Paper: A Thing Of The Past? No More Bound Rulings!

Arkansas state welcome sign
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First prep school libraries and now state courts. The Arkansas Supreme and Appellate courts have announced the end of printed, bound opinions and rulings. The official versions of the court rulings will be found exclusively on-line, reports Arkansas news sources. In exchange for the more than $250,000 in annual savings, the Arkansas courts counter the hacker concern by assuring the public that there are sufficient safeguards in place to maintain the integrity of the rulings. Okay. The printings ended with the July, 2009 rulings. Trees in Arkansas have been cheering ever since.

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Why Make a Federal Case of It? The Google Book Settlement Revisited

The Google book settlement: either you love it or you hate it. An interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday returned the debate to my waking attention. I found the piece interesting due in large part to the insertion of comments made by Professor Larry Lessig regarding inefficiencies in the existing U.S. system of copyrights.

The piece identifies Google’s goal as restoring access to 60% of books under copyright but out of print and unavailable in any format or medium. Let’s put aside the possibility that Google might have other unspoken, more sinister goals in mind and consider the foregoing as a real possibility. The opinion author laments that, in order for Google to succeed in this arguably laudable pursuit, it must come to terms with existing copyright laws that have put Google in the position of having to chase down interests that really may not even be interested.

The problem is the concept of “orphan works” – books for which there is outstanding copyright protection but for which there is no longer any publishing interest. Out of print, out of sight and out of mind in the non-digital context. Google’s efforts would bring these orphan works out of the murky slime and back into the light of a new day in the electronic world. All other concerns being equal, I think most would agree that having easy access to information where there previously had been little or no access is a positive step.

The countervailing interest is the preservation of the existing system of copyright protection, which locks down rights to works well past the point where such rights have any meaningful value. Professor Lessig questions why there should even be a concept of an orphan work: copyright protection according to Lessig is “intended to make markets function more efficiently” while the current system’s embrace of “orphan works” that are locked down under copyright protection long past the point where ownership can be identified brings the markets to a screeching halt.

 One would think that the original authors might be interested in keeping their works in front of the public eye. One would also think that librarians and reference professionals might applaud a system that would offer easier access to these hard to find pieces. Not so – authors are complaining about their share from the Google book settlement and librarians fear a Google dictatorship over the rights to out-of-print books. Why the interest in maintaining the leaky plumbing?

Professor Lessig notes that our modern system of content creation screams for an update, one that will offer clearer rules of ownership. As an on-line content creator, I tend to agree – I would rather have my material shared and discussed than locked down and protected. I get a thrill from finding arcane information previously unavailable or difficult to locate that far exceeds my pecuniary interest in a blog post. But then again, I am not a famous writer. Not yet anyway.

Where Have All The Good Books Gone?

100-1116 Huey P Long Bridge Baton Rouge northwest
Image by Chris[topher] Lin via Flickr

Studio readers know that I love the internet. I adore it as a source of information and enlightenment, engagement and development. I truly appreciate what the internet offers to researchers and data gatherers and content junkies.

But I really must relate the experience that I had earlier today. It speaks to our growing reliance on the internet / Wikipedia as not just A source of information, but THE source of information. I am not sure this is the correct position for all applications and it certainly shouldn’t be the “be all and end all” of the researchers tool-kit.

Today, as my children and I were traveling by car, we passed over a bridge. My eldest son, a 9 year-old, relayed to me that a boy he met on the beach had told my son that he had traveled over the world’s longest bridge: a span running from New York City into the ocean and terminating on an island in the Atlantic. I replied that I did not think that the world’s longest bridge was in New York, explaining that I had traveled on a seven-mile-long bridge in the Florida keys.

I asked him where we could find information on the world’s longest bridge (“WLB”) and he answered that the 2007 (?) version of the Guinness World Book of Records would have the answer. I then suggested that we would be passing right by an honest-to-goodness library filled with reference books and that perhaps we should stop there for our answer.

So we did. A nice local library positively filled to the ceiling with real paper, ink and board books! We walked straight to the spacious desk bearing the grand sign – REFERENCE. The youngish, maybe-early-20’s gentleman behind the counter asked if he could help us. I explained to him that we were in the car talking about the WLB and decided to stop at the library to get an answer as to how long it is and where it might be located. He gave me this knowing wink and grin and immediately turned to his computer, located right in front of massive stacks of reference books. In under 20 seconds, he had found HIS answer to the question, and spent about four or five minutes printing several pages. I stared at him during this printing process and asked him “gee, if you were going to look in a reference book to find the answer, which one would you use?” He thought for a moment and answered “The Guinness Book of World Records. Or, maybe, an encyclopedia.” He glanced at his printed pages, explained the WLB was in Japan and proudly handed the sheets to me.

Along the upper right hand corner was printed the Wikipedia URL. The title of the entry was longest suspension bridges.

A few thoughts:

  • why wouldn’t the reference librarian leap at the opportunity to teach children about the value of book research, an asset unique to libraries – institutions desperately seeking to maintain relevance in an increasingly on-line society?
  • why wouldn’t the reference librarian either ask the customer a few questions about what kind of information he or she was looking for before assuming that he or she is interested in the subset of suspension bridges, a decidedly shorter construction method than other bridge-building techniques?
  • if the reference librarian must use the internet, why wouldn’t he or she use Wolfram Alpha, rather than the sketchy likes of Wikipedia?

A good researcher is both an able detective and a willing educator. A good researcher is not content with the quick answer, although efficiency certainly is a desired trait. A good researcher takes advantage of the best tools available and prides himself or herself on keeping up to speed with the latest and greatest techniques, be they on-line or in the real world. A good researcher should never “come up short” and should seek to “bridge” the gaps between the question and the answer with the strongest, most comprehensive structure to be crafted with the tools at hand. And a good researcher should never forget the research “roots” – honest-to-goodness reference books!

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