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In conversation with Jessamyn West, famous librarian


Jessamyn West at Desk, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jessamyn West is a famous librarian, a former Metafilter admin, and a Vermont information technologist with a passion for open knowledge.

West has been blogging about library technology since 1999 at and on her blog since 1999. She also has a prolific Medium presence and an entertaining and informative newsletter about libraries and information access, called TILT. In addition to moderating the online Metafilter community, West has worked with Open Library, Harvard University, and the Rutland Free Library. An inspiring library activist, she designed the library “warrant canary,” and last year, she spearheaded the Librarian of Progress campaign, which encouraged the Library of Congress to modernize for the 21st Century.

You made a website during the nomination process of the Librarian of Congress called “The Librarian of Progress.” Can you talk about Carla Hayden’s nomination and then appointment as the Librarian of Congress? What do you think is going to happen with the new LOC and how do you think it’s going to affect copyright in the future?

I think there’s a couple things that pile in together, right? Number one, I feel like the Library of Congress has been a little bit of a ghost ship for the last five, maybe even 10 years. James Billington, who’s this eminent historian, headed the institution as if it were like a history center. But not quite a library and certainly not a public institution that is the world’s largest library. I think when a lot of us were looking at “Gosh, he’s retiring. Thank God. Who’s going to come in?” We were just hoping there would be somebody who was from this century, number one, and number two, somebody who was friendly, progressive, and forward-thinking. A lot of people don’t really know that the copyright office sits within the Library of Congress. The Librarian of Congress is nominally in charge of the copyright office.

She’s said copyright reform needs to happen – she’s definitely a sharing advocate, and a true public librarian who understands that culture is advanced when people are allowed to be creative with things. Hayden believes that libraries can be an institution that can help people do that—safely is maybe not the right word, but fairly.

Librarians don’t want copyright to go out the window. They just want it to be fair, they want it to be something that people can understand, and they want it to be something that people can use.

We hope that Dr. Hayden is really going to be the first Librarian of Congress who maybe gets that and can create an institution that can work with that.

Do you think that library values can be particularly important when it comes to the challenges facing the copyright office in the Library of Congress?

I think so. Libraries work for everyone, they don’t necessarily just work for their customers, they don’t necessarily just work for the people with money, and they don’t necessarily just work for the people in charge. There’s a democratizing factor with what they do. You realize that certain things about the way copyright works, the way copyright protection extends way, way back into history, some things seems to never enter the public domain, especially lately. Authors write that things can get locked up forever, things could be in an orphan work state where you have no idea who owns it and it’s just presumed that it’s not available to be used, unless you can prove it’s available to be used. I feel like libraries can have a mitigating factor on that because they can accept some of the risk. They can say, “We feel it’s probably okay to share this.”
The MPAA and RIAA work for the rights holders—who maybe be different than the actual creators—but in general the behavior of industry organizations is understandable. It’s not necessarily in their best interest to be crystal clear about what the law does and doesn’t allow. It’s a lot more in their interest to be slightly scary and to make you afraid so that if you’re making a video in your kid’s house, and your kids appear in a video, and you know the music in the background is an artist that’s notoriously litigious, maybe you’re not going to do that. As far as the RIAA is concerned, that’s fine with them. Don’t play Metallica in the background. Don’t paint Mickey Mouse on the wall of your daycare. All the rights holders want you to worry and second guess your use of their content, and what the library would like you to do is share legally as much as you can. They can help people and I think their values of working for everybody push forward that goal.

How do you feel about the concept of the commons and knowledge of licensing, like Creative Commons? Do you feel that CC can help in these kinds of situations?

I feel like it’s a great tool for cultural heritage organizations. Not just libraries, but museums and archives too, because then they also use it for sharing their own resources—to a certain extent. I use Creative Commons to license the content that I put online. I like it because it essentially says, “Look, I’m making this freely available, but I don’t want other people making money for it.” I can dial in how I want people to be able to use my work. Maybe someone else just want to give away all the rights and they can dial that in too. I think the only thing really standing in the way of Creative Commons is that some people aren’t clear what the enforcement mechanisms are.

I think we’ve seen people who share their content as freely as possible, but then other people sell it and they say, “What? That’s not in the spirit of it.” We’re not talking about the spirit. We’re talking about an actual license, which means you have to read the fine print and everything else. I think we’re seeing a ton of libraries using tools like Flickr, for instance, online photo archiving, and it’s awesome for them to be able to assign Creative Commons licensing to it to expand their options beyond either only public domain or only all rights reserved.

CC gives them options that are more true to their values, and I think that act facilitates sharing and reusing, repurposing, remixing, and all that wonderful stuff that helps culture move along. It’s joyful, honestly.

I really am happy that CC exists, but I’m always surprised how many people I talk to who either don’t quite understand it or they don’t see that it’s actually a tool of facilitation, not a tool of restriction.

It sounds like a lot of the different examples we’ve been talking about have to do with fear and confusion. This culture of fear around people using and sharing material and using and sharing licenses. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that has influenced your work, both as a librarian and also as a MetaFilter moderator, and the other work that you’ve done over your career as an advocate for free and open information.

I spend a lot of time trying to talk people through some worst case scenarios, because I think one of the problems is chilling effects of unclear rules. People aren’t sure what the rules are, and so they over-censor themselves or over-restrict, or they try to shame other people into doing that. For 10 years, I ran MetaFilter, which is a big online community. There are lot of people interacting and talking to one another. You would occasionally get someone who would write, “There’s this scientific paper that I think is super interesting,” and they would link to an abstract or a news article about the paper. Then in the comments, someone would tell them, “Here is a PDF, or contact me to get a PDF of that paper.” Maybe the PDF is available, but it’s only in a commercial journal, you have to pay 50 bucks to get it. They’d share it out. Then other people would say, “That’s so illegal,” and freak out.

As a moderator on the site, we have to be a mitigating influence and tell people, “Look, it’s up to the rights holder to determine if there’s a problem. Sharing a PDF among 30 people is maybe technically a copyright infringement, but it’s probably not going put you in jail.” I think the MPAA and the RIAA really like to blur that line. I don’t think it’s nice to pirate all music because it’s no good for struggling artists, but I don’t think sharing a Metallica song is really the same thing as stealing the records from somebody’s house. I think the entertainment industry tries to obscure that boundary because their revenue stream depends on it.

In terms of sharing information in online communities, the risk is so low and the value of people having better information about medicine, for example, is so valuable that it’s worth approaching the outlines of that envelope and trying to figure out how you can maximize sharing. I think for some libraries, they worry a lot about risk assessment because they’re government institutions. Not so much “We’re the government,” but if the library gets sued by the MPAA, that’s a town getting sued by the MPAA, and it’s expensive. I like it when non-profit institutions are willing to go to bat for better interpretations of copyright laws. We saw the Hathi Trust lawsuit and the Google Books lawsuit. The Internet Archive is always willing to stand up for sharing as much as possible. These public interest institutions can really help model appropriate risk assessment.

For example, the Internet Archive shares thousands of video games from the 1990s that nobody was playing anymore and the original companies have probably abandoned, but if someone comes along and says, “Hey, that belongs to me and I own the rights, will you take it down?” they will. In the meantime, the Archive provides access to games that people can play and share and talk about, and it surfaces culture in a way that if they were concerned only about chilling effects and “maybe this isn’t technically legal,” they never would. I’m happy that those organizations are out there, and I’m always advocating for libraries to join in the sharing as much as is possible. And I think for libraries this type of sharing is usually practical because they can shoulder a little bit more risk than one individual patron might be able to.

You work and live in Vermont, and in your library, the internet and having access to cultural works online can open up the world to a lot of people. I’m wondering while the culture of commoning can open up new frontiers for students and educators, how are you and your organization branching that digital divide? Are you or how are you using tools such as Creative Commons to help cultural heritage organizations bridge that gap?

One of the things I try to do all the time when I’m educating users about Creative Commons and the other things is just showing people where these deep archives of content are already available to them. One of the aspects of the digital divide is that people only have ideas about content, archives, and information that they read about in the paper. If you ask somebody what they know about Wikipedia when all they have is access to a newspaper and don’t use the internet that much, they’ll ask me “That’s that place where everybody yells at each other and people vandalize it all the time,” and they have all these weird ideas. I was like, “Okay, that happens, but did you know that every picture you see on Wikipedia you can have for free?” A lot of them don’t know that.

Part of how Wikipedia works is the content that’s available is freely licensed so that people can have it and use it. Somebody wants to make a YouTube video or maybe they got in trouble because they put up a YouTube video of something and it had a copyrighted song on in the background, and I let them know, “You know the Creative Commons has a search engine where you can search for music that you can use as a background to your video and it’s all licensed for you to use, reuse, mix, and share.” A lot of times they don’t. A lot of times what I’m talking to people about is ways to help transplant things maybe they want, but they can’t have, with things that they can have that are equivalent.

Our public library is digitally divided enough that it’s actually fairly difficult to even have a program about Wikipedia and have people show up, because people say, “I don’t understand why that would work.” If you hang out in a library with a scanner and help people take their photographs and put them online, or even show them other people’s photographs and then put them on the internet, you have to find what makes this stuff a genuine option for people. You have to figure out what the hook is that’s going to bring them in and be like, “That’s also a problem for me and I’d like to solve it.” In this region, a lot of it is family history books that are freely searchable via the internet archives. Or music that you can find through the Creative Commons searches that you can use on YouTube videos. Or historical photos on Wikipedia that you might use to illustrate a book report.

What kinds of random things do people want to go look up? YouTube videos about tractor engines running. Never would’ve known that’s a thing, but apparently there’s a ton of them, and a lot of them are available, shareable, embeddable, because even Youtube licensing strictly, videos can often can at least be shared around. I encourage people when they’re using the internet to think about the benefits of having that be shareable for everyone, and try to educate them appropriately about the downsides to it as well. I think a lot of people are under the misapprehension that if you share a picture on the internet then everybody just steals it, or takes it and draws a mustache on your baby’s face, or worse. Realistically, there’s so much information out there, most of the time people aren’t going to focus on harassing individual users, but if you do find the right user who can use that tractor engine video, of all the things, that’s really made a connection, and that’s, again, helped cultural progress, which is really I think what we’re all about in a library.

I think maybe some of this is the about first taste of recognition. I was having a conversation with someone at the bank and they saw who I worked for, and they said, “You know that my photo is the photo for challah on Wikipedia? It’s the best. I just love it.”

My mom is a huge sharer of photos using Flickr. She does some of them public domain and some of them not. She has a ton of those stories and she is a 70-ish-year-old lady living in rural Massachusetts, and she’s connected with a ton of people like that. She takes pictures of cats at the cat shelter to help cats get adopted. It’s enriched her life just doing her own things that she would basically be doing normally, but she sticks a sharing license on them and I think part of that also, she sticks a sharing license on them, and Flickr has mechanisms where you can search for stuff that’s shareable. It’s not just the power of Creative Commons, which I’m already jazzed about, but the fact that that’s built in now to search engines.

Have you seen a significant change in your own community in the last few years with smartphones really becoming a much more viable option for a larger group of people?

A little bit. I think smartphones are a lot more about instant connectivity, Instagram and Snapchat, and to look stuff up on the internet. We haven’t seen, at least in my community, too many people using smartphones to be creators of content. I taught an HTML class last fall at the local community college, and we spent a day talking about alternative licensing, we talked about Creative Commons licensing. I got to test and quiz kids on what does BY-NC mean and stuff. They didn’t quite see it as totally relevant to themselves because they didn’t see themselves as content creators. The couple kids who were musicians or web designers, they believed that this served them. Out of about 30 kids, I probably had four or five who really viewed themselves as creators. The makerspace communities that have taken root in bigger cities is only slowly getting here. These may be kids who build their own tractors, build their own cars. Literally building physically out of things, but the digital maker way hasn’t quite hit here yet.

