March 8, 2012

On avoiding libraries, and other places that gather reading material


As one commentator puts it, “This is a really neat project that shouldn’t have to exist”:  The Online Newstand Project.

According to the project’s website, “The goal of the Online Newsstand Project is to increase usage of libraries’ electronic resources by library patrons, and to do so by making access to them easier and more enjoyable.”

As Brian Herzog details in a post on Swiss Army Librarian, the project, put together by Steve Butzel of the Portsmouth (NH) Public Library, is essentially a good looking magazine database (see above), wherein patrons can go online, see the cover of the magazine they want to read, and begin doing so by simply clicking on it. ‘Patrons don’t need to know what a database is, or how to use one,” explains Herzog, “they just click the magazine and article they want to read, log in with their library card number, and they’re in! Almost as easy as reading an actual magazine.”

But putting it together was not as simple as it looks, he says:

Updating the table of contents for each issue in the Online Newsstand would have been a monumental task. But it occurred to Steve that, since so many libraries are paying for the exact same content in the exact same databases, a bunch of libraries working together could make light work of it.

So, instead of libraries paying to use the Online Newsstand, participating libraries “adopt” a magazine, and they are then responsible for adding the new article titles and links to the Newsstand whenever a new issue is published. The interface Steve created makes this extremely easy — I do The Economist (a weekly magazine) and Outdoor Life (a monthly), and it takes me about ten minutes per issue — tops.

Thus, as long as the participating libraries continue to do their part, it should continue to work like a charm — and periodical readers will never have to visit libraries again.

Which may be what caused the above-mentioned blogger to comment on this as a somewhat sorry development, and makes this story reminiscent, too, of one book publisher’s consideration that perhaps they should only give their ebooks to libraries if libraries require patrons come to the library to download them onto their ereading devices, rather than allow them to be downloaded from home. While this goes against every trend in the world right now — in the background, I can just hear someone crying “The cloud! The cloud! The cloud!” like that midget announcing the plane on Fantasy Island — it does speak to the ultimate commonality of librarians and publishers: We all like being in rooms filled with things to read, and isn’t it lovely that such a simple thing is also coincidentally good for the business we’re in? And wouldn’t the absence of those rooms be such an unnecessary death?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.