Public libraries in American life

library parking deck

Last January I wrote about how Americans perceive libraries, based on a Pew research poll about library services. For one thing, Americans hold their public library in high esteem even when they don’t personally use it. It’s time for a closer look at that point.

First, the numbers

library parking deck

Library parking deck in Kansas City

The Pew questionnaire begins with some very general questions about the respondents’ communities, their access to the Internet, and their book-reading habits. The first question directly related to libraries asks about the importance of public libraries, and explicitly excludes school or university libraries.

Are libraries [very important / somewhat important / not too important/ not at all important] to [you and your family / your community as a whole]? 46% of respondents answered that the libraries are very important, and 30% said somewhat important to themselves and their families. Continue reading

Why you’re not allowed to hear most old recordings

Wax cylinder (Edison)
Wax cylinder (Edison)

Wax cylinder (Edison)

The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1976, Congress set the limit at 75 years or the life of the author plus 50 years. In 1998, it extended both terms by 20 years.

At least that’s true for most of what comes under the copyright law. For some reason, sound recordings do not fall under the federal copyright law. Instead, they fall under, and are crushed by the weight of a tangle of federal and state regulations that have the effect of preventing them from ever entering the public domain.

Public domain simply means a body of works that are not subject to copyright laws. Therefore anyone is free to publish them or otherwise use them without having to obtain anyone’s permission or pay anyone for the privilege.

Copyright law for nearly everything

By 1998, any print materials (including movies, which are essentially printed on film) published before 1923 had entered the public domain. Some works published between 1923 and 1977 were also in the public domain if they had either been issued without a © symbol or their copyright had not been renewed after the end of the initial 28-year term specified under the old copyright law.

The 1998 legislation has the effect of preventing anything else from entering the public domain until 2018. And if business interests can persuade Congress to grant another extension before then, it will take even longer before anything enters public domain.

In some cases, no record exists of whether a particular work was ever copyrighted. These are called “orphan works.” It’s not like it’s illegal to use them as if they were in the public domain, but there is an obvious risk. Someone might own the copyright, object to the use, and easily sue for damages.

Most people find copyright law and what it allows them to do confusing enough. As I said, sound recordings have been left out.

Sound recordings

Vinyl record grooves

Closeup of the grooves on a vinyl record

According to a report issued by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress in 2010: “The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire.”

Here’s what it means:

  • Recording companies secured copyrights to the recordings they made. Many older companies no longer exist, but the copyrights have passed on to successor companies.
  • Recording companies may reissue any older recording they want to.
  • If a recording company does not care to release its older recordings, they can and do prevent anyone else from doing so.

Preservation issues

sound recordings

Reel to reel tape deck. 1960 advertisement

The technology of preserving writing with ink on paper is older than the printing press. One needs only to look at the writing in order to be able to read it. If the paper tears or otherwise becomes damaged, there are time-honored methods of repairing and preserving it.

Sound recordings, on the other hand, require some kind of machine as a “mediator” between the recording and the listener. Sound recordings have existed in a wide variety of forms, including but not limited to

  • Wax cylinders
  • Wax discs
  • Vinyl discs—with much narrower grooves than wax recordings
  • Magnetic tape
  • Compact discs
  • MP3 files

Each of these forms requires different machines to play them back. In fact, magnetic tape has existed as reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, and 8-tracks. Fixing a damaged recording is much more difficult than repairing torn paper. It might not be possible at all. The playback machine must also be kept in good repair.

The best way to preserve a sound recording is not to keep the original recording medium in good repair. It is to copy it to a newer technology. Enrico Caruso’s recordings, first issued on wax at a time when the cylinder and the disc were engaged in the first of many recording format wars. They have been reissued on every subsequent technology.

We can listen to Caruso’s recordings today because RCA, the copyright owner, can still profit from them. The vast majority of recordings are not commercially worth reissuing on a new technology.

Libraries have taken on responsibility for preserving our cultural heritage and making it widely available. Except that the current copyright tangle absolutely prohibits American libraries from preserving old sound recordings and making them widely available.

According to European copyright law, on the other hand, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after they were first issued. European companies can reissue any recordings issued before 1963 that they want to. They just can’t sell them here.

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Source: Copyright Protection the Serves to Destroy / Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2013

Photo credits: Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons, except

Reel-to-reel tape player ad. Some rights reserved by Nesster.

Government web sites you should know about: consumer issues

USA.gov pageVarious offices of the federal government offer a wealth of information that the public can use. It seems good to describe some of them here from time to time. This first installment looks at three web sites devoted to various consumer issues.

