The Strange Persistence of Printed Books: Mouse Books

Brothers_K_grande_246097a1-d3d3-4008-856a-487204748363_540xThe digital era was supposed to make books and lengthy reading obsolete: Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia, originator of and memorably critiqued faulty assumptions in 2010, Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (here as .pdf; see also my posts here and here). "Boring old books" played a part. Clay Shirky of NYU wrote, "the literary world is now losing its normative hold" on our culture," "–no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. . . This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true." Ah, the satisfying thunk of a smashed idol. Goodbye, long, boring not so interesting books.

Except that a funny thing has happened on the way to the book burning. (Danke schoen, Herr Goebbels) Printed books have somehow held on: unit sales of print books were up 1.9% in 2016, at 687.2 million world-wide, the fourth straight year of print growth. Rumors of demise now seem premature. What gives?

The print book is far more subtly crafted than many digital soothsayers realize. Printed books have evolved continuously since Gutenberg: just take a look at scholarly monographs from 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990, and 2010. The current printed book, whether popular, trade, high-concept, or scholarly monograph, is a highly-designed and highly-evolved object.  Publishers are very alert to readers' desires and what seems to work best.  It was hubris to think that a lazily conceived and hastily devised digital book format could simply replace a printed book with an object equally useful: look at the evolution of the epub format (for example).

Designers will always refer to what has been designed previously, as well as new and present needs and uses when designing an object: consider the humble door. Poorly done e-books were a product of the "move fast and break things" culture that doomed many ideas that appealed to thinking deeper than the one-sided imaginations of bro-grammer digital denizens.

Enter Mouse Books. Some months ago David Dewane was riding the bus in Chicago. "[I] happened to be reading a physical book that was a piece of classic literature. I wondered what all the other people on the bus were reading." He wondered, why don't those people read those authors on their smart phones? "I wondered if you made the book small enough—like a passport or a smart notebook—if you could carry it around with you anywhere."

David and close friends began to experiment, and eventually designed printed books the size and thickness of a mobile phone. They chose classic works available in the public domain, either complete essays (Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) or chapters (Chapters 4 and 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, "The Grand Inquisitor," in Constance Garnett's translation. These are simply, legibly printed in Bookman Old Style 11-point font. Each book or booklet is staple bound ("double stitched") with a sturdy paper cover, 40-50 pages, 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches or just about 9 by 14 cm –a very high quality, small product.

David and the Mouse Team (Disney copyright forbids calling them Mouseketeers) aim for ordinary users of mobile phones. They want to provide a serious text that can be worn each day "on your body" in a pocket, purse, or bag, and gives a choice between pulling out the phone or something more intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Mouse Books give easy access to classic texts in a new format –especially essays or stories that often are not commercially viable on their own (such as Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, or Thoreau's essay, which are invariably packaged with other texts in a binding that will bring sufficient volume and profit to market.) The Mouse Books project wants to offer readers more ideas, insight, and connections for readers' lives.

As a business, Mouse Books is still experimental, and has sought "early adopters:" willing co-experimentalists and subjects. This means experimenting with the practice of reading, with classics texts of proven high quality, and complementing the texts with audio content, podcasts, and a social media presence. These supplements are also intended to be mobile –handy nearly anywhere you could wear ear buds.

As a start-up or experiment, Mouse Books has stumbled from time to time in making clear what a subscriber would get for funding the project on Kickstarter, what the level of subscriptions are, and differences in US and outside-the-US subscriptions. The subscriptions levels on the Mouse Books drip (or site do not match the subscription option offered directly on the Mouse Books Club web site. As a small "virtual company," this kind of confusion goes with the territory –part of what "early adaptors" come to expect. That said, Mouse Books is also approaching sufficient scale that marketing clarity will be important for the project to prosper.

This is a charming start-up that deserves support, and is highly consonant with the mission of librarians: to connect with others both living and dead, to build insight, to generate ideas. The printed book and those associated with it–bookstores, libraries, editors, writers, readers, thinkers–are stronger with innovative experiments such as Mouse Books. The printed book continues to evolve, and remains a surprisingly resilient re-emergent, legacy technology.

