Free ePub book shows potential of local librarians as content-providers: Whale bombings, Pearl Harbor and other stories enliven Q & A with now-dead airman

DouglasBookSome unlucky whales died in certain stretches of the Pacific because inexperienced U.S. airmen mistook the long shapes in the water for Japanese submarines.

More than a few offbeat recollections of this kind liven up an extended interview with the late Attilio F. Caporiccio, a B-17 crewman before and during World War II. The Q & A is now a free ePub book licensed under Creative Commons; just click on the link to download it. "Cappy" also recalled seeing the faces of Japanese pilots attacking Hickam Field—next to the Pearl Harbor naval base—because he was on the third floor of his barracks and could actually look down on low-fliers. Barbara Belt, a volunteer with the Veterans History Project, questioned Caporiccio.

Outside Colorado, how many people in the past might have read Caporiccio’s story?

But as part of an initiative to reduce reliance on large publishing conglomerates, the Douglas County Libraries system is starting to publish original content like the Caporiccio Q & A. Alas, the big boys overprice library e-books in some cases or curtail availability of E to libraries.  Douglas released the Caporiccio e-book in May as its first digital title—kudos to Douglas archivist Adam Speirs, whose baby it was!—and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more attention.

memoirphotoGranted, the 42 pages are just a lightly edited transcript of an oral history session with Caporiccio in 2004, several years before his death. I don’t know how much vetting the results received (I’ll leave it to others to ascertain the veracity of the whale and Pearl Harbor recollections).  But in an interview with Colorado public radio, Douglas County Libraries director Jamie LaRue has made it clear that this is just the beginning as far as library-originated content. He is also gung ho on the self-published variety.

Presently, Douglas County offers some 40,000 e-books, a third of which are bestsellers and other mainstream titles, the rest being from smaller publishers or self-published. By way of Adobe DRM, Douglas can provide the “protection” for books bought directly rather than through the customary third parties such as OverDrive. Smashwords is a major supplier.

nbccTo evaluate patron-written content, including fiction, LaRue’s system will recruit volunteer reviewers well-read in the genres involved. What’s more, local writers will be able to enjoy library-facilitated feedback before publication. Talk about both editorial and marketing advantages! I love Jamie’s ideas. I just hope he’ll get the resources for top-notch execution. It takes money even to round up volunteer reviewers. Staff time ultimately isn’t free.

I myself can envision a national digital library endowment helping to finance the QC efforts of local and national digital libraries, not just acquisitions of books from publishers of all sizes. Perhaps libraries could even pay experienced reviewers, including members of the National Book Critics Circle. Academic specialists and other experts—some recruited through the Digital Public Library of America?—could help vet nonfiction books, regardless of the source. That would especially help in such areas as health and finance where the wrong "facts" can harm patrons. The same care ideally will be shown toward children’s books. Let’s worry more about the quality and local suitability of books and less about their branding, just as the smart people in Money Ball homed in actual performance stats rather on than superficialities and popular impressions of baseball players—or their prices in the marketplace. Oh, the amount of dreck coming from even “prestige imprints” these days!

Granted, both pre- and post-publication, libraries can’t substantively quantify the pros and cons of individual books, at least not with the precision of sports statistics. Typo counts and the like can go only so far. Subjectivity is unavoidable, even with detailed guidelines and even with BookLamp-style technology available. Anyway, the needs and preferences of individual patron vary. But surely libraries can do better than they are now. While libraries can offer a wide variety of books, it’s only right that the featured ones receive close scrutiny beforehand and that librarians share their opinions or others’ on as many titles as possible.

No, this is not an attack on Library Journal or Publishers Weekly. Point is, so many books appear each year that LJ and PW can review only a fraction, and e-books in particular can go without any critical attention (customer-written assessments on Amazon and the like can be useful to discerning readers aware of the limitations of “many to many,” but let’s not confuse most of them with professional write-ups). I see a huge role for Jamie and his staffers in helping appropriate reviewers fill the void.

For more background on Douglas County’s innovations, you can read past LibraryCity posts (here and here), a long piece in the July issue of Governing Magazine, and an interview Jamie did with Michael Sauers, author of the Travelin’ Librarian blog as well as a tech guru for the Nebraska Library Commission. Also check out a Good eReader videocast. NPR this week interviewed Jamie for a segment on the e-book-related disputes between libraries and publishers.

Stay tuned for more details on Douglas County, where he reports a fifth of his patrons use e-book readers. According to him, the device owners now favor the digital format and read far more than before they bought the readers.

Detail: I’d welcome other stories of public libraries publishing e-books themselves. Which ones are doing doing it? Or is Douglas alone in this?

Update, 10:50 a.m.: Asked, Jamie says he’s heard of self-publishing by libraries in Connecticut and Massachusetts, involving historical materials (a natural!), and if anyone can supply specific links, I’ll be delighted to include them.

Yes, I know of the local digitization of paper books through organizations such as Project Gutenberg, Distributed Proofreaders and the Internet Archive (here are wonderful examples out of the library system in Wakefield, Massachusetts). But I’m really looking for material that, like the Caporiccio Q & A, hasn’t even been published before. And I don’t mean just  routine records.

Also, Jamie has called attention to a second minibook from the Douglas system, Joseph Sanchez‘s From Content Warehouse to Content Producer: Libraries at the Crossroads (download link here). I fervently agree with the white paper’s support of the idea of libraries and patrons creating their own content–be it text, still images, video or music; Sanchez has helpfully included how-tos for librarians interested in building makerspaces. As I see it, traditional content and the DIY variety should both be integral parts of library collections. In generally I really like the book.

That said, I hope that Sanchez will pay more attention to quality control issues (discussed to some extent but not enough) and financial ones.

A national digital library endowment would not be a panacea but could at least help libraries and content-providers alike thrive with both traditional and new business models. The mere $1.3B that U.S. public libraries annually spend on content is scandalously low. I want more money spent and more value per dollar (e-books certainly could help offer the latter).

Update, August 11: Already doing its own publishing, the Provincetown public library in Massachusetts uses "library staff and local experts" to select books to be published (belatedly spotted via InfoDocket). Web site of the library’s Provincetown Public Press is here. The first title is Laura Shabott’s Confessions of an E-Book Virgin, a republication.

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