging, like all book classification systems, is a tricky business.  I currently have 705 books, all with tags, but unfortunately, I’m not sure I like my present tagging system, and that means going through all 705 books and altering the tags once again.  Luckily, I had light bulb switch on in my brain this morning while showering.  Why not mind map the problem with Xmind?  Here’s the way things are now:


By creating tags Nonfiction and Fiction I can get quick counts of each, currently 584 to 121 in favor of Nonfiction.  The above mind map uses the largest of my actual Tags:


I’ve already decided I have too many tags.  Since I’m planning on re-shelving my books in tag groupings to make them easier to find, I would put the one book about telescopes with all the astronomy books.  I’d probably also shelve the six books on robots with the eleven books on AI, and eliminate humor and poetry as tags because I just don’t have enough books on those topics to justify a tag.  I could convert Humor to Memoir and start beefing up that category.  See, there’s lots to think about when playing home librarian.  If all I had was science fiction, I’d just alphabetize my shelves by author.

The fun thing about this work is realizing the reality behind it.  I have 705 physical books on four bookshelves at home and one at work.  Then I have all those books vaguely shelved in my mind.  To be honest, I can only remember a small fraction of my books at any one time.  And when I do remember a book I want, it’s very hard to find the physical copy.  I’m using LibraryThing to aid my brain in understanding my library of 705 books – to help remember all my titles, and hopefully create a system to quickly find the physical volume.

In other words, I have books, a brain and a database.  The LibraryThing is only a list making tool.  By adding Xmind, I’m adding a visual modeling tool into the mix.  Science shows us that our brains can only handle so many objects in our conscious minds at once.  Seven things is where we max out, and even holding seven things in the mind is hard.  Xmind allows me to go beyond the seven limit and visually map out more items on my computer screen, but even mind mapping has limits.  I can’t mind map a 1,000 objects.  I haven’t learned it’s limit, but I’d guess it’s less than 100 items, and maybe less than 50.

Think of it this way:  How many aspects of reality do you specialize in studying?  I have 35 books on space exploration.  I’m no expert, far from it.  But it’s a topic I like.  I have 47 books on programming, most of which are on languages I’m forgetting because I’m switching to new ones.  I am a ASP programmer.  I’m becoming a PHP programmer.  The better I get at PHP the more I will forget ASP.

We can only keep up with a limited number of topics in life, and the books I’ve bought reflect those topics.  I plan to use LibraryThing and Xmind to refine my focus and help me zero in on the topics I want to study the most.  I already spotted topics in my collection that I’m considering abandoning, like Kerouac and Wyatt Earp, and new topics I want to pursue, like cosmology and mapping the universe.

Under the new system I’ll tag topics I want to pursue.  (And it’s logical that I’d shelve books on each of those topics together.)  I created a new mind map based just on topics, and not levels of organization like nonfiction, science, astronomy, cosmology.  I still have too many topics to pursue, but things become clearer.


Under my old system I tagged any book, fiction or nonfiction related to science fiction with a tag for SciFi, and since I have a whole lot of books by and about Robert A. Heinlein, I had a tag for Heinlein too.  So one of his novels could get tagged:  Fiction, Novel, SciFi, Heinlein.  With such tagging I could create lists of all my fictional books, all my novels, all fiction and nonfiction books related to science fiction and any book with a Heinlein connection.

Under the simplified system this won’t work anymore.  A tag of Heinlein would mean any book about Heinlein.  If I wanted a list of books by Heinlein I could search by author.   A SciFi tag means books about science fiction.  I’d have no way of listing all my science fiction novels and short story collections separate from general fiction – that is just by using the Tag concept in LibraryThing.  However, LibraryThing also has the Collection object.

I could create Fiction and Nonfiction collections, and then my tags would only apply to those books.  Under the Fiction collection, I could have novels about cosmology and AI.  This offers a lot of flexibility and new insights on how to organize my books both physically and mentally.  But how do I model this in Xmind?  And are the distinctions Fiction and Nonfiction really important?

