The Secret Cultural Erosion Of Public Libraries: Who Knew?

August 25, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_tNote: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

It appears the biggest problem public and school libraries are dealing with are demands to ban controversial gay and trans titles. While some libraries are facing closures or complete withdrawals of funding, they mostly appear to be in decent standing. Karawynn Long unfortunately discovered that is not the case. She spills the printer’s ink in her Substack post: “The Coming [Cultural Erosion] Of Public Libraries” with the cleverly deplorable subtitle “global investment vampires have positioned themselves to suck our libraries dry.”

Before she details how a greedy corporation is bleeding libraries like a leech, Long explains how there is a looming cultural erosion brought on by capitalism. A capitalist economic system is not inherently evil but bad actors exploit it. Long uses a more colorful word to explain libraries’ cultural erosion. In essence the colorful word means when something good deteriorates into crap.

A great example is when corporations use a platform, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, to pit buyers and sellers against each other while the top runs away with heaps of cash.

This ties back to public libraries because they use a digital library app called OverDrive. Library patrons use OverDrive to access copies of digital books, videos, audiobooks, magazines, and other media. It is the only app available to public libraries to manage digital media. Patrons could access OverDrive via an app call Libby or a Web site portal. In May 2023, the Web site portal deleted a feature that allowed patrons to recommend new titles to their libraries.

OverDrive wants to force users to adopt their Libby app. The Libby app has a “notify me” option that alerts users when their library acquires an item. OverDrive’s overlords also want to collect sellable user data, like other companies. Among other details, OverDrive is owned by the global investment firm KKR, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

KKR’s goal is one of the vilest investment capital companies, dubbed a “vampire capitalist” company, and it has a fanged hold on the US’s public libraries. OverDrive flaunts its B corporation status but that does not mask the villain lurking behind the curtain:

“ As one library industry publication warned in advance of the sale to KKR, ‘This time, the acquisition of OverDrive is a ‘financial investment,’ in which the buyer, usually a private equity firm or other financial sponsor, expects to increase the value of the company over the short term, typically five to seven years.’ We are now three years into that five-to-seven, making it likely that KKR’s timeframe for completing maximum profit extraction is two to four more years. Typically this is accomplished by levying enormous annual “management fees” on the purchased company, while also forcing it (through Board of Director mandates) to make changes to its operations that will result in short-term profit gains regardless of long-term instability. When they believe the short-term gains are maxed out, the investment firm sells off the company again, leaving it with a giant pile of unsustainable debt from the leveraged buyout and often sending it into bankruptcy.”

OverDrive likely plans to sell user data then bleed the public libraries dry until local and federal governments shout, “Uncle!” Among book bans and rising inflation, public libraries will see a reckoning with their budgets before 2030.

Whitney Grace, August 25, 2023

AI-Search Tool Talpa Burrows Into Library Catalogues

July 19, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_t[1]Note: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

For a few years now, libraries have been able to augment their online catalogue with enrichment services from Syndetics Unbound, which adds details and imagery to each entry. Now the company is incorporating new AI capabilities, we learn from its write-up, “Introducing Talpa Search.” Talpa is still experimental and is temporarily available to libraries already using Syndetics Unbound.

7 15 biijwirn

A book lover in action. Thanks MidJourney. You made me more appealing than I was in the 1951 when I got kicked out of the library for reading books for adults, not stuff about Freddy the Pig.

Participating libraries will get a year of the service for free. We cannot know just how much they will be saving, though, since the pricing remains a mystery. Writer Tim Spalding describes how Talpa works:

“First, Talpa queries large language models (from Claude AI and ChatGPT) for books and other media. Critically, every item is checked against true and authoritative bibliographic data, solving the problem of invented answers (called ‘hallucinations’) that such models can fall into. Second, Talpa uses the natural-language abilities of large language models to parse and understand queries, which are then answered using traditional library data. Thus a search for ‘novels about World War II in France’ is broken down into subjects and tags and answered with results from the library’s collection. Our authoritative book data comes from Syndetics Unbound, Bowker and LibraryThing. Surprisingly, Talpa’s ability to find books by their cover design isn’t powered by AI at all, but by the effort of thousands of book lovers who have played LibraryThing’s CoverGuess cover-tagging game since 2010!”

