Erik Wysocan and Benjamin Tiven of Library Stack
Erik Wysocan and Benjamin Tiven are both artists and publishers in their own right. When they met at the start of 2015, they immediately began formulating an idea for a platform that supports the kinds of digital art publications they both participate in. That idea has since become Library Stack, an archive for digital objects of all stripes: PDFs, video, online magazines, Soundcloud files. In the fall, they begin working with the Yale University Library to connect it to their growing collection, with more relationships with institutional libraries to come.
Interacting with Library Stack as a reader, it feels like a place of deep discoverability, it’s main purpose to collect and preserve materials on the internet worth collecting and preserving. It is that, and it is also much more. Erik and Ben have put a lot of thought into the traditional licensing models for digital objects–Amazon/Kindle, Apple/iTunes, Barnes & Noble/Nook—and how they short change both libraries and independent publishers. Library Stack offers an alternative method for introducing libraries to artist publications for acquisition into their collection, and art publications to libraries so they can be catalogued for the future. It is also becoming a database that allows for libraries to connect to each other and to independent presses, outside of and unreliant on the traditional publishing paradigm.
Over Skype last month, I asked Ben and Erik to break down what they are doing on a technical level, and to take me through how Library Stack is creating space for the kinds of publishers they want to see more of.
Meg Miller: Why did you start Library Stack? How did the idea come about?
Erik Wysocan: It’s a spin off of my publishing imprint Halmos. I was doing a lot of digital publishing and was learning the advantages and the pitfalls of engaging with licensing models like Amazon and iTunes, which give you, potentially, a really wide audience, but are also very restrictive about how they allow you to operate.
The problem I was running into with libraries specifically was that they weren’t able to access our content, nor were they even aware of it. We were having trouble putting our books into the WorldCat database, so I realized that as far as the library is concerned there is a giant black hole of books being published that they can’t easily see because they aren’t in their databases. There’s a widening gap between the publishing world and the lending world.
So Library Stack just started as a side project, or a technological solution to this problem—just to get content at least listed on the WorldCat database. I don’t know if you’re familiar with WorldCat, it’s basically a global database that all the libraries share.
I know what it is but I don’t know, as an independent publisher, how you get your books on there. I would be interested to know.
EW: They don’t make it super easy. WorldCat is pretty technology-forward and they’re geared toward servicing small independent libraries that catalog their content and want to have it in their system for researchers. So they have an API. I was digging around on it and I realized that they offered these services, and I realized that it wouldn’t be that hard to at least get my own books on there using their interface. While I was at it, it became clear that there was a need for this for a lot of art publishers who are not publishing through the traditional vendor system. So I started cataloging a lot of titles that were on these platforms like Amazon, and just trying to make sure that they were visible to library researchers.
I started getting contacted by art librarians who were way more aware of these issues than I was at the time. They started asking me about what I was doing, and at the time I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just sort of playing around. But it eventually snowballed into Library Stack. I met Ben and he had a larger vision of what it could be beyond a hobby project. He helped me figure out how it could be an actual service for libraries that is integrated with their systems.
Ben, what is your background?
Ben Tiven: I make mostly film and video projects, but I’ve also done a lot of writing and books. When I first met Erik and we started talking about this, which was maybe the beginning of 2015, I just recognized in it something very resonant to what I was interested in.
We spent a lot of time developing the current version of Library Stack last year, and there were a lot of discussions about the different ways it could grow. Originally, it was a resource for artists, and at root it still is: it’s a way to find, track, and access publications produced by artists and art platforms. But a result of cataloging these things is that, oftentimes, Library Stack is making properly formatted metadata where there wasn’t any, so that the global library system—WorldCat, which Erik was mentioning before—can finally take note of it. And this prompted us to figure out other things the service could do, since we had accidentally stumbled into doing something that institutional libraries needed done.
I read Erik’s piece on the 
ARLIS blog
, which went into that a bit, and I was excited to see that you both are thinking about Library Stack as an alternative to traditional e-book licensing models like Amazon’s for Kindle or Apple’s for iBook. Those are closed circuit formats that are protected and proprietary to those companies, to ensure that you can only read the material on their devices. Can you talk about why these models don’t work well for libraries?
EW: There was a conceptual shift that occurred with the invention of iTunes, in that media began being licensed content rather than something you would buy at the store and own. This was a very fundamental way of reconceiving the media itself that basically meant that there was no such idea, on a deep level, of owning the content. It doesn’t have that big of an effect on a consumer, who is just buying an e-book or digital file and it sits in their online library. But for a library to deal with that is much more complicated. All the licenses are built on a one-to-one correspondence, where one consumer has the right to keep one copy of the album or e-book. The legal infrastructure around iTunes is just not designed for lending or borrowing. So libraries get cut out of that circuit.
