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I was browsing around the internet a few weeks ago, and found a link to Star in a Story. Your name in a classic story! for only $5.95! What a bargain, eh? How can you put a price on being part of classic literature?

Well, the ‘classic’ bit really is a bit of a hint. A quick glance at the list of title shows that they are all public domain! (well, actually, they’re not – more on that later).

I saw the site, thought ‘pah!’, and went away. But I couldn’t quite shake a nagging feeling, and ended up back on the site last night. The cause of my morbid curiosity?

One of the books was Anne of Green Gables. Now, I’m fairly familiar with the book, and remembered that Anne being called, well, ‘Anne’ was fairly important to the story at a few points. Hmm, thinks I. Surely they must allow for that? Surely they actually have some knowledge of the text, and have put a bit of effort in to making the name change believable. Surely, for $5.95 per text, they’ve not simply done a string match find and replace? Am I really going to fork over 4 quid of my hard-earned cash to find out?

Let’s see, shall we?

The original:

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Anne spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?”
(From Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45. Public domain in the US.)

and the ‘Star in a Story’ version

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Bethan, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordeliaat least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Bethanplease call me Bethan spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes SUCH a difference. It LOOKS so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Bethan spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

“Very well, then, Bethan spelled with an E, can you tell us how this mistake came to be made? We sent word to Mrs. Spencer to bring us a boy. Were there no boys at the asylum?” (From Bethan of Green Gables, copyright (apparently!) Chris Burgess)

And later on:

‘”Ann Ruddock has a very bad temper. Ann Ruddock must learn to control her temper,” and then read it out loud so that even the primer class, who couldn’t read writing, should understand it.’

Yup, string matching on ‘Anne’ and ‘Shirley’ it is. And if you look closely, you’ll see the formatting on the Bethan version isn’t great either – the em dashes are missing (as in ‘was Cordeliaat least’). For $5.95 I was expecting a nicely formatted pdf at the very least – what I got was an automatically generated webpage. If you’d like to see how it looked as a whole, (minus any name at all for the lead character!), check out http://www.star-in-a-story.com/Anne-of-Green-Gables.php. This (with my name in it) is what I got for my money. When I bookmarked the page and went back, lo and behold it’s the template copy! At least I’d copied and saved my little piece of immortality first, eh?

So what’s the lesson from this, for us as info pros? (other than that I’m a fool who can’t be trusted with money). It’s all about education, information literacy. I knew immediately I saw the list of titles that they were public domain. I chose to pay for it for investigative purposes. If I just wanted a copy of Anne of Green Gables with my name in it I know darn well I have quick, simple, and free alternatives.

But what about people who don’t know? Isn’t this the sort of thinking that we should be instilling through information literacy – don’t pay for anything on the internet without first checking out that you have to!

This doesn’t just apply to individuals offering services such as ‘Star in a Story’. The big boys are guilty of it too. Recently, I was looking for a version of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four to read on my phone, and thought I’d check out the new Kindle for Android app. The cheapest copy I found in the Kindle store? 72p. Now, I know that’s only 72p, and not exactly a major investment – BUT I knew full well I could get a copy from Project Gutenberg (in a number of formats, including Kindle-compatible) for free. And hang, on, what about my local library? Yes, it’s available for download as a free ebook there too – but someone has it checked out. Back to Gutenberg for me!

Obviously, people may well prefer the convenience of the Kindle store, and that’s fine – as long as they’re making an informed choice, and not thinking that paying 72p in the Kindle store is their only way of getting hold of that text as an ebook.

And it’s not just potential buyers who might be in need of a little advice from an info prof! When I scanned the list of titles available in ‘Star in a Story’, my first instinct was that they were all public domain. ‘But hang on’, thinks I, ‘Pygmalion? I’m sure George Bernard Shaw is still in copyright in the UK!’ And yes, he died in 1950, and won’t be public domain in the UK for another decade yet. What about Anne of Green Gables? A quick check on the dates of L M Montgomery reveals she didn’t die until 1942 (I think the assumption that she’s public domain probably comes from Anne being published in 1908), and therefore her works are still in copyright in the UK too. Not only did Chris Burgess of Star in a Story sell me an overpriced, shoddy piece of work, but – unless he paid royalties to the estate of LM Montgomery – he also broke the law in doing so. Perhaps a little advice from his local librarian could have prevented this?

Now, I’m not against ‘your name in…’ in general. Ok, I found Bethan of Green Gables creepy and disturbing, but I see that there is a market for this sort of thing, especially for encouraging reluctant readers. But the key is doing it right, and ‘Star in a Story’ is, I’m afraid, doing it wrong.

It’s no secret that a lot of librarians and information professionals are keen on getting things done right. As a profession, we tend towards perfectionism. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing – a lot of what we do is detail-orientated, and needs to be precise. Perfection can be a laudable state to aim for – but not when it interferes with Getting Things Done.

