Why we must be apprehensive about DRM and digital locks

This little piece of news hasn’t yet got much coverage in the popular press, but it should. It shows why Canadians (and everyone, really) must be concerned about digital locks.  Librarians and lawyers are the ones taking note of it right now, but it’s an issue we should all worry about:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/librarybazaar/status/139008379023667201″]


Yes, that’s right – as Michael Geist reports, if you are Canadian and have ever purchased music through Napster Canada, then you run the risk of losing access to content you have paid for:

These downloads are DRM-encoded WMA files and can be backed up by burning them to audio CDs. Doing this will allow you access to your music on any CD player and generally have a maintenance free permanent copy. If you do not back up your purchased Napster music downloads by burning them to CD and you later change or reinstall your computer’s operating system, have a system failure or experience DRM corruption, then the downloads will stop playing and you will permanently lose access to them.

(Source: Napster Canada PR via Geist’s blog)

Let’s put this into perspective:

  • Customers have purchased items (music, objects, widgets, whatever) from a company with the assurance that these items can be accessed.  But the use of these music files are limited by a lock that the company will no longer support now that it has pulled out of the market and been bought by a competitor.
  • Customers have been advised by the company to effectively circumvent their digital locks if they want to continue listening to their music.  

I suppose that Napster Canada/Rhapsody is acting in good faith when they explain to Canadian customers how to ensure that the content they have already purchased will always be accessible. Napster/Rhapsody has informed customers that all they need to do is copy the data to audio CDs to ensure that the music can be played even if the digital lock on the file is ever corrupted. But does anyone else find it a tiny bit illogical that a company that normally espouses the use of digital locks is now effectively telling its customers to break the law and circumvent the lock in order to make sure they will always be able to access this music?

Digital Rights Management is something we must be wary of.  DRM limits the consumer’s rights to the content he or she has purchased; it “manages” rights by taking them away from the consumer. This is of particular concern in Canada, when so many organizations are subsidiaries of larger companies located elsewhere. If Napster pulls out of the Canadian market, will the digital locks that limit access to the content you purchased still be supported? It seems not. If Amazon were ever to pull out of the Canadian market (which is an unlikely scenario, but a worthy point to make), would its digital locks that limit access to the content you purchased still be supported? That would be up to Amazon to decide.  Digital locks keep your purchases at the mercy of the vendor, which is reason enough to oppose them.

Copyright is a mess, especially in Canada.  The law is antiquated and it does need an overhaul to actually work in our digital landscape.  But DRM and digital locks place an undue burden and risk on consumers (be they individuals, families, or libraries), most of whom are law-abiding citizens, respect intellectually property and rights, and do not copy content.


Post script: Am I suggesting we back out of all e-content on account of DRM?  No, I’m not. What I’m trying to show, like so many others, is that the system is out of balance right now and will remain so in the future.  Advocacy is required to fix this.

Information Literacy, Transliteracy, and other literacies

[Note: I originally posted this on Dalhousie University’s School Of Information Management blog.  It’s only a few quick words meant to introduce others to one of the biggest information literacy debates in 2010/11.]

This winter and spring, the library blogosphere has buzzed around the idea of transliteracy, which broadly encompasses critical thinking and writing (or perhaps “synthesizing”) across a multitude of formats and devices.  You can read more about digital literacy at:

The incorporation of transliteracy into our definition of information literacy is either controversial or welcome news.  Some people see it only as the flavour of the month, while others believe that the arguments behind transliteracy should have been developed long ago and that librarians are still trying to catch up with the implications of our changed information society.   Regardless of what you believe, Bobbi Newman of the Libraries and Transliteracy blog must be commended for starting an information literacy discussion that has asked our profession what we do as instructors, what it is we instruct, and how we well may be doing it.
Personally, I see a lot of merit in broadening our understanding of IL to incorporate the arguments made by transliteracy advocates.  However, I also worry that we may be spending too much time thinking about what to call our paradigms instead of properly researching their implications and incorporating them into practice.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve always considered myself to be “tech-savvy”, but I’ve always believed that our notions of information literacy would naturally incorporate information regardless of its medium, both before and after it’s synthesized into knowledge.  Whether we call this subject “transliteracy” or “information literacy,” our focus must be on improving (information) literacy levels amoung our users.  As librarians, we don’t “teach” information literacy so much as we teach people how to find and evaluate information effectively, and how to improve people’s ability to turn that information into their own knowledge.