More about Mouse books:

Web site:

drip site (blog entries):



11 Responses for my 1 Colleague at Dartmouth College

More than a month ago, Joshua Kim asked eleven questions of his colleagues at ACRL 2017 (Association of College and Research Libraries, Baltimore, March 22-25).  I simply cannot keep up the pace of writing and work that apparently characterizes Dr. Kim (I ask, as does Barbara Fister: "how does he do it?").  I don't have answers — but at an embarrassing long delay, here are my responses to his eleven questions:

Question 1: What is keeping academic librarians up at night?

Allergy to book mold?  Seriously: the mis-match between 1) the transformations of libraries and librarians now in process, 2) unrealistic expectations, both within and outside academe, about the transformation of higher education by digital technology, and 3) available financial resources.  There is barely enough money to fund our members' needs day-to-day, much less the future needs of members who will bring very high, very different expectations to their education and research.  Training and re-training librarians, even younger, newer ones, will also be not only a significant expense, but an unavoidable one if they are to remain relevant and aligned with their institutional mission.

Question 2: What will the academic library look like in 2025?

Libraries will still living in a both-and world: some members will continue to want printed books, but will use them differently than the recent past (2015).  Some printed books will explicitly engage digital resources as supplements and complements.  Some members will never want to see or open a printed book.  Some members will be working far more with data sets and non-textual (or ostensibly non-textual) information visualizations.  Libraries will have fewer printed books on site, more workspaces (and more different kinds), less reader or member privacy, and more commercialization by monetized information organizations.  Members will still want a physical library space to be a place to get and stay "on task."  Some members will never interact physically with a library, or personally with librarians, but will use library services every day through the information configurations that librarians will tend and troubleshoot.

Question 3: How is the academic librarian profession changing?

Already there is far more emphasis upon communication, instructional, and design skills than ten years ago (even than five years ago).   Technical, back-office skills are rapidly changing from the provision and editing of information to aligning interactive and interoperable information systems.  Library leadership is especially challenged to visualize what could be, might be, or will be, to our stakeholders, and figure out how to achieve all that, and yet negotiate present-day campus political, financial, and legal arrangements that often reflect patterns and processes that are already obsolete.

Question 4: What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional transformation?

Preface: If universities are like the proverbial elephant as regarded by the visually impaired, libraries are very well-positioned (almost uniquely) to see a great deal of the elephant. The daily life of a library interacts with faculty who are teaching and doing research right now, academic leadership, policy and planning, campus operations of all kinds, public safety and security, university financial offices, alumni/ae relationships, enrollment retention, student recruitment, faculty recruitment, information technology, instructional design, construction and facilities management, and sometimes even the food service.  As a library director, I have almost all of those people on speed-dial.

To answer this question: libraries are almost uniquely well-positioned to act as change agents by partnering with a wide variety of interests to achieve a cumulative social, educational, intellectual impact on campus beyond the abilities or purview of any one campus organization.  This requires vision, street smarts, and an ability to listen.  It requires seeing that library priorities are not always the institution's priorities, but when different they need to come into some kind of symbiosis.

Question 5: How do academic librarians think about learning innovation?

It's a broad term.  Librarians would love to collaborate with instructional designers, faculty members, and others to create pathways for learning that transcend previous classroom, lab, and practice settings.   Organizations, consultants, and academic specialists will all be part of that –but many academic librarians I know are increasingly suspicious of the corporate interests in the phrase "learning innovation."  The innovations to learning in higher education that will be most productive are those that will not be packaged and sold by corporate interests, but will be far more local, ad-hoc, and malleable by teachers and learners themselves.  When I view a video purporting to be about Learning Innovation, and the head of Thomas Friedman talks, then I begin to wonder whose interests are really going to be served.

Question 6:  What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional efforts [that will] drive progress in the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality?

Academic librarians have a lot of experience with the trade-offs of costs, access limitations, and quality (both of information per se, and of presentation and interface).  Part of my daily life is putting budget numbers and academic ways-and-means together.  I believe the academic library's role can be incubator, initiator, and assessor of costs for access and quality of outcomes but that role is not guaranteed.  I believe that academic librarians will also want to challenge the oft-encountered (perhaps dominant) idea that instructional quality is simply a cost that limits institutional net income.  The recent ACE paper Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes, and Institutional Finances (.pdf) points at research that needs to be done, and assumptions that should be interrogated.