There are some formats, like Kindle for instance, that are available to libraries, but they work on a subscription model. The libraries very rarely get to own the content—they pay subscription fees to very large platform vendors that work with dozens or hundreds of publishers, and those vendors put together huge bundles of book content that libraries subscribe to. So they get what they get, and the work of smaller publishers isn’t usually included. And if a library does find an interesting title from an independent publisher, it’s very hard for them to acquire it if it’s not on one of these platforms. So even besides the legal licensing regime, there’s just an intrinsic bias toward large publishers in the way libraries are able to acquire e-books.
So how does Library Stack approach that problem?
EW: What we’re trying to do is explore how you get beyond that licensing model and get libraries back to their core role of providing researching tools and content over the long-term. Digital files can be difficult to track and it’s easy to loose them in the ether. So we want libraries to be able to own them. They already have technologies for preserving them if they can get their hands on them.
BT: Library Stack is a slightly strange animal in that it is doing a few things at one time. The first thing is it’s this publicly accessible database of publicly accessible things. Many of the digital objects on Library Stack are almost always things that are already openly circulated online. We are creating bibliographic references for them, and in doing this we’ve tried to be really conscientious about attributing every person who is listed as having a role in the production. We list authors and titles and publishers, but also translators, designers—even someone who is listed as ‘editorial oversight’ will get a credit for that. So a Library Stack user might discover that the person who was in charge of editorial oversight for publication X also shows up as author or artist or guest editor for something else. You can see how an artist moves through all these objects or publications. But anyone can use the database, and anyone can use the tools we are building to sift through the catalog and search it. That’s the main thing.
There’s also the relationship to institutional libraries that we’re building. With them, we’re connecting the materials in our collection to their search engines, so that the objects in Library Stack come up when people query some topic at their library. We’re also hosting lendable e-book content from smaller independent publishers, so these e-pubs can have library circulation and lending. These might be publishers who don’t have, or don’t want, the kind of big platform distribution like Erik was describing.
And then the third thing is that Library Stack is itself a publisher. We are working on making our own digital objects and projects. We’ve only begun: The “programs” section on the site has the first few examples of things that we’ll do. So far, we’ve invited some guest critics or artists to add materials or make a collection of objects and write about what these things mean, and why they should be preserved. We’re also making e-books, typically with people who are already in Library Stack.
What is your process for acquiring the works on Library Stack? If you see a publication you want to have on the platform, how do you go about getting it and putting it into a format that is accessible for libraries?
EW: The bulk of our platform right now is artist-produced or independent-publisher-produced documents that are e-pubs or PDFs, or other media, but which isn’t being catalogued in a rigorous way. But we’re also starting to work with artists and publishers to get up the work they want protected, or they want to sell, so libraries can actually buy it. The hope is that we’re starting to develop new channels to support artist practices by giving them an independent distribution space.
BT: One category of material is the output of individual artists or very small publishers. Another thing we pay attention to are publication series from larger exhibition spaces or platforms in the art, design, architecture, and film worlds. A good example would be the e-flux journal. E-flux is an advertisement service for art events and exhibitions, and for the past few years have been publishing a really rigorous monthly journal on art and theory, with a lot of phenomenal writers, but in a format that is not easily picked up in the context we’ve been talking about: in the electronic journals section of a university library, or in WorldCat, for example. There’s a lot of overlapping context between this journal and a number of others, and we’re trying to build a system where the contents can be cross-referenced with other work by those same authors, or with relevant artworks or projects that are thematically connected.
I was wondering how you guys were thinking about Library Stack, not just as a space for preservation, but also as a place to bring together small presses or the art publishing community in one spot. As a place of exchange and exposure to things that wouldn’t get made in traditional publishing.
BT: Library Stack is creating a space that we hope more and more people and objects will come to fill. As there becomes more of a framework to post and index these objects, and get them recognized by the library system and so on, we hope more artists will make these kinds of publications.
EW: Given that the commercial gallery system is such a fraught and tenuous space right now, it’s important to develop these alternatives. I’ve always thought of publishing as an alternative distribution model. We’re trying to build up on that infrastructure and create new ways to foster art production.
Erik, elsewhere you’ve talked about blockchain as one possible mode of distribution outside of the traditional market. I know the publisher Visual Editions 
has been experimenting with this
. Can you talk about your research with this technology, and whether you envision blockchain becoming central to digital publishing in the near future?