Interesting. If you don’t happen to be part of a library using Syndetics, you can try Talpa out at one of the three libraries linked to in the post. The tool sports a cute mole mascot and, to add a bit of personality, supplies mole facts beneath the search bar. As with many AI tools, the functionality has plenty of room to grow. For example, my search for “weaving velvet” did return a few loom-centered books scattered through the results but more prominently suggested works of fiction or philosophy that simply contained “velvet” in the title. (Including, adorably, several versions of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”) The write-up does not share when the tool will be available more widely, but we hope it will be more refined when it is. Is it AI? Isn’t everything?

Cynthia Murrell, July 19, 2023

Need Research Assistance, Skip the Special Librarian. Go to Elicit

July 17, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_t[1]Note: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

Academic databases are the bedrock of research. Unfortunately most of them are hidden behind paywalls. If researchers get past the paywalls, they encounter other problems with accurate results and access to texts. Databases have improved over the years but AI algorithms make things better. Elicit is a new database marketed as a digital assistant with less intelligence than Alexa, Siri, and Google but can comprehend simple questions.

7 16 library hub

“This is indeed the research library. The shelves are filled with books. You know what a book is, don’t you? Also, will find that this research library is not used too much any more. Professors just make up data. Students pay others to do their work. If you wish, I will show you how to use the card catalog. Our online public access terminal and library automation system does not work. The university’s IT department is busy moonlighting for a professor who is a consultant to a social media company,” says the senior research librarian.

What exactly is Elicit?

“Elicit is a research assistant using language models like GPT-3 to automate parts of researchers’ workflows. Currently, the main workflow in Elicit is Literature Review. If you ask a question, Elicit will show relevant papers and summaries of key information about those papers in an easy-to-use table.”

Researchers use Elicit to guide their research and discover papers to cite. Researcher feedback stated they use Elicit to answer their questions, find paper leads, and get better exam scores.

Elicit proves its intuitiveness with its AI-powered research tools. Search results contain papers that do not match the keywords but semantically match the query meaning. Keyword matching also allows researchers to narrow or expand specific queries with filters. The summarization tool creates a custom summary based on the research query and simplifies complex abstracts. The citation graph semantically searches citations and returns more relevant papers. Results can be organized and more information added without creating new queries.

Elicit does have limitations such as the inability to evaluate information quality. Also Elicit is still a new tool so mistakes will be made along the development process. Elicit does warn users about mistakes and advises to use tried and true, old-fashioned research methods of evaluation.

Whitney Grace, July 16 , 2023

What Is the Purpose of a Library? Maybe WiFi?

July 13, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_t[1]Note: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

The misinformed believe libraries only offer access to free books, DVDs, and public computers in various states of obsoleteness. Libraries are actually a hub for Internet access, including WiFi. The Internet is a necessary tool and many people do no have reliable access either due to low income, homelessness, and rural locations. KQED reports on how San Francisco is handling WiFi access and homelessness at a local library: “What Happens When Libraries Stop Sharing Wi-Fi?”

San Francisco, California is experiencing record high homelessness. Businesses and people are abandoning the city, crime is running rampant on the streets, and law enforcement’s hands are tied. Homeless people regularly visit libraries to use the computers and the WiFi. Libraries usually keep their WiFi on 24/7 so their parking lots and outside areas are active hotspots.

The Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library turns off its WiFi at night. This is the only San Franciscan library that shuts off its WiFi, because homeless people visited the library after hours and the surrounding neighborhood had an increase in crime. Pulling the WiFi plug is another way San Francisco clears sidewalks and prevents people sleeping in areas.

“ ‘Neighbors in that area have been dealing with repeated encampments, open-air drug sales and use, harassment of local businesses and all-around problematic situations going on for a decade at this point,” said [Supervisor Rafael Mandelman]. ‘It reached its nadir in the pandemic in 2020. There were encampments on both sides of the street, the sidewalk was impassable, and the historic AIDS mural had been wildly defaced. Neighbors were being threatened. It was bad.’ ”

The library faced homeless people camping on the roof, hacking into their electricity, and breaking into a closet. After the library shut off the WiFi, emergency services were called less in the area. However, it is not 100% attributed to the WiFi shutdown. Some homeless people in the area found permanent housing, a mural was repainted, and other services were enacted.

While WiFi is an essential service. If the people and places that bring the service are harmed it is ruined for everybody. It is an ethical conundrum but if crime, drugs, debris, and homeless encampments make an area dangerous, then measures must be taken to resolve the problems.

Whitney Grace, July 13, 2023

Harvard and a Web Archive Tool

May 18, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_tNote: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

The Library of Congress has dropped the ball and the Internet Archive may soon be shut down. So it is Harvard to the rescue. At least until people sue the institution. The university’s Library Innovation Lab describes its efforts in, “Witnessing the Web is Hard: Why and How We Built the Scoop Web Archiving Capture Engine.”

“Our decade of experience running has given our team a vantage point to identify emerging challenges in witnessing the web that we believe extend well beyond our core mission of preserving citations in the legal record. In an effort to expand the utility of our own service and contribute to the wider array of core tools in the web archiving community, we’ve been working on a handful of Perma Tools. In this blog post, we’ll go over the driving principles and architectural decisions we’ve made while designing the first major release from this series: Scoop, a high-fidelity, browser-based, single-page web archiving capture engine for witnessing the web. As with many of these tools, Scoop is built for general use but represents our particular stance, cultivated while working with legal scholars, US courts, and journalists to preserve their citations. Namely, we prioritize their needs for specificity, accuracy, and security. These are qualities we believe are important to a wide range of people interested in standing up their own web archiving system. As such, Scoop is an open-source project which can be deployed as a standalone building block, hopefully lowering a barrier to entry for web archiving.”

At Scoop’s core is its “no-alteration principle” which, as the name implies, is a commitment to recording HTTP exchanges with no variations. The write-up gives some technical details on how the capture engine achieves that standard. Aside from that bedrock doctrine, though, Scoop allows users to customize it to meet their unique web-witnessing needs. Attachments are optional and users can configure each element of the capture process, like time or size limits. Another pair of important features is the built-in provenance summary, including preservation of SSL certificates, and authenticity assertion through support for the Web Archive Collection Zipped (WACZ) file format and the WACZ Signing and Verification specification. Interested readers should see the article for details on how to start using Scoop. You might want to hurry, before publishers jump in with their inevitable litigation push.

Cynthia Murrell, May 18, 2023

Libraries: A Target?

October 4, 2022

Reading is FUNdamental. I am not sure that’s an accurate slogan today. “Libraries Across The US Are Receiving Violent Threats” reports:

In the last two weeks, at least a dozen public libraries across the U.S. received threats that resulted in canceled events and system-wide closures. While bomb and active shooter threats to public library systems in Nashville, Fort Worth, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boston and other cities across the country were ultimately deemed hoaxes, library workers and patrons say they are still reeling in the aftermath.


I grew up with the following impressions of libraries:

  1. My mother took me to the library each week so she could return the books she read from the previous week. She checked out books. I am not sure how old I was when I became aware of this library routine. Didn’t everyone go to the library once a week? Not to protest or make threats, but to get books and introduce a child to the “routine”?
  2. My sixth grade teacher, Ms. Costello, awarded a paper “flag” for each book read by a student. On the wall was a list of her students. The flags were pinned after each student’s name. One book received one white flag. Five books were converted to a white flag with a blue border. Ten books received a white flag with a red border. Twenty books were represented by a white flag with a yellow border. Each school year ended with Ms. Costello recognizing the students who read the most books. (Guess who won?) I made many trips to the Prospect Branch Library because I nuked the grade school library of books which interested me quickly.
  3. In high school, wearing my worn out sneakers, my cool plaid shirt, and my blue jeans with cuffs no less, I went to the downtown library which I reached via the bus. In my high school, English teachers assigned essays which had to have footnotes. The reference desk librarians were helpful and showed me the ropes of microfilm newspapers (wow, that technology sucked. Wasn’t there a better way to search?), the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (wow, that print index sucked. Wasn’t there a better way to search and get access to the full text of the article?), the mysteries of the books behind the reference desk. (Oh, Constance Winchell, I loved you!)
  4. In college, I made the library my home away from home between classes. I had favorite tables at which to work. I loved the Library of Congress cataloging system. I knew exactly where certain book topics were shelved. I worked in the library on and off for a couple of years until I landed a higher paying job, but I learned how to get first crack at books professors put on reserve. I also located the COBOL instruction manuals and used them to do my first computer based indexed project for a professor named William Gillis. Believe it or not, that project was my ticket to the world of commercial database indexing and my first real job at Halliburton Nuclear in Washington, DC. I indexed nuclear information using good old PDP computers. Exciting? You bet.

Why have I isolated four library experiences?

None require terror threats, political actions, or any behavior other than respect for the professionals who assisted me. My wife has told me that I could have gone to work right after high school and skipped college. She’s wrong. I am not sure I learned too much in my college courses. The bulk of the information was repetitive or something with which I was familiar based on my reading.

What was valuable to me was the opportunity to spend significant time in the university library. Here’s a fun fact: I was thrilled when a college event took place on Friday nights. I knew I would be one of a very few students in the library when the event was underway. Silence, no delays at the photocopy machine, no waiting for a specific card catalog drawer, and no one clogging the space between the shelves.

What’s my view of libraries? Can’t figure it out? Perhaps you should consider what one can achieve by doing the library thing. Online is okay, but it sure isn’t the library thing.  I should know because I was involved and maybe instrumental in a number of very successful and widely used commercial databases. I knew paper indexes sucked, and I did something about it.

But libraries. The prime mover for me. Why be afraid of learning, knowledge, information, and different ideas? My answer is that those without a library “backbone” are lost in a digital world in which TikTok information imparts wisdom. Ho ho ho.

Stephen E Arnold, October 4, 2022

Libraries and Google: Who Wins?

August 31, 2022

Google uses various ways to protect users’ accounts, such as authentication through a mobile phone or non-Gmail address. This is a problem for large portions of the American population who don’t have regular access to the Internet. These include ethnic minorities, people with low socioeconomic status, and the elderly. These groups usually rely on public libraries for Internet access. These groups also need welfare and other assistance programs for survival.

Shelly R., a librarian in the Free Library of Philadelphia System, wrote a letter to Google in 2021 about how their security authentication hurts these groups. The letter was picked up by Hacker News and it was meant to be private. Her description of the services her library system provides is typical of many places in the United States.

People say that libraries are obsolete, but the naysayers are not taking into account the people that need Internet access, help with technology literacy, applying for benefits and jobs, and more. Librarians have one of the most stressful jobs in the country, because they are forced into more roles than helping people research: teacher, therapist, babysitter, and more. It is ridiculous the amount of roles librarians fill, however, helping people in their community get access to technology is one thing they excel at.

Shelly R. makes a valiant point that many groups cannot afford expensive technology or know how to use it. They rely on community resources such as the public library for assistance, but security features like Google’s authentication system do not help them.

Online accounts must remain secure to protect users, but people without regular Internet access or technology literacy must be taken into account as well. The Internet is supposed to be a great equalizer, but it does not work when everyone does not have equal access.

Shelly R. updated the letter in August 2022, said she spoke with Google’s security team, and things were better for her job. Is that true? We hope so. If only Google would do more to help equalize Internet access. Hey Google, maybe you could donate money or resources to public libraries? You have the power and ability to do so, plus it would be a tax write-off.

Whitney Grace, August 31, 2022

Libraries: Responding to the Pandemic

April 23, 2020

Library patrons are SOL, because the COVID-19 pandemic has closed their beloved knowledge repositories. What are book lovers, people in need of WiFi, and parents in need of story time supposed to do? Libraries have gone digital! Libraries have embraced digital services for decades, but during the pandemic they continue to serve their communities except totally in a digital space. Fast Company reports how in, “Closed Libraries Are Offering Parking Lot Wi-Fi, EBooks, And Zoom Story Time.”

It is commonly believed that libraries are an obsolete government service, but that is completely untrue. Libraries offer a plethora of free resources and services to communities that are otherwise unavailable. They offer free Internet access, entertainment, ways to assist people in job searches, and offer a diverse range of classes.

While libraries are physically closed, librarians have gotten creative. Parking lots, sidewalks, and even bookmobiles have been transformed into wifi hotspots for those lacking Internet access. Even though they might risk being Zoom bombed, libraries have also moved to Zoom for story time and other classes.