Question 7: What does the academic library leadership pipeline look like?

I heard some real concerns at ACRL about how the field will mentor future leaders who will need the financial, political, academic, and social skills necessary to lead a complicated organization on a complicated campus (physical or digital).  The relative slow-down in professional movement, promotion, and retirements in the years after 2009, coupled with either outright downsizing or less (immediately) drastic holds on hiring, have produced a situation where there is not a sufficient number of opportunities for rising leaders to learn their craft.  The profession is greying, and I cannot blame recent college graduates who bypass library and information science programs in favor of fields in which they will be able to pay off their substantial student debts more readily.  Yet we really need those people, and we need creative, competent new professionals of every age who will contribute their perspectives and learn how business actually gets done in many institutions.

Question 8:  How is the academic library addressing challenges around diversity and inclusion?

This was also a major theme of the ACRL conference, and built up to the simply fabulous closing keynote by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.  These challenges play differently in contexts: large academic library systems can pursue strategies and mentorships that may not be practical for much smaller libraries –where challenges and real needs for diversity of perspectives, persons, and inclusions of all kinds of persons are still very much present and felt.  I think this is a real opportunity for ACRL: to lead a multi-sided approach with library and information schools, foundations and grantors, large and small academic libraries, national, state, and regional library associations (in particular with library technology, and leadership & management divisions), and academic administrative organizations (AAC&U, ACAD, and HERC), for a cumulative impact on the profession, the libraries, and the universities.  I think that the professional leadership education offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is also a vital and viable venue to put together the efforts of many organizations.

Question 9:  What are the big arguments and debates within the academic library discipline?

I find so many that I will inevitably leave some out of even a very long list.  But here's my short list:

  • Privacy, user security, and trust: maintaining the academic library digital and physical space as a non-commercial zone of exception, as much as possible; and the way that user's searches and downloads can become monetized data points for commercial services that offer a false equivalent to a real library–and whether librarians can really do anything about that, or respond to it usefully;
  • Evolving understandings or interpretations of the Information Literacy Framework: what it brings in, leaves out, interrogates, and strengthens, and the sometimes yawning gap between the aspirations of the Framework and the sometimes frightening realities of many young students' lack of curiosity and joy;
  • The persistent tensions between "resilience" as a good term for a kind of creative flexibility in the face of adversity, and "resilience" as a substitution of a personal response for a solution to a structural problem.  I heard one speaker use the work and then immediately apologize for it after a standing-room-only presentation called Resilience, Grit and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Risiliency (.pdf)

Other attendees are welcome to point out all the good fights I missed.

Question 10:  How is the relationship between academic libraries and centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) evolving?

I'm not sure there is a consensus, since there are so many variables in academic contexts. I know of one case where a beautifully renovated CTL in fact combined about 10 other services formerly located elsewhere in a large university.  That set of new partnerships has required so much team-building and re-negotiation that librarians in the same building have not had as much contact as they previously anticipated (this may be changing recently).  Where the CTL and librarian partners have sufficient contact and are not completely frustrated by funding limitations (or non-existence), I have heard that enormously fruitful partnerships evolving.  Open Educational Resources, Open Textbooks, and so many other hot topics really call for multi-sided collaborations.  My favorite anecdote is of an information technologist with a strong secondary background in instructional design who exclaimed, "Wow, there's a lot of information technology in the library!"  I believe that many libraries, especially on undergraduate-oriented campuses, were attempting to be centers for teaching and learning before the phrase was invented, and in those places where turf is not a source of conflict, creative partnerships are forming.

The recent Ithaka S+R survey of library directors found that "while [many] library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of the faculty members for the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2015 recognized these contributions." (pages 3-4) I suspect that both Centers for Teaching and Learning and academic libraries face a common challenge to communicate what they can (and do) contribute to faculty who are genuinely skeptical or worried about maintaining their turf.

Question 11:  What questions should I be asking about the changing academic library?

The fact that you are asking any questions is remarkable for many academic librarians, who have so often felt marginalized (for reasons good and bad) by campus technology and technologists in the past couple of decades.  You don't take anything for granted.

