Monday, March 13, 2006

Most Disappointing Google Library Symposium Speaker

Of all the Google Library Symposium speakers, I was most unhappy with Karl Pohrt. He is the owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor. I was hoping that he would discuss the topic at hand (digitization) and share with us ideas on how independent booksellers would be participating. What new economic models could these booksellers use from digitization projects either by working with libraries, Google, or on their own? How could the expertise of independent booksellers be translated into the online full-text environment?

He did not do this. Instead, he talked about the decline of the independent bookseller over the last several decades. He showed figures indicating that membership in the American Booksellers Association had declined by thousands.

I disagree that booksellers are disappearing. There are more now than ever and they are more accessible to individuals than the traditional bookstore had been in the past. You can buy books everywhere including online. Further, even outside of Amazon and the big chain stores, there are still a lot of independents out there. Many sell books on eBay or from websites out of their basements and they never join a trade association. Those traditional independent stores who have been able to change with the times (open up coffee shops, sell books online, find other revenue streams, etc.) have stayed open. Those who have not have closed. That is the way the economy works and it may be sad for those who lose out but it really was not in any way central to the topic of the Google Library Symposium.

He also made the preposterous claim that the decline of literacy skills and perhaps the decline of Western culture could be directly tied to the disappearance of independent booksellers. I really hadn't noticed that Western civilization was in decline. Perhaps he is in the school that believes that since all problems have not been solved, a Republican is in the White House, and that NASCAR is popular that all shall soon be at an end. Sorry, I do not buy that. Even if it is in decline, independent booksellers are not the heart of the solution to the problem.

I am sorry that Pohrt and others can not make a living in the same way they did 30 years ago. However, those booksellers who have survived into the new economy have something to offer libraries and the world at large via digitization projects. How can their knowledge, skills, and collections enhance the online reading experiences of the world? There are so many angles on this that could perhaps benefit scholars, casual readers, and the bottom line of the independent booksellers. Unfortunately, Pohrt failed to address any of this. He was a good speaker and was interesting. He did recommend a book on extreme digitization (Accelerando) and he noted how Google Books would never be able to replace browsing. He just missed saying much of significance relating to the topic of the Symposium.

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