This Isn’t Quite the Place I Remember

Letter From the Executive Director, November 2022

It is often said you can never quite go back home. Things change over time, there is a resonance with the past, but often it’s shifted slightly, and the amount of time since the last visit brings those changes into greater focus. Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to get back out to see and connect with more and more people, meeting with some new and some old friends or colleagues with whom I haven’t connected in person in several years, as the most severe impacts of the pandemic recede. Things have shifted, not simply because of the pandemic, but because many of the transformative trends begun a decade or more ago have become more ubiquitous. Those effects are more visible, making the changes and impacts worth lingering on. 

The Frankfurt Book Fair was smaller and more concentrated than it had previously been, in terms of space and people, if not in terms of meetings or activity. The organizations participating in the Book Fair were similar, but again the tune had shifted. Rather than girding for battle against the increasing pace of open access mandates, the community at the STM Association pre-conference was more focused on the practicalities of addressing the inevitable trend toward open access. Gone are the days when legal briefs and legislative lobbying campaigns were discussed to block or undermine funder mandates or policy initiatives. While there remains a lot of work to do on ensuring sustainability at scale and the efficiencies of processing OA content, read and publish deals, or compliance monitoring, there is general consensus about the direction of travel on this road to openness. With that consensus on where things are headed, there is now room—perhaps a demand—that the road be cleared and smoothed, so we can get there faster and with the least waste. 

The team that had led the transformative meetings Books in Browsers and Tools of Change in the late 2000s and early 2010s organized a reconvening of the publishing technology communities at the new PageBreak conference in San Francisco last week. Many of the issues of those earlier meetings were revisited there, but with an interesting reflective perspective. Much has changed in content distribution over the past decade, particularly in the digital text marketplace. The frothy excitement and fervor of mass market digital text trade that sustained the conversations at the time have subsided but yet, those conversations led to important shifts in the book community. The digital books market has moved away from static PDF files for ebooks toward interactive and reflowable EPUB files, consumable on a range of devices that in the early 2000s had not yet reached the marketplace. Significant advances have been made in accessibility for the print disabled, as well as in the diversity of access to content by a greater range of voices. Interestingly, as was mentioned at the conference by Michael Tamblyn, the book market has been more successful in providing a steady stream of income for more content providers than any other domain, such as video or music, where royalty payments are much more concentrated among an elite of creators. 

Despite all these advances, there remains a lot of work left to do. The ebook market has consolidated in the US, with dominant distributors in the consumer and library ecosystems.  This has led to battles and lawsuits about pricing or ownership, ebook purchasing in libraries, and rights for sharing digital content, which show no sign of being settled soon. Many of the potential opportunities provided by digital content remain uncultivated, either because of the complexity of rights or the lack of replicable production efficiencies for robust digital content. While we have managed to get reading and text onto the web in large part, capitalizing on those new forms and approaches remains somewhat elusive.  My hope is that, much as Books in Browsers and Tools of Change spurred innovation, the new gathering at PageBreak could spark a next generation of content, the tools to support it, and the extension to the reading community that will consume it.

Things will continue to change, as they always seem to. Sadly, this is true of the team at NISO. Jill O’Neill, who has ably led NISO’s education and content-sharing efforts, will be stepping back from full-time work at NISO this week, as she moves toward retirement. I first met Jill over 20 years ago at the NFAIS conference, where she served that organization as Director of Planning and Communications. Even then, she was a well-established expert, writing regularly on trends and technology in our community. She kindly helped me engage as a newer participant in the NFAIS conference, always on the lookout to make people welcome. Over the years, we became closer as our worlds increasingly overlapped when she helped to coordinate NFAIS’s standards engagement. Behind the scenes, in addition to working to represent NFAIS interests at NISO, she helped coordinate and advance the joint NISO–NFAIS work on supplemental journal materials

In 2015, she joined NISO as our Educational Programs Manager, a role that subsequently grew to encompass all of NISO’s programs and publications as Director of Content. Jill’s connections, experience, professionalism, and knowledge led her to excel in all she worked toward. Her sensitivity to the nuance and politics at play on a range of issues came through in the quality of the programs she put together and the voices she could convince to sit at the table. She would often know, through her vast network, what the upcoming topics were, who was working on what, and how the pieces could fit together in the future of the industry but also as a cohesive program for attendees. Despite her depth of knowledge and skills, she has always been modest in her role as either moderator, facilitator, or editor, seeking to forefront other’s perspectives and skills, to let them shine in their best light. Over the years, she has been the steady hand at hundreds of events at NFAIS and then at NISO. It is no overstatement that the overwhelming majority of professionals in our community over the past three decades have been informed and educated by a program or content that Jill has quietly shepherded to completion. 

Fortunately, Jill will be continuing to support NISO on a limited basis as the editor of this newsletter and the NISO Information Organized (NISO I/O) section of the NISO website. On behalf of everyone in the community, I want to extend our deepest thanks to Jill for all her hard work and the many, many successful outputs she has produced. We all wish the very best for Jill and her family as she celebrates her career.

We all recognize these changes and their impacts, particularly with greater clarity over time. It will be interesting  to see what will happen several years hence when we reflect on the ongoing changes we’re instituting today and their impact on how content is created, shared, and preserved.

Todd A. Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO