Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ask this librarian: For art and music

I was just trying to be cheeky for the title.

You know, ask a librarian. Asking this particular one (i.e. me) not about music or art but FOR them.

ART and the Art of Asking
A few days ago, a 15 year-old student (he was Singaporean but was studying overseas) asked if I could send him some higher-res images of a series of illustrations I created for the re-opening of Bukit Merah Public Library (it was referred as a Community Library then, when I was still managing it).

Hint: If you want a favourable response from people (from me at least), ask politely. And it helps if you volunteer more information on the Whys and Hows (i.e. be specific).

Which he clearly did.

And later, when I asked for more information about the school event he mentioned, he also added how he intended to protect my intellectual property rights: adding a watermark each image, destroying the printed images, making sure it's not disposed in a public trash bin even, and to delete from his computer.

I wrote back to say he didn’t have to do all that. Mentioned about my adoption of Creative Commons license. He could use the images as he deem fit, as long as he credited them in the way I wanted.

Legend of Bukit Merah Page 04 - MyRightBrain.wordpress.com

As I replied to him, I realised I did not make the higher-res images available online (it was before I discovered Creative Commons).

So here they are, posted at my Flickr account, if any one is interested. Instructions on how to credit them are stated at the individual Flickr post.

And just a few weeks earlier, another student (not a Singaporean, and not in Singapore) emailed to ask if I was willing to help her team with a soundtrack for their film project.

She was a film student working on a film project about Chinese culture and Mahjong. She found my Erhu twilight sample track from ccMixter.org, felt it would be appropriate for her film, but needed someone to create a longer track.

This was more challenging that the art work, 'cos I had to create the track almost from scratch.

I decided to do it because I had the time, and it every musical challenge was a learning experience.

More important, the student was polite in her mails and was clear on what she requested (you spot the pattern here?).

Took about two hours and came up with the following:

It's all CC-BY licensed. Information on how to credit the tracks, here.

Two days ago, she replied.

They didn't use my track. Not that they had to, but of course I'd hoped they would.

She explained that according to their marking criteria, if they used music that wasn't their original composition, they risked getting a zero for parts of their assessment. Meaning, their overall score would not be as high and they wouldn't get top marks.

She also apologised for not using the music, thanked me again, and said they should have reviewed their marking criteria fully before asking me to compose the track.

Far from being upset, I was happy they completed their film. I'd be 'upset' if I didn't hear from her (she could've just kept mum and not tell me).

I was also happy to learn that they eventually managed to find someone to teach them a little about percussion instruments. They used their new-found skills to create the sound effects for their film.

Speaking of which, do check out their film on YouTube:

When I related both cases to a friend, he asked me, "Aren't you worried you're being taken for a ride?"

He felt there was no guarantee that my efforts would result it my works being used. And even if they did credit my work the way I wanted, that may do nothing to publicise my work (the attention was on their own works).

At that time, I just shrugged and said "Maybe" and "Who knows?"

Later on my way home, I reflected on my friend's question and comment. Certainly, those concerns occurred to me. They always did. I tend to expect the worse, in fact.

But I agreed to those requests, knowing full well of possible 'unintended consequences'.

Because I wanted to.

Especially when people asked nicely.

Monday, March 08, 2010

eBooks for Public Libraries: Is the current business model sustainable?

In my previous post, I questioned if the whole eBook business model -- where public libraries are customers -- was sustainable.

I offer no answers nor earth-shaking mind-bending insights; only opinions :)

In essence, I suggest it's a question of managing costs.

First, what is the current business model where eBooks and public libraries are concerned?
Basically it works like this: The public library enters into a contract with an 'eBook vendor'. The contract is usually a license, where the vendor allows the public library to access the vendor's eBooks. The public library pays the vendor a fee, and there may be other technical restrictions for access (e.g. IP address, number of concurrent access).

Depending on the vendor's delivery platform, the eBooks may or may not be able to be downloaded to an eBook reader. The license fee has to be renewed at the end of the contractual term (meaning, access is terminated if there's no payment).

Why I feel there may be problems with the current eBook business model for public libraries
The main reason is that in the current eBook supply model, public libraries don't own the eBook copy (unlike the case for print books). The First-sale Doctrine does not apply.

Public libraries don't buy eBooks, not in the sense of owning then. In truth, public libraries pay a fee which we're able to pass on the right of access to our members.