I can only really respond by suggesting the question that I'm asking as I lead my organization through a process of listening, thinking and planning together: what is our core mission in plain language?  What is our value proposition for our institution?  How do we show that we are doing that?  How does our mission and value proposition align with our institution's proclaimed commitments and priorities?

In this process I have spoken with many people on my campus, and (following advice from a mentor) I asked each of them simply:  "What is your job?  What difference does your office make here?  What's your biggest challenge?"  Their responses were amazing, and almost all of them pointed in one direction: "how do we communicate to a skeptical world what an amazing difference real learning can make in a student's life?"  To the extent that our library can respond to that question with grace and authenticity, we can also state our value proposition and our mission, and our alignment with our university.

Even with all the challenges, controversies, and constraints, this is the best time ever to be an academic librarian.

Deep Work in an Academic Library

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work (Grand Central/Hachette, 2016), and it is challenging and invigorating.  As a historian of Christianity, much of what he says resonates strongly with the writings from religious communities of varying types: those Benedictines who work outside the cloister, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Society of St. John the Evangelist, for example.

I realize those are all very different emphases of Christian spirituality.  In common, however, is a desire to find balance between the active and contemplative life —neither simply to leave the “shallow” world absolutely (in contrast with, for example, Carthusians), nor simply to surrender any meaningful deep work and wonder.  Newport writes (briefly) about honing a skill with craft (for example, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coders, or teachers) and the connection of meaningful, skilled work with the sacred —the world of luminous, shining, wonderful things.  He speaks from an intellectual background formed by Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft, Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, and Herbert Dreyfuss' and Sean Kelly’s All Things Shining.

I’m not yet finished with Newport’s book, but I’m an engaged reader, and with such books I take my time.  Newport has reminded me vividly of the first professional library job I had (at Drew University, 1986-1992), when computers were coming into academic libraries, but e-mail, the Internet (not yet graphical), and the culture of distracted busyness were in an early stage, compared to the present.  Working with less distraction, I did in fact get more done, and more happily —one reason that I remember that job as perhaps the most satisfactory job I have had as a librarian.

I have heard it said that as academic librarians, “our interruptions are our business,” and that may be true when fielding requests for help from our students and faculty.  But they’re asking for help less than they used to, and the days of the reference question that ends with a verification of fact are long past.  Now questions have much more to do with process: how do I use this database?  How do I cite this in APA? How can I tell if an article is really peer-reviewed? —just to cite facile examples.  Academic librarians must admit, I believe, that the principle interruptions we endure most days do in fact come from each other: the relentless stream of e-mail, and the distractions of social and news media.

In January I heard Jim Honan of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education reflect on a phrase he took from a librarian in New York State, “Our data does not do justice to our story.”  What is our story as a library, what is our value proposition: how does what we do matter, to whom, and how do we do it?  Responsible and apt answers to those questions have to go beyond the shallow work of day-to-day institutional librarianship to the deep work of the field.

Do academic librarians have “deep work” to do, or is it all in the shallows?  Newport defines deep work (page 3):

Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.  These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Do academic librarians do any of that?  I must answer yes —but in metaphors or images that differ from the kinds of deep work that Newport seems to presuppose as a computer scientist and mathematician (his work concentrates on distributed algorithms, designed to work through and among interconnected processors).

Librarians fundamentally connect learners (inquirers) to sources of information and knowledge —learners who are taking responsibility for their own learning.  As such a learning-centered library is necessarily a polymorphous, polyglot, multifocal place (physical or digital place, or both at once).  The new value that librarians create (to use Newport’s words) will reside in the minds of those inquirers with whom the librarians interact.

The value proposition of libraries ultimately lies in improving the skill of independent learners to set their own terms and extent for learning, to take responsibility for what they know, and want to know —both know cognitively, and know how to do.

The strategies librarians employ —how are they going to do this— involve both interactions with learners and intellectual resources and tools.  This is the truth behind David Lankes’ contention that “a room full of books is simply a closet, but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library.”  A library is fundamentally what librarians do more than what they have.  The academic public, of course, usually sees it the other way around.

