Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Why I got a Kindle *

Last night after another discussion with Ian Clark about the Kindle and its relative technical and ethical merits, I decided that I needed to fully establish my attitude to the Kindle and to Amazon and that this needed more than the 140 characters afforded by Twitter **.

To my mind, there are two dimensions to the purchasing of a Kindle: the technical dimension amounts to an argument in favour of it; the ethical dimension amounts to an argument against.

Technical dimension

I love my Kindle and I recommend the device to other people principally because of its technical capabilities. Prior to getting a Kindle, I owned the now-discontinued Sony Reader PRS-505 model. Switching to the Kindle felt equivalent to when I switched from an MP3 player to an iPod: it felt like moving from a device that did its job adequately to a device that did its job well. Compared to the reader, the Kindle is easier to put documents onto (via the WiFi/3G email service), works faster (particularly with PDFs), and has more internal memory, more intuitive menu screens and more ergonomic button placement.

The success of the Kindle can be attributed partly to aggressive marketing by Amazon (so much so that ‘Kindle’ is becoming synonymous with ‘e-reader’ in the same way that ‘Hoover’ became synonymous with ‘vacuum cleaner’) and partly to the fact that it’s so much easier to use than other e-readers on the market. The average consumer doesn’t care about ebook file formats or openness: the average consumer wants a device that they can use to read books.

Ethical dimension

...but we’re not average consumers: we’re librarians. And we do (or arguably should) care about ebook file formats and openness. It seems that the major argument against the Kindle is its parent company’s attempted monopolisation of information provision. The Kindle supports MOBI format, Amazon’s own AZW format, and PDFs. The Kindle doesn’t support the industry standard ebook format, ePub, and therefore cannot support ebooks provided by public libraries via OverDrive. Although certain DRM-free ebook files can be switched to the MOBI format using programs like calibre, this is beyond the average consumer (or my mythical version of him/her).

This means that anyone who buys a Kindle is funnelled into providing continued financial and consumer support for Amazon since the Kindle-owner has little choice but to purchase Amazon ebooks. This amounts to attempted monopolisation of electronic reading material on the part of Amazon. It’s a particular concern for the UK’s public libraries since it means that they can’t provide lending ebooks to anyone who owns a Kindle. Amazon are working with public libraries in the USA but arguably libraries are getting the raw end of the deal.

OK, this may be the real reason I got a Kindle. From xkcd.

Generally I own a Kindle because the technical functionality of the Kindle outweighs my ethical qualms (and indeed my liberal guilt at using such a blatantly consumer-restricting product). More specifically, with all the issues laid out, I can explain why I use the Kindle.

A. My reading habits. When I’m looking for a book, I have two major considerations: first, I prefer reading print books to reading ebooks (as do “almost all” participants in a recent study); second, I’m just a poor librarian and so I try to get books for free when possible. So my sources of books in descending order of preference are: the library I work in; the local public library; a friend / family member; waiting for a customary gift-giving occasion and getting someone to buy it for me. If it comes down to actually spending my money on a book, only then will I buy the electronic version and I’ll do this purely for the convenience of being able to carry multiple books around. Therefore I don’t accept Ian’s – I assume semi-ironic – ‘Love Kindles; Hate Libraries’ equivalency. For me at least, libraries are way up my personal scale of preference as a source for reading material.

B. Public libraries have bigger problems with their ebook provision than Amazon’s looming dominance over the market. This post sums up the potential difficulties of getting an ebook from a public library. It’s unfair to blame libraries for all these issues – some are imposed by publishers, some are imposed by OverDrive. Amazon has more resources and certainly more funding available to make its technical process as smooth as possible. But the fact remains that as it stands, it is easy to get ebooks from Amazon and it is complicated to get ebooks from public libraries. Consumers go for the easy option and to say that Amazon’s dominance is a primary contributor to levels of public library ebook lending is disingenuous.

C. Amazon’s ‘monopoly’ is not that big or that threatening. Without any facts to back me up (apart from Amazon’s list of bestselling ebooks), I would guess that the majority of Amazon’s ebook sales are for reading-for-pleasure books primarily fiction. The Kindle is a great device for reading a book from beginning to end: it’s designed for reading-for-pleasure rather than reading-for-information. Libraries – public, academic, commercial – are massively important for reading-for-information (and as suggested in Justification A also have a key role in reading-for-pleasure). It’s true that each person who purchases a Kindle is funnelled down the digital primrose path towards supporting Amazon’s monopolisation of ebook provision but Amazon are nowhere near complete market dominance and I think that suggesting otherwise is an over-reaction.

The point

The point is that I like and recommend the Kindle as a reading device but, for the most part, I share Kindle detractors’ legitimate concerns about the ethics of Amazon’s consumer practices and attempted monopolisation. I am however not as concerned as they are.