Having said all that, I believe that transliteracy is a subject that should be followed by any librarian who is concerned with how their patrons interact with their materials.  Thus far, transliteracy has produced incredible research and opinion within LIS.  It’s given us a chance to share our expertise and opinion on education and pedagogy with a wider community of scholars and practitioners.  Don’t forget the term, “transliteracy.”  It’s not just a buzzword, and it has implications that are here to stay.

Screencasting in libraries: build a relationship and not a movie

This past month, my work producing and managing online learning materials collided head-on with the launch of our university’s new website. The Library’s website (which is the school’s largest site by page number and by usage, so they tell me) improved top to bottom: our home page now features a single-search bar that gives our users quick access to WorldCat, our databases, our course reserves, our traditional catalogue, and more. We encountered some very big hiccups, as any big web change will, but I think that most students will benefit from it.

One of my major tasks during the launch has been to update our tutorials. This has been a very slow process since there is only one of me to face off against over 100 tutorials (let alone dealing with my other duties in the normal work week). I wouldn’t say that I’m disappointed with my pace since I’m moving as fast as one can, but I am frustrated that more couldn’t be done in the short time we have. Instead of updating all the tutorials in one fell swoop, I have to prioritize which objects demand the most attention immediately while leaving others behind for later. I refer this work to my colleagues as triage: it’s messy, it doesn’t look good, and our emergencies and our fatalities are in full view of anyone passing by.

If one good thing has come out of this, though, it has been the development of new tutorials which showcase everything the new site can do. Some of the tutorials have been hit-and-miss, while others have been very successful in classrooms and in the general public. The new tutorials feel more like The Web in 2010, and they definitely put the old tutorials in their place – back in 2005 or so. Check out this collection as an example:

1. Dalhousie Libraries’ “Welcome to the Library” tutorial. It’s informative, but its colours are dark, and its message is very formal:

2. The new “Getting your Research Started with the Dal Libraries Website” tutorial (Oct 2010). This tutorial is fairly long at 3 1/2 minutes in length. However, it is instructional by design and is meant to be shown in a classroom setting, to be followed up by real-life surfing and examples offered by a real-life librarian:


3. The most recent tutorial, “Finding Databases with the Single Search Bar”. This tutorial is under 2 minutes in length and features a face (me!) so that the voice doesn’t become a ghost in the machine. Its tone is intentionally conversational:


The third tutorial is my favorite. This video achieves something we have been talking about quite a bit at Dal Libraries as of late – bringing the actual librarian into the tutorial. We have a large number of tutorials that do a great job encapsulating their message – they often have superb production value and credit must be offered to my predecessors. However, as good a job these tutorials do at capturing the lesson at hand, we’re not certain if the student hangs around from start to end to take in all that’s offered. And if they’re not sticking around, then there’s no point in keeping the tutorials on the Interweb. So right now we’re shortening the message’s length and we’re making the librarian a real living person and not just a voice speaking from the computer. Our argument is that if people will turn to our videos to fill an immediate information need, then we have an obligation to give them exactly what they’re looking for. And if the information need remains unmet at the end of the tutorial, then we must show that there truly are real, living people out there (through our virtual reference service or in-person) who can help them.

Does the third tutorial convey all of what I’m hoping it does? Likely not. But all the same, I’m pretty sure it does a better job than the other two tutorials at showing the user that librarians can be of service to them. And I think this is something other libraries should be doing, too. If, at the end of the day, I can create a short video that helps nurture a relationship between a librarian and a library user, then I’ll come away satisfied.

Some notes:

  1. All three videos were developed with different versions of Camtasia screen-capturing software
  2. We believe the jury is still out on the effectiveness of tutorials in 2010. Our stats show usage, but I’m constantly suspicious of Google Analytics (this is the topic of a future post). Neither do we have consensus regarding our focus groups and usability tests
  3. There is no significance to No. 32

Halifax Public Libraries : Building Communities

Last Thursday (10 June 2010), I had the pleasure of attending the first of five planning sessions for a new central library in Halifax.  Downtown Halifax has required a new library quite a few years.  Why is this?  The Spring Garden branch holds the system’s

  • government documents (it’s a depository library)
  • main business outreach unit
  • main reference unit

But the 50 year-old building fails horribly when it comes to:

  • Accessibility (stairs everywhere! few elevators!)
  • Community meeting space (1, maybe 2 rooms?)
  • Children and YA Services – wedged into the basement level (The branch does wonders down there, but a better space is needed)

The good news is that Halifax Public Libraries has already secured the land and funding for a new downtown branch, and it has already contracted the services of two architectural firms to build a new library just across the road from the current site.  The great news is that HPL and the architects have committed themselves to real civic engagement through the entire design process that will culminate in a proposed design in November 2010.

Photo Courtesy of HPL

The Library and Community Involvement

Thursday’s meeting shows us that community involvement is HPL’s priority in the process.  Rather than hogging a microphone and telling the public what they’d like to do with this potential space, librarians and architects turned the session over to the assembled group and asked them to answer conceptual questions like “What can the Library do for you and what can you do for the library?”.   Each time a new question was raised, attendees were asked to move to a different table in order to discuss things with a new group of people.  This process organically developed themes from the ground up since the public brainstormed on their own accord about what a new library needs and what a city needs in a library.  In the end, the public was able to tell the architects, designers, and librarians what was important to them and what the new building will require to meet their vision.

HPL rejected a top-down approach to surveying community needs and all parties came away better because of it.  Although a top-down approach likely would have determined similar themes such as accessibility, sustainability, community space and learning centers, the actual process used on Thursday night reminded the community that they are the library system’s primary stakeholders.  Giving the floor over to the public (I’m part of the public on this one) showed us that our input is not just desired but is formally required before the architects can go forward.  It reminded us that if libraries are the civic centers that nurture the growth of communities through collections, services, and programming (and they are), then it is imperative that the community take a lead role in the design process.  Halifax Public Libraries isn’t just paying lip service to community engagement on this path toward a new central library.  Rather, they’re determined to have the community involved in every step along the way.

Photo courtesy of Halifax Public Libraries

Real civic engagement

Speaking as a member of the public on this issue, the meeting reminded me that community action and awareness is a real thing at the library.  It’s real easy for people to think about municipal government as nothing more than the organization that clears roads in the winter and maintains parks in the summer.  The library, however, is an arm of the municipality, and it’s the part of the municipality that’s in the trenches working with people and for people every day to make their lives better.  What we saw at the HPL Planning meeting last Thursday was real evidence of Halifax community building by, with, and for the community itself.


Canadian Culture at the Library

Lately, I’ve been reading Imagining Canadian Literature, the Selected Letters of Jack McClelland. Edited by Sam Solecki, the book is a fine collection of epistles, sometimes sweet, sometimes acerbic, written to friends and colleagues of the long-time president of McLelland and Stewart. (M&S was the dominant publisher of Canadian literature throughout the 20th century.  Solecki’s text reminds us that for over a half-century Jack McLelland played a vital role in the development of CanLit as a style, genre, and industry.)