Do you think that there’s anything that apps or that the people who are making apps, particularly people who are making apps for the cultural heritage sphere for libraries could do to make to help people feel more like makers on the web?

I think about Wikipedia, right, and Wikipedia really, really wants people to upload and share images. All sorts of content, but images especially because it’s easy.

I think the missing sharing point is unless you’re a cultural heritage institution who can bulk upload a bunch of stuff because you’ve been in touch with the Wikipedia organization and you know how to do it, it’s not going work very well. The average person doesn’t know they can get free storage for their content on Wikipedia. I feel like we still could have sharing tools that work better than the ones we have now that facilitated accurate licensing, but for people affected by the digital divide, the fact that they don’t have access to computers or the web means they don’t have access to a lot of other tools.
Can you talk a little bit about how you teach the ethos of sharing within your community, particularly with social networks, like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, when a lot of folks are coming online and that’s the first world that they’re encountering?

A lot of what I do is teach people how to use things. I teach people what some of the normative expectations of the space are, which can be challenging because there’s a lot of ways to be “normal” on Facebook. You can use it in a million different ways and nothing’s totally correct, but there are normative ways to use it. If you take a picture of someone else’s kids, for example, maybe you don’t make that picture public or maybe you don’t use that kid’s name. Maybe you do, depending on your community. That’s the thing that people need to put some thought into.

If I’m looking at Twitter, there are accounts like the History in Pics account, and it posts all these really interesting historical photos, but sometimes with semi-questionable captions. There’s whole other accounts dedicated to telling them, “Hey, I don’t actually think that caption is what that picture is really about. I actually did five minutes of research and realized that that thing that you pulled from that other random site wasn’t the thing you said it was.” I show people what the back and forth is that if there’s questions about where something came from, there are actually ways to figure it out. It’s not like, “It’s the internet. Nobody can figure anything out.” I teach them about research. I teach them about Google’s reverse image search. I teach them about how you can ask any librarian anywhere on the internet if you have a question. I think people think they can only talk to their own librarian.

I don’t think people know that the library system is there for them, and if I have a question about Colorado College, I can go ask the librarian at Colorado College and they will help me. They don’t do a ton of in depth research for me, but they can definitely help me. I try to teach people how there are humans you can talk to who can help you figure out some of this stuff, even though Facebook themselves doesn’t really have tech support, but you may have a buddy who understands it. The most powerful thing I teach people is that if you have a problem with a thing that you’re using, you’re not the first one.

It’s hard because the meta message is that you’re not special, but a lot of times if you Google an error message you’re seeing on your computer, you can find people discussing the exact problem that you also have. The thing I hear again and again from people is why doesn’t ‘X’ have a manual. The thing I have to keep telling people is the collective group of people on the internet are your manual. It’s not awesome because a lot of times people feel like that doesn’t work for them, they don’t understand it, they feel out of their element. It feels weird, but realistically, when you try it, it does work. Part of what I try to do is model good behavior with my own social media behavior.

Also I try to model not being frustrated. When people say, “Their pictures are stupid. They upload too many pictures. I don’t care about that person’s baby. Too much Trump.” I’m like, “Okay. Let me show you how to limit pictures of that person’s baby or ban the word ‘Trump’ from your front page of your Facebook.” There’s a lot of tools that we can use to empower us, but I think a lot of people presume the default role of technology is to be disempowered, which is not how I see it, but I can see how they see it that way. I try to get them turn that around and show them that there are tools that can help them. I’m part of the help manual for this system basically.

Just walk the talk. If you’re interested enough in Creative Commons to be reading this, share your stuff, put your content online, help other people do it, and spread the word. I think that’s the most important thing that super fans can be doing at this point.

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Posted 23 June 2017