Take Jack Kerouac.  He wrote novels.  He was a character in many novels.  And whole libraries have been written about his books, his life, and his characterizations, and the people around him and their characterizations.  I could change my topic label from Kerouac to The Beats and be more accurate about my interests.

What about science fiction?  Is it science or fiction?  Actually my interest in science fiction can reflected in more specific tags:  AI & Robots, Space Colonization, Homo Sapiens 2.0, Mars, The Moon and Intelligent Life.  But how do I categorize the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs versus Kim Stanley Robinson versus NASA?  Do I make categories:  Real Mars and Fantasy Mars?  They are two separate topics about reality, what we know about the real planet Mars, and what we know about all the fantasies about the imaginary planet Mars.

This opens up a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way to attack the problem, and more important than that, a whole new way of living.  What are my core topics?  Can I mind map them?  Could you make a list of all the subjects you care about the most?  Ones you could feel like a semi-expert in a discussion.

This project will take me awhile, so I can’t produce my final list for this post.  But I think I’m on to something.  Instead of flitting from one topic to the next and accidently collecting books, I need to decide what topics I want to specialize in studying, and build my library to support those interests.

JWH – 2/21/10

Libraries in the Age of iPads

If everyone owned an iPad would we need libraries?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the demolition of libraries, but with the advent of the internet and ebooks talk about the death of newspapers, magazines and books get more common every year.  If we don’t need those physical objects anymore, why do we need a building and institution to maintain them?  Think about it.  If books, magazines and newspapers disappear from our houses and move into Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, why would we go to the library?  Why would we go to bookstores, new or used? 

Modern libraries are about more than books, patrons also check out movies, audiobooks, music, and periodicals.  But all of those media types are now available on the iPad.  I know older people who grew up with libraries will immediate protest, but remember, us older folk are a dying breed and the up and coming generations are gadget afflicted.

Libraries used to be storehouses of knowledge and librarians worked to collect and preserve the printed word.  That’s still true of academic libraries, but public libraries have moved into an era of supplying what their patrons want, so as soon as a book is ignored for a specific period of time, it gets jettisoned from the collection.  Most people think of libraries as free books, free movies, free music albums, and free magazines and newspapers.  I think a lot of people think we should have libraries to provide a cultural outlet for the poor.  But the internet provides more free stuff to read and watch.

The death of libraries is pretty much unthinkable now, but don’t be surprise when city bean counters start making suggestions about closing them.  I grew up  loving libraries, and even worked in public and academic libraries.  They don’t seem as crowded with patrons as they used be.  I hardly go to the library anymore myself, not since the internet.  I saw the video of Steve Jobs presenting the iPad and showing off its ebook features and it struck me that devices like the iPad will be the library of the future.  When I was growing up futurists would talk about having a handheld device with the Library of Congress in it.  We’re getting spookily close, aren’t we?

The book is evolving too.  When it escapes the limitation of the page, adding multimedia and hypertext the book will no longer fit on a library shelf.  Printed books, newspapers and magazines might become extinct, but imagine what will replace them.  There is no reason to make a distinction between newspapers and magazines anymore.  That might become true for books and novels too.  Newspapers used to be frequently published information printed on cheap paper.  Magazines and journals had longer periods between publication and were printed on better paper, suitable for long term storage in libraries. 

The electronic page is not limited by time, paper quality or cost of printing.  Newspapers and magazines use to be text plus photographs.  Electronic publication is text plus photographs, video, sound recording, animation and other multimedia.  Go look at the iPad video and tell me if kids will even want to go to the library or read books and magazines.  And what about you?


I like the name iPad, just one vowel different from the iPod, but many of my friends have expressed a dislike for the name, and some of my women friends tell me the name brings up bad connotations with them.  I think Steve Jobs should have named it the iLibrary.

JWH – 1/28/10

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