EW: That Universe Explodes project by Visual Editions is interesting. The idea that you can have a digital edition that disintegrates, or degrades, gets at the core of the central issue of what it means to have digital ownership. It’s very easy for a library to own a physical book because there is sort of an inherent wear imposed on the book that gives it a limited lifespan. It’s not infinite, so you can put a price tag on it.
But since a digital product is functionally infinite, it can last for thousands of years—how can you put the value on that? You really lose the material basis for how to value things. The whole traditional sales model for publishers completely falls apart. People are really struggling with what to do in place of that, and they’ve been holding up traditional sales with these licensing models that have been really destructive for publishers and libraries. The only people who are winning are the distribution platforms.
I’m not 100 percent sure blockchain is going to be the right solution or if it’s just a libertarian pipe dream. Maybe it is going in the wrong direction. But it is offering up these alternative ideas about ownership and property. For example, it allows us to think through different ways of incentivizing non-piracy. The problem with any digital thing for a publisher that is worried about its sales is the issue of pirating. They want copy protection or DRM to protect the book from being pirated, which never works. As an alternative, we think there’s a way to utilize the blockchain so that the pirate becomes the distributor; maybe you embrace this position of piracy, and cut them in on the profits as well. So the pirate is compensated, the artist is compensated—everyone is compensated and the blockchain ledger keeps track of monetary distribution.
BT: Blockchain opens up really compelling possibilities, but it is also very technically heavy and complicated and expensive to orchestrate, especially for small and independently produced objects. Piracy, control, lendability and infinite reproduction are really thorny problems, obviously; we have a sense that a big part of the solution, in this specific context, will be behavioral and not technological. The overall argument that Library Stack is making is that these objects should be thought of as things that you can own, not services that you rent.
I want to volley Erik’s question back to you—how do you price or value digital objects with that long of a lifespan? How have you guys been thinking about this while talking to libraries about acquisitions?
EW: There’s actually two aspects to the infinite nature of digital media that make value attribution a problem. The first, as you pointed out, is the infinite lifespan. But the second equally important feature is infinite reproducibility.
In response to the lifespan issue, we are trying to think of other limiting features besides material finitude. One means of valuation that we’ve landed on might be called ‘cultural finitude’—some basic way to consider the lifespan of a digital object’s cultural valence. We attribute a 100 year cultural relevance to contemporary works. Of course, many won’t be relevant in five years, but a small few may be very important in 200 years or more, and those are the works that are very important to preserve now.
To resolve the impasse around infinite reproducibility, we’ve gathered some inspiration from both traditional book lending and emerging blockchain technologies. One of the conceptual innovations of the blockchain is that it functionally disconnects the public ledger from the information it carries: the ledger data is duplicated and distributed as needed, but the information it holds is guaranteed to be immutable and singular. Each record is intrinsically unique within the chain. Similarly, when a library brings a Library Stack e-book into its collection, it’s not just a file duplicated on the fly. Rather, every single edition is independently archived as a unique document. The result is actually very similar to a traditional, one-book/one-reader lending model, where each singular edition is only available to one reader at a time. It’s a simple resolution, but the fallout is that it actually opens of number of new possibilities for digital works like inter-library lending, reselling of ebooks and non-centralized distribution platforms.
Since you get sort of a bird’s eye view of non-traditional/digital publishing while gathering and archiving these resources, do you see any big through lines in publishing that is happening outside of big commercial houses?
BT: We see a real migration toward the flexibility of being a “platform,” where a museum or book publisher or magazine acts like a dozen other types of production agent. In other words, they might produce e-books alongside printed matter, or podcasts with interviews, or music alongside their books and exhibitions. The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, MACBA, is a good example of this: they publish podcasts and a journal series adjacent to their exhibitions. E-flux is another: they publish print books in addition to the digital journal, and they make exhibitions, host public talks, and curate shows.
Erik: We’re definitely seeing a polymorphous willingness to disregard boundaries. For instance, the people who run Inhabitants TV are documentary filmmakers but they operate under the label of artists. They create and curate and commission videos.
Are there any other examples of independent publishers and publications that people should be aware of?
BT: Badlands Unlimited is a New York publisher pushing the boundaries of e-books and releasing new kinds of digital files.
The art and design journal Bulletins of the Serving Library exists simultaneously in both print and PDF forms; it is the publication arm of a growing object collection currently housed in Liverpool.
And lastly, Unfold, which is based in Beirut, Lebanon. It’s a serial publication, and each issue is a large .zip file containing audio files, video files, historic texts and new writing, all bundled in the folio. So it’s really an exhibition in the form of a magazine. Blog
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