* Or more precisely, why I dropped extremely unsubtle hints last December leading to my parents getting me a Kindle for Christmas.

** Turns out I needed 5979 characters. Huh.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Thoughts on military librarianship

The British Army's Prince Consort's Library
EDITED: 14/10/11

My time as Assistant Librarian at the Army College is coming to an end and so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on a little-known niche of librarianship: military librarianship. There isn't much information available about military librarianship and, due to security issues, precious little communication between military librarians (unfortunately there is no 'Secret Covenant of Army Librarians'). Here is some of what I've learned and what I've thought during my year and a half working as a librarian for the British Army.


Army libraries use a unique military classification system which is functionally distinct from Dewey or Library of Congress. Our copy of the scheme is from 1985. I have never come across it anywhere else and I can find virtually no reference to it online other than in Tidworth Library's Army Stock catalogue. Basically it divides all military books into Military Biography (MB), Military Equipment (ME), Military Forces (MF), Military Warfare (MW) (which is basically military history), and Regimental History (RH). These categories are then divided using Dewey-like numbers and auxiliaries relating to geography and history. So, for example, books on the Iraq War are MW.365.67-67; books about the War in Afghanistan are MW.365.81; books about nuclear weapons are ME.47 subdivided into ME.471 for bombs, ME.472 for missiles, and ME.473 for nuclear artillery. Military Biography just uses the first three letters of the biography subject's surname eg. Saddam Hussein is under MB.HUS. The scheme also allows you to divide books on World War I and World War II from the Military Warfare division using a separate classification schedule: for example, books on the D-Day landings are WW2: 251.61.

Working with restrictions 

Librarianship is all about making information available. Military security requires that information not be made available. This basic conflict is a challenge for any military librarian who can be restricted by the Army, Navy, or Air Force’s security protocols. 

I’ve written before about how narrow access to the Web affects the soldiers’ ability to retrieve verifiably true information. This applies equally to library staff. During my time at the college, the restricted Web access on the college’s computers has made it difficult to do so many things: to get Creative Commons material for displays, newsletters, posters; to find ideas for literacy development, library promotion, and inductions; to ask for advice from colleagues on social networks; and, most importantly, to find up-to-date information on military campaigns such as Operation Moshtarak and Operation Panther’s Claw. As well as the difficulty of accessing Web materials, the use of USB sticks is restricted which makes what should be simple – the transferring of files – extremely difficult. 

These restrictions are challenging – particularly for someone like me who focused his career on electronic resources, the Web, and ebooks. Learning to do without these resources has been frustrating but good for my development: it makes military librarians more resourceful, more willing to use different technologies, and less reliant on the Google-Wikipedia crutch.

Army culture 

I can’t speak for the other Armed Forces but the British Army has a very distinct (and in some ways unusual) culture with its own norms, values, and etiquette. In the civilian world, it may be unacceptable to take your dog into the office with you everyday but in the Army, it’s perfectly fine. Every library is heavily influenced by its users and so the culture of the Army massively impacts Army librarians’ day-to-day work. Military librarians need to be more active in their assistance. More than anywhere else I’ve worked, I look for users struggling instead of waiting for them to come to me. This often leads to the problem, how do you help someone who doesn’t tell you what they’re looking for?

Reading and learning 

The single biggest challenge of providing the military with reading material is that the military by and large don’t want reading material. There will always be people who don’t want to read but the incidence of non-readers among soldiers is higher than in the general population.

Some soldiers need no encouragement to read.

In general, a soldier only reads The Sun, Soldier magazine, or books that they have to read – because they are ordered to by a superior officer or because they’re doing some kind of further/higher education course. A lot of the soldiers only use the library during their free time to access Facebook. Military librarians need to encourage the few soldiers who read for pleasure. During my time at the College, partly inspired by Patrick Hennessey’s book The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, I’ve tried to encourage reading by representing it as a refuge, as a therapy, and as a way to pass the time during the periods of waiting and inaction that punctuate a soldier’s life. 

It’s rare but in some soldiers there is a genuine desire to learn and, whatever else I may think about the British Army, it’s admirable how much emphasis they put on education and learning – especially at the Army Foundation College. One afternoon in the library, I overheard a discussion between a Captain and a Junior Soldier: they intelligently discussed the Taliban, the false conflict between Islam and Christianity, and the human cost of war. I hope that when that Junior Soldier gets to Afghanistan, he will remember that discussion he had in the library and hopefully make the right decisions. 

A soldier once told me that soldiers fight for peace, not for war. The military librarian’s job is to support soldiers’ learning in order to make sure that when they have to fight, they do it intelligently and humanly. I hope that I’ve done that in my time at the college and I hope that other military librarians continue to do the same.