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC’s Consumer Information page has separate tabs for information on

  • Money & Credit
  • Homes & Mortgages
  • Health & Fitness
  • Jobs & Making Money
  • Privacy & Identity

It also offers a video/media library. There you’ll find not only videos, but audio tips and games. Quite a bit of the content deals with scams and consumer fraud, but the library includes tips on such things as saving money on gas, understanding how to understand “lumens” when buying light bulbs, and how to read bills.

Besides finding information on the site, you can take action: file a consumer complaint, register for do not call, get a free credit report, etc.

Financial Literacy and Education Commission

Before I checked out MyMoney.gov I was not aware that such a commission existed. The site itself is very well organized. It collects and categorizes information from other government agencies.

You can find, for example, a great deal of information about scams and consumer fraud from the FTC site above, but at MyMoney.gov, you can also find links to the General Services Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Department of the Treasury, and more.

In part, the site is designed around life events, with sections devoted to

  • Birth/adoption of a child
  • Going to collect
  • Marriage/divorce/partners
  • Home ownership
  • Starting/losing a job
  • Starting/buying a business
  • Planning for retirement/Retiring
  • Death of a family member
  • Natural disasters and unexpected events

It also offers helpful calculators, worksheets, and checklists to help with various aspects of money management.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s site exists not so much to provide information as a place to get assistance. You can indeed read the reports, bulletins, and other information the bureau has published, but more than that, it is a place to file a complaint, tell your story (good or bad) about experiences, and pay for college.

The page for filing complaints enables consumers to deal with very specific issues:

  • Bank account or service
  • Credit card
  • Credit reporting
  • Money transfer
  • Mortgage
  • Student loan
  • Vehicle or consumer loan

There, you can not only submit a complaint, but also track its progress through the system. Meanwhile, information consumers supply to the bureau helps it fine tune its procedures and improve its services.

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Foreclosures in San Diego and what libraries are all about

San Diego County Library

San Diego County LibraryLed by the San Diego County Library (SDCL), a few libraries in Southern California and Nevada are helping homeowners threatened by foreclosure. At least, my source for this post does not indicate that the effort is any more widespread than that. But it beautifully illustrates how libraries struggle to meet the needs of their community.

At first glance, libraries don’t seem to have much to do with the housing crisis. At second glance, people who see their homes slipping away have no idea where to turn for information. Providing information is a core library function. Building community is another.

The problem

The housing crisis that got started in 2006 affected housing prices all over the country, but not equally. After having fewer than 6,000 annual defaults on mortgages for years, San Diego County saw more than 10,000 in 2006. The number grew to 38,000 by 2009. It was one of the hardest hit areas in the country.

The Housing Opportunities Collaborative (HOC), a non-profit organization with branches in five Southern California counties, began to offer free workshops that brought together credit counselors, housing counselors, realtors, and a variety of attorneys who specialized in bankruptcy, real estate, and tax law.

The suddenness and size of the crisis presented numerous problems for HOC. One of them concerned where to hold meetings. They needed a venue that the public would trust. After all, lots of hucksters hold seminars in a crisis, pitching products and services that might not be necessary or even be nothing more than a scam.

How the library helps

Susan Moore, who had just started a new job at the SDCL, saw the need and had no clear idea what she or the library could do about it. The library’s director encouraged her to look for a solution, even though it seemed not to be a typical library responsibility and even though the library faced steep budget cuts of its own.

Soon enough, Moore and the HOC found each other. Libraries have meeting rooms with the infrastructure necessary for both seminar sessions and private consultations. Libraries enjoy great credibility in the communities they serve. HOC for its part made sure that its volunteer professionals did not solicit business or even hand out cards.

Churches and other community groups would have also been comfortably neutral places for meetings, but SDCL has 33 branches. Besides fully equipped meeting rooms, it offered HOC the opportunity to deal with one contact at the library as opposed to lots of individuals in charge of lots of different organizations.

Another advantage of using the library soon became apparent. Many people facing foreclosure did not want their neighbors to suspect they had a problem. Meetings intended to serve a specific community turned out to be poorly attended.

In terms of area, San Diego County is one of the largest in the country. It stretches from the Mexican border north to the Fallbrook Branch, a driving distance of more than three hours.

I used to live there, and it’s an area where drivers don’t care much about long distances. It’s fairly easy to find addresses in unfamiliar neighborhoods, ideal for people who want to attend a meeting and not run into people they know.