Or to put in another way, public libraries are paying (on behalf of its members) for the convenience of accessing e-versions of the book.

The eBook vendors also impose a limit to the number of digital copies. I'm not privy to NLB's or any other libraries' contracts with their respective eBook vendors. But from the access policies, it's clear to me most eBook vendors do not allow unlimited access. Which means if the public library wants to obtain more digital copies, they need to pay more.

In short, it's about cost.

Costs of use of eBooks goes up rather than down
The more our users demand for eBooks, it's likely the cost will probably go up rather than come down.

It's simple math:

Let say the printed book (pBook) costs $10 and the eBook costs $2, or 5 times cheaper than pBook (in most cases, e-versions cost less than the paper versions).

Although the pBook is physical while the eBook is in bits and bytes, the eBook vendor isn't going to allow the library to make infinite copies. So the eBook is really a digital item treated and handled like a physical object, limiting its access.

And let's assume the pBook is loaned out for an average period of 10 days. Same as eBook (remember, the vendor forces the library to treat the eBook like a pbook).

In 300 days, both the pBook and eBook will circulate 30 times. The cost per pBook is $0.33 while the eBook is $0.06.

The eBook is cheaper, you say?

Ah, but the library owns the pBook and is free to let it circulate for another year. Or make it two more before it deems the pBook too worn to be kept. The pBook would have circulated 90 times. Or it costs $0.03 per loan.

The ebook, on the other hand, would have cost a total of $6 over three years (the public library has to keep paying the vendor each year, remember?). That will mean its cost per loan has increased to $0.07.

Plus we've not considered that users have to buy their own reader. I'm an optimist but even then I don't think it's possible for the public library to provide eBook readers for every of its members.

This means the eBook circulation is likely to be even less than the pBook. For a popular title, the pBook is definitely going to cost less.

eBooks are a cost-item, not an asset
For pBooks, it's an asset item whose cost of investment is amortised over time and with use. For eBooks, given the current business model, public libraries can only treat it as a cost item.

On the balance sheet it is a liability rather than an asset.

Time out...
Of course there are problems with my simple explanation above. Not all pBooks enjoy full circulation anyway. I've also neglected physical storage costs, or inventory holding costs.

Ah, but in reality, public libraries make do with their existing space (that's why we 'weed' collections to make room). This means the infrastructure cost for physical storage is amortised and again you have decreasing costs over time. In fact, the annual reports and financial statements of most -- if not all -- public libraries show that the largest chunk of the operational costs are staffing rather than assets.

All things equal, the eBook will cost the library more to provide compared to pBooks.

A different (cheaper) eBook business model for public libraries?
One of my colleague likes to say that the current reality for public libraries all over the world is a shrinking budget. I agree. Even for Singapore, that will be true.

Yet another reality is that the number of public library members -- who find the eBook format attractive -- will increase. More readers will expect the public library to provide eBooks (I'm not talking about replacement of pBooks, but the demand for eBooks).

But what then, would be that different business model for public libraries? The eBook vendor will charge a lump sum access fee, and allow unlimited copies for the year? Or allow buyers of eBooks to donate their eBook copy to the public library?

And still ensure that the eBook vendor/ publisher/ author still maintains a profit?

Or could public library members, who wish to have that added convenience of eBooks, share part of the costs? Where they pay just a little bit, as a premium service. That's possible if we view eBooks as an alternative format to print.

A question of balance
In the longer term, my bet is that eBooks will be more expensive than print, where public libraries are concerned. There are some who say the cost of eBooks are understated as it is.

Public libraries will have to calculate the total cost of service provision, and ensure that there's a balance between cost expenditure and asset investment.

A company like Apple, whose customer base is global, has the clout to force book sellers to lower prices. Public libraries don't. So the only way is to manage our own costs in view with our customers' use, demand and expectations of our collections and services.

A question of public commitment
When Andrew Carnegie set up a foundation to help establish public libraries, one requirement was that the people and government had to be willing to fund part of the operating costs.

His foundation's initial investment would have covered the building and the collections. The library owned the books and was free to lend them out as many times as people would want to borrow. There was no burden on him to constantly feed money into this black hole called a public library.

However, suppose Andrew Carnegie was told that his one-time donation was good only for one year. After that he would need to continue paying the eBook vendor to enable access to the eBooks. The more people used his library each year, the bigger the hole it burns in his pocket.

I bet Andrew Carnegie would think twice about setting up the public library in the first place.