Of particular interest to Canadian LIS professionals, aside from McClelland’s insight on the book trade, is his 1957 letter to Angus Mowat that expresses his displeasure about the establishment of a National Book Week by the Canadian Library Association in conjunction with the ALA.  Ever the patriot, McClelland was concerned that Canadian culture might be overwhelmed by a dominant American promotional campaign if a Canadian book week was to be celebrated at the same time as its American counterpart.  Although McLelland’s criticism is focused on the CLA, the cultural subtext is familiar to any Canadian who has ever discussed national (and cultural) identity:

I think the CLA should recognize that we are Canadian, that we want to continue being Canadian, and that if we want to continue to be Canadian for very long we can’t follow a course of passive acceptance of everything American and everything that seems easy.  Because of the proximity of the United States, Canada, I think, stands less chance of surviving as an independent entity, politically or culturally, than almost any nation in the world . . . I think the whole thing is appalling.  I hope those in the CLA that are responsible come to their senses, and I am prepared to be quoted in the strongest possible terms on the subject. (p. 30)

The passage of time allows us to reply that Canadian literature has become strong and vibrant, of course.  Although our publishing industry isn’t in the best shape it could be, the Canadian public is still discovering fine authors with incredible literary talent.  And our National Book Week has since morphed into a Canadian Library Month, with no one less that the Governor-General herself as its patron, so we should hardly fear an American dominance in our literary scene anymore.  Nonetheless, McLelland’s 52-year-old letter reminds us that Canadian identity, even though it is not as fragile as he thought it to be, remains something worth fighting for.  Although “Canadian Culture” (or just culture in the raw) is not something that most librarians think about in our day-to-day work lives, every now and again things occur –  an author’s reading for instance, or a Canada Council grant, or even just reading a few publisher’s letters as I am doing now – which remind us that our profession is in fact part of the culture industry.  Librarians don’t necessarily create Canadian Culture, but we definitely nurture it and promote it.  Libraries stopped being mere reading rooms decades ago and are now cultural hubs in the communities they serve. Like publishers, librarians are on the ground pushing and promoting Canadian culture to the wider public.

In short, what I’m drawing from McLelland’s letter are the concerns that still resonate in Canada about identity, culture, and nationhood, and how librarians affect and are affected by them.  We may spend the brunt of our day negotiating contracts, sitting in meetings, weeding materials or developing policies, but to our patrons we often stand as cultural agents, as the people who develop cultural collections that are representative of the community and then help these communitiy members locate themselves in it.

Are these platitudes?  Perhaps.  But on the other hand, CanLit and CanCon is as strong as ever, and Canadian public libraries play an active role in the development of a Canadian cultural identity.  Librarians should remain attuned to the cultural makeup of the communities they serve so that the collection and the institution reminds representative and vibrant.

Christmas at the public library

Merry Christmas!

Martha wants you to put on a feast.

This is a post of little substance, and I make no apology for it.  It’s holiday time, so I’m taking it easy with the help of the local public library.  Just before Christmas I stocked up on some good books to read over the break.  Right now my spouse and I are taking turns reading Imagining Canadian Literature: the Selected Letters of Jack McLelland, which has very little to do with the holidays but offers incredible insight into publishing in Canada, canon formation, and the Canadian literary community.  These subjects are in some ways peripheral to LIS in Canada, so I’ll touch on the text in a day or two, but right now I’m going to sing the praises of Martha Stewart and libraries with comprehensive magazine collections.  Like a lot of people in the USA and Canada, my Christmas feast was pulled off without a hitch by following Martha Stewart’s advice.  I cooked up a great dinner that fed friends and family for three days straight, and I couldn’t have done it without borrowing the 2008 Holiday Cooking issue of Martha Stewart Living. Although the issue is 12 months old, Halifax Public Libraries kept it in the collection so that non-foodies like me could pull off some kitchen magic once a year.  I’m saddened to return the issue next week since it was so vital to the success of the Christmas Dinner; there is definitely the odd extra splatter of cranberry chutney and gravy on its pages (I finally pulled off a half-way decent gravy, praised be to Martha) on account of my cooking.