Why should people in other parts of the country care about the partnership between SDCL and HOC? It shows a lot about how libraries operate and how librarians think:

  • Librarians want to provide accurate, useful information—even if it can’t be found in traditional library information sources.
  • Libraries frequently enter into partnerships with other local agencies, if only to provide meeting space.
  • Libraries seek to offer special help to populations with special needs—in this case, people facing foreclosure, but also entrepreneurs, the unemployed, handicapped, immigrants, minority groups, the technically challenged, and much more.
  • Libraries are not so much collections of information or entertainment as they are collections of services for their constituencies.

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Source: Libraries Help Homeowners Fight Foreclosure (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) / Deniz Koray in American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Allan Ferguson.

Movies, technology, and libraries

film projector

home movie projectorI’m dating myself again, but I remember when home movies used 8 mm film. Movies available for sale were 16 mm. The latter were mostly made for educational purposes, so only English classes ever had feature films. I doubt if anyone thought of renting one for home use. Then came the VHS/Beta wars. Soon enough it didn’t matter that VHS had won, because everyone flocked to DVDs. They’ll be gone soon enough, too. So will Blu-ray. It’s not a problem for libraries–at least, not yet

New technology and business

Audio cassettes made it possible for the general public to buy or rent movies to watch at home. Two formats clashed for market domination until, ultimately, VHS won its temporary victory over Betamax.

Everyone who had placed their bets on Betamax now had obsolete equipment and had to go out and buy something else in order to keep watching the latest releases. Business was great for companies that sold VCRs and other equipment that used VHS.

Blockbuster and other companies quickly cashed in on the new ability to watch movies at home. After all, not everyone wanted to buy their own copies unless it was a movie they knew they would watch many times.

With the invention of DVDs, the public quickly turned away from cassettes. They were less bulky. The picture and sound were better. No one had to fuss with rewinding them. In some ways, Blu-ray is even better, although it has never threatened the DVD format.

The new technology was a boon to manufacturers. Blockbuster et al. simply switched their holdings from cassettes to DVDs/Blu-ray and didn’t miss a beat. That is, until Redbox and Netflix offered more convenient delivery systems.

Now, cloud storage and streaming services have begun to catch on. Sales and rentals of any kind of disc are declining rapidly. They will probably disappear eventually.

New technology and libraries

VHS_2_DVD_1Once libraries decided they were no longer only about printed materials, they have collected audiovisual materials in the latest available technologies. As technologies have changed, many libraries have kept much of the older material and the equipment necessary to play it.

Why? Not everything available on videocassette ever got transferred to DVD. Not everything issued on DVD will ever be available through the newer technologies, either. Few enough people want them for them to be commercially viable to transfer to new technology. Enough people want them for them to belong in at least some library collections.

So far, therefore, introduction of new technologies have been expensive both in terms of purchasing new equipment and formats and training staff to use them. They have not had significant impact on ordinary library services and procedures. Whether patrons take out videocassettes or discs, it counts toward the library’s circulation statistics.

As physical objects become obsolete, libraries will still offer the latest technologies to their patrons, but circulation is already taking a hit. Eventually, libraries and the governments or other institutions that fund them will have to agree on a new way to track the effectiveness and usefulness of library services.

Why circulation matters

DVD displayMeasurement of how a library is used and what it does naturally rely on counting things. Libraries keep counts of the number of people who walk in the door or who call on the phone. They count and itemize everything that patrons borrow, including the number of DVDs.

With the catalog, databases, and other information available through the library’s web site, it is no longer necessary for patrons to go to the library physically or call on the phone in order to use library services. Of course, the invention of the telephone caused a similar problem more than a century ago. There are ways to measure the number of people who use the library via computer.

Similarly, when patrons download movies (or other electronic media) using library facilities or view them while in the library, it would seem that that should be covered by statistics.

The situation probably varies from place to place, but Massachusetts does not allow its public libraries to count the use of licensed content in its circulation statistics. The library does not own it. If a contract is canceled, libraries can no longer make that content available.

That makes no sense to me. If a library buys something and then years later weeds it from the collection, patrons no longer have access to that, either. But during the time the library had it, no one questions counting how often it gets used. The fact that no one has looked at it for years, if ever, is one of the factors that justifies getting rid of it in the first place.

But as a top officer in the Pentagon once told an irate colleague of my father, “Aw hell, Doc. It don’t gotta make sense. It’s policy.”

For the short and middle term, it looks like library circulation will not suffer greatly from streaming movies as much as the rental stores do. On the other hand, library administrators are already looking for other measurements of how well they serve the public besides circulation.

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Source: “Media Spotlight: DVD Circ Hold Steady, For Now” by Matt Enis, The Digital Shift.
Photo credits:
DVD display. Some rights reserved by Monterrey Public Library.
Others. Source unknown.