Academic librarianship suffers in spades from the major distractions that impede deep work(pages 53 et seq.).  Newport’s “metric black hole” afflicts most of the field: not only is it nearly impossible to measure what makes an academic librarian effective or distracted, it is hard to measure the impact of this professional work in the first place.  The ACRL has undertaken significant initiatives to show the value of academic libraries, but none of the strategies or paths so far are completely persuasive.  

This difficulty with metrics leads to following the paths of least resistance: absent the clear and compelling evaluative mechanism of a bottom line (or other metric), librarians (among other workers) tend to choose the behavior that is easiest and easiest to rationalize at the time.  Being a librarian means doing what other librarians do, even if that’s not very deep, and how would you know that, anyway?

Hence, in the absence of clear indicators of what is really means to be valuable and productive, like other workers librarians can make busyness a proxy for productivity: do lots of stuff in a visible manner (hey! look at us over here in the library!).  So it has to be valuable and productive, right?

I haven’t yet finished the book, so I don’t want to give the appearance of reviewing it.  I have a question for Newport, however.  Is his operational concept of deep work in the book in fact overly determined by the kind of deep work he does as a computer scientist?  If he were a linguist, a psychologist, or a  performing artist, would he have written the book differently?

By no means to I wish to trivialize his work (either computer science, or this book).  Newport’s leading example of deep work is Carl Jung and
the tower he built near his rural house in Bollingen Tower a two-story stone house with a private study (not very far from Zurich).  Jung would go there to write undistracted, unlike his busy practice, family, and cafe life in Zurich.  Without question “the Tower” was crucial for Jung’s thinking and writing, producing the remarkable insights and books that not only took on Sigmund Freud, but changed depth psychology and real people’s lives.  His work was “deep” in every sense.

Newport tends by implication to characterize Jung’s work in Zurich, by contrast, as shallow.  Newport sympathetically  and consistently characterizes shallow work as significant and unavoidable —the everyday work of professional duties and communications that require attention, but not deep engagement.  In his several examples of Richard Feynman (physics), Adam Grant (business and work behaviors), or Rick Furrer (blacksmith), Newport associatesdeep work  strongly with isolation and often solitary craft —whether craft of steel, wood, or words (writing), and shallow work with all the other stuff.

Yet much of Jung’s work in Zurich was anything but shallow.  His numerous cases show up all over his writings, and his deep analyst-analysand encounters inform every page of his writings.  His challenge to Freud and Freudians required not only courage and persistence, but skill —a skill that cannot be characterized as “shallow” in any sense.  Newport never characterizes it as shallow explicitly, but the implication remains strong; while he writes explicitly, “don’t work alone,” he encounters conceptual and definitional difficulties when associating deep work with collaboration.  Although Newport describes Jung's pattern as "bimodal," his description cannot help but privilege the deep over the "shallow," even though without Zurich there would have been no Bollingen (and vice versa).  Is it not possible in each place Jung was engaging differing and distinct Gestalten or formulations of deep work?

How does this pertain to librarians? Library work is inherently collaborative: even solo librarians aren’t really solo, but depend on the work of librarians elsewhere.  The collaboration of learner and teacher can be deep work, even when that teacher is not formally a classroom instructor.

Newport’s concept of deep work is not flawed, but it needs to be broadened and adjusted for several lines or other metaphors of work —I’m thinking about librarians and parish clergy, lines of work that I know personally and best (there are many others, of course).  Such adjustments cannot –must not–detract from clarity or pertinence.  Librarians almost certainly do spend too much time on e-mail and connectivity of fairly trivial sorts —for example, the rush in the recent past for librarians to tweet their work even though the very medium of Twitter tends to trivialize it.  It is very easy for librarians to mistake busyness for productivity.

Telling the library’s story, showing its value proposition and strategy can be deep work.  Deep work requires librarians not to confuse busyness with productivity, and not to follow the safe paths of least resistance and sheer habit.  Librarianship is a craft, service both to the living and the dead, collaborating with both learners and resources.  It can be a variety of soulcraft.  (I never forget that I hold a degree from Columbia University’s School of Library Service.)  Clearing the mind for this deep work does in fact afford a glimpse of the sacred trust of learners, traditions, and change.  Newport’s book gives librarians' deep work a robust boost, a clarion recall to mental clarity.  I'm privileged and happy to be able to continue reading it.