Anyway, happy holidays.  Enjoy your break, if you have one, no matter how long or short it might be.  And remember to return those old magazines you borrow so that the entire community can make an extraordinary white wine turkey gravy.

Libraries, West Bend, and Civil Liberties

Going around the internet right now is the case of a local group of citizens in West Bend, WI, who disagree with the inclusion of GLBTQ texts in the local public library’s young adult collection and have therefore successfully petitioned for the removal of four trustees from the Library board. As widely reported in the press, West Bend residents Jim and Ginny Maziarka, who formed a private group called West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, objected that GLBTQ texts are “pornographic” (para. 11) and that walking into libraries with such texts is akin to browsing a local adult entertainment shop (para. 16). The Maziarkas raised a fuss, contacted their city council, and successfully had a few library trustees rejected from re-appointment.

A number of people and organizations have made note of the blatant discrimination and rights abuses that this action set in motion. On the face of things, this story is a solid example of discrimination against the GLBTQ community or of the imposition of purported “community morals” onto an entire generation of local youth who may be of a different, yet legitimate “moral” persuasion. I worry, however, that this controversy hasn’t struck a stronger chord with the general public. What we’ve read about, and what we’re seeing in West Bend is a potential chilling effect that can pressure a city council and public library board to bend to the will of one community subgroup at the expense of another. The entire controversy, predicated on the vocal pressure of one group, runs the risk of trampling the rights of the entire community to freely associate, inform, and be informed. In short (and as Lisa Chellman has duly noted), the Maziarkas might be toying with the citizens of West Bend’s freedom to speak freely.

The link drawn between the freedom to read and the freedom to speak isn’t always made clear in the public eye. When we talk about freedom of speech, we generally speak about our right to say what we want, when we want. We picture a person ready and willing to give his or her opinion on the subject of the day. Implied in this image but lost in the rhetoric, however, is the concomitant right to listen to what is being said. A right to speak, after all, is worthless if there is no subsequent right to freely listen to the speaker, read the book or to analyze the data for oneself. Demanding the removal of GLBTQ texts from a library (regardless of its categorization as YA or general fiction) is to censure those who care to speak on the subject as well as those who care to read it. It imposes the will of one group over another.

The Maziarkas’ maneuvering to pressure the library board (and ostensibly the library itself) to work only for their groups’ needs and desires negatively affects West Bend’s ability to inform itself on a given topic from the entire spectrum of information/literature available to it. Their group’s actions threatens the rights of not only the city’s youth and GLBTQ communities, but also the rights of the city as whole. Since the West Bend library must serve the community members, one should therefore expect to find books with GLBTQ plots as well as “traditional” relationship storylines.

What can librarians do to protect the interests of the entire community and to protect the free and unfettered flow of information? Having a solid collections and display policy is often a standard answer, and in the West Bend case, it might help to a certain degree. In cases such as these, though, when political pressure threatens to stifle debate and the information flow, it is important to be both political and civil. Remember that we serve the interests of the community. To that end, organize, and integrate. To the former, seek advice from other librarians who have been to the front when it comes to civil liberties. To the latter, become vocal and get involved in the community, and remind it why it needs to see all viewpoints – even the ones it disagrees with. Knowledge and understanding – regardless of one’s opinions and biases – is nurtured only through critique and debate. Remind the community, constantly, why this is so.

Librarians should be neutral about the information they procure. But they shouldn’t be quiet when it comes to civil liberties. Be vocal on civil liberties, especially on the freedom to read. Ours is a profession that has expertise in this basic tenet of our culture, so we shouldn’t shy away from expressing it.

Some more links on the issue:

Paul Everett Nelson, who provides a link to a local group who are protesting and petitioning against the original anti-free-speech action.

The National Coalition Against Censorship‘s original post reporting on the petition, from early April 2009.