I started thinking about this after reading Lauren’s guest post on Ned’s blog, about how to escape the echo chamber. The theme that runs through everything Lauren says, unstated but hovering just below the surface, is the admonishment to Just Do It. Got a chance to speak to a reporter? Someone in authority? Don’t worry so much about what you’re going to say that you miss the opportunity. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It does need to be done.

This doesn’t just apply to campaigning and advocacy. A RIN report ‘Discovering physical objects: Meeting researchers’ needs‘ had the telling conclusion that:

their most important wish is that online access to museum databases to be provided as quickly as possible, even if the records are imperfect or incomplete

Imperfect or incomplete catalogue records! Did that just send a shudder through you? Get over it. Our job isn’t to pander to our own desire for elegantly and meticulously constructed records. Our job is to provide access to information – and that includes letting people know that it exists.

Remember, incomplete is not the same as inaccurate! There is nothing wrong with making your ‘works in progress’ available – mark them as such, and let people do what they can with the information. Whatever they can do, it’s bound to be more than they could do with no information at all.

So, let go of your librarianly need to control everything. Stop seeing half a job as worse than no job. Start celebrating what we actually can achieve, and stop waiting for the mythical ‘someday’ when you’ll have a chance to get things done right.

Do what you can; improve and build on it when you have chance. And if you don’t have chance? Don’t worry about it. You’ve done something, made a difference to someone. Nothing sitting in a draft folder ever changed even a tiny corner of the world.

Distract your inner perfectionist with some apostrophe abuse, and embrace the perpetual beta.

There’s a buzz in the info pro twittersphere this morning about the KPMG appearance on R4’s Today programme (library discussion starts about 8 mins in). Alan Downey from KPMG was talking about how the public can effectively run services that are currently run by the council, and was challenged specifically on the point of libraries. This was based on a KPMG report that came out today.

I’ll come on to discuss his claim that libraries could be run by volunteers, but my first warning that I was going to disagree with this man came when he said that ‘libraries are hugely important in the national psyche’. Oh, just in the psyche then? Not maybe actually important? It appears not. According to Alan Downey, we just think they are important. This is echoed in the written report, where they claim that ‘The level of community resistance to closing a library is usually disproportionate to the level of local usage’. Nothing overtly wrong with this sentence, perhaps, but oh! those nasty weasel words. ‘Disproportionate resistance’ is what stands out, and you can feel the condescension in every syllable.

The overwhelming impression I got from the interview was that Alan Downey’s idea of libraries is that they are buildings full of books. If library services can be run by the same people who are queueing up to sell books in charity shops, that strongly implies that he equates the two skill-sets. In the written report, libraries are condemned for having ‘over-skilled staff’. Well, if all library staff did was check books in and out, then perhaps they could be considered to be overskilled. But librarians do so much more than that – most ‘library services’ are based on the expert skills and knowledge of librarians. KPMG clearly do not have a clue about this.

KPMG clearly do not have a clue about a lot of things. I wanted to see where their assertions had come from, two in particular: that ‘in North America libraries are often run by volunteers not paid council staff’; and ‘much of the public space in a library is badly used storing infrequently used books’. Has there been a recent report about borrowing levels/circulation stats I’d missed? Well, quite possibly, but there’s no way of finding out through KPMG, because they don’t have any references. I’ll say that again: a report from a top advisory firm, aimed at reforming UK public services, contains not a single reference. Not one. Nary a hint of a reference. The press release about the report contains what could – with a generous stretch – be seen as a reference, in their ‘note to editors’, but is really just another unsubstantiated assertion. It looks like KPMG could have done with the help of some information professionals in compiling their report.

But they don’t know what information professionals do. They don’t know what libraries do. They don’t even really seem to know what libraries are. It looks like we need to go back to basics. Forget educating people about the value that information professionals add. Forget telling them how we can help them to find better, more authoritative sources of information. Let’s go right back to the very beginning: librarians facilitate information finding. Nope, too vague. Ok then: without librarians, there would be no books on your library shelves. If there were books on the shelves (‘study local needs for our acquisition policy? Nah, let’s just order the Amazon bestsellers list’), you wouldn’t be able to find the one you wanted. Oh yes, volunteers in charity shops do manage to organise the 50-200 books they have. Sometimes they even organise them by colour! That looks pretty, right? And we all have time to stand there and read every single spine in case the book we want might be there. No librarians? No catalogues. The reference desk? Will actually become just for lending pencils and directing people to the toilet. The computers? Well, you can try and use them – all depends on how IT-savvy your volunteer of the day is.

Yes, volunteers can be trained to do everything librarians do! Of course they can. This can be done in a number of ways – the most common is a post-graduate course at a CILIP-accredited library school. If you work in a library, and you’re trained to help users find information, then you’re a librarian. Maybe not a professional librarian, but a librarian nonetheless. But volunteers without specialist library training? I can think of no quicker way to reduce a library to a building full of books.

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