Libraries are also offering curbside pickup:

“Some libraries are offering curbside checkout or other ways to pick up books, though doing so in a safe and sanitary way can be a logistical challenge. The El Dorado County Library in California is planning to let patrons go online or call to request books—which are only available after they’ve sat in a holding area for seven days to help ensure they’re free from the virus. The books will be brought for pickup at area grocery stores, so people can retrieve them when they’re out buying food.”

We cannot forget ebook and free streaming services, these include Overdrive, Libby, Kanopy, and even Amazon. There is a learning curve for older patrons versus younger ones who are more tech savvy. Many librarians are acting as tech support during the shutdown.

Once the shutdown is over, patrons will slowly return while maintaining some social distance for a time. There are concerns over libraries’ budgets being cut during the impeding economic downturn, but libraries will get through it as they always to.

Whitney Grace, April 23, 2020

Libraries Fight Publishers In Ebook Limitations

October 17, 2019

Public libraries are an equalizing tool for people who do not have access to technology, books, and other materials that come with higher incomes. Unlike academic and textbook publishers, popular book publishers have had working relationships with libraries for decades. One of the biggest publishing houses in the United States might bring that to an end if they instill limitations on ebooks. The Stranger shares one library’s story against publisher in, “Seattle Public Library ‘Denounces’ Publisher’s New E-Book Policy.”

Come November 1, 2019, Macmillan plans to only sell one digital copy of newly released ebooks for half price. Libraries will also be forced to wait two months before they can buy more copies and that will be at the full retail price. Digital ebooks sell for $60, but are $30 for many libraries due to their non-profit status.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s reasoning makes sense from a company trying to make a profit:

“The rationale behind this move, according to a draft of a memo to authors written by Macmillan CEO John Sargent, is “to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of [an author’s] work.” Sargent argues that library lending is “cannibalizing sales” of e-books. He thinks the embargo will help the e-books sell better online, and claims to have data proving that the publisher makes far less on “library reads” than they they do on “retail reads.””

Librarians speak the truth about the issue, because they are in the trenches where the action takes place. Libraries act as free PR for publishers and assist them in selling books with the profits going directly to the publishers, not libraries. Libraries also pay for ebooks than physical copies, despite it being cheaper to release ebooks.

This is going to hurt people with lower incomes, because they use libraries to get books they otherwise would not be able to afford.

The libraries, as always, will bear the brunt of this decision, because the general public does not understand or know about lending agreements between libraries and publishers. Authors could get bad reputations as well.

The number of people using ebooks and audiobooks has dramatically increased not only for the Seattle Public Library, but for libraries across the nation. Libraries have collected data that proves their circulating collections, physical and digital, do increase sales and boosts readership.

Libraries will also spend money, because of the products and services they offer people. If the price of ebooks go up, they will be forced to limit their collection’s holdings which will decrease circulation and the amount of people who visit. It would also lead to a decrease in readership and even book sales.

With an ever increasing cost of living, increasing the price for luxury goods like books will do more damage than boost sales. As a public institution, libraries have a good reputation and will give Macmillan a run for their pages.

Whitney Grace, MLS, October 17, 2019

De-Archiving: Where Is the Money to Deliver Digital Beef?

February 25, 2018

I read “De-Archiving: What Is It and Who’s Doing It?” I don’t want to dig into the logical weeds of the essay. Let’s look at one passage I highlighted.

As the cost of hot storage continues to drop, economics work in favor of taking more and more of their stored material and putting it online. Millions of physical documents, films, recordings, photographs, and historical data are being converted to online digital assets every year. Soon, anything that was worth saving will also be worth putting online. Tomorrow’s warehouse will be a data center filled with spinning disks that safely store any valuable data – even if it has to be converted to a digital format first. “De-archiving” will be a new vocab word for enterprises and individuals everywhere – and everyone will be doing it in the near future.

My hunch is that the thought leader who wrote the phrase “anything that was worth saving will be worth putting online” has not checked out the holdings of the Library of Congress. The American Memory project, on which I worked, represents a miniscule percentage of the non text information the LoC has. Toss in text, boxes of manuscripts, and artifacts (3D imaging and indexing). The amount of money required to convert and index the content might stretch the US budget which seems to wobble around with continuing resolutions.

Big ideas are great. Reality may not be as great. Movies which can disintegrate during conversion? Yeah, right. Easy. Economical.

Stephen E Arnold, February 25, 2018

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