O public libraries, what are you doing in the great indie book publishing revolution? A letter to a far-sighted master-librarian

Will the online ‘libreria’ or bookshop, where this picture was taken, replace the ‘biblioteca’ -- the Italian for library – everywhere, in the digital revolution? - photograph: MIL22

Will the flexible, accommodating online counterpart of the ‘libreria’ or bookshop everywhere supplant the change-resistant ‘biblioteca’ — Italian for library – in the digital revolution?
– photograph from Napoli: MIL22

This entry tells a true story of our time about a public library that recently turned down a modest proposal for listing on its web site books published independently by its patrons and members. Note that there was no request to include these – necessarily – in the library’s catalogue. The frame for our tale is an open letter about an exciting vision for libraries of the future by an inventive leading librarian.

cover expect moreDear David Lankes,

Can public libraries supercharge the flowering of indie publishing and go back to being vibrant centres of creativity?

I have been reading your slender Expect More a book I will call thrilling. As you know, that is not a word that I or anyone else thinks of, any more, in connection with libraries. Least of all, those of us who saw them as unrivalled homes of enchantment, growing up; entertainers for which no television set, nor the most luxurious cinema with the biggest screen was any match. Part of what you have set out so well is that if the visions of a true 21st-century librarian can be realised — in, around and beyond the stacks — libraries could return to their glory days, in ancient times, going all the way back to the legendary 3rd-century BC Library of Alexandria.

I note that you are a professor of library science in Syracuse, in New York state, and a leader in information studies exploring ‘how participatory concepts can reshape libraries and credibility’. You say:

Too many librarians see their collections, not the community, as their jobs. Too many librarians are seeking to survive instead of innovate, … [… ] Great libraries … require open communication about your needs, your challenges, and your dreams. […] Libraries ‘for the people’ is an old way of looking at libraries. The new view is the library ‘of the people.’

When a library director has to be replaced, does the typical library board – or electorate, when the vetting is democratic – know what to look for, to choose the right leader for our times? That would be someone like you or Phil Shapiro, whom I’ve seen described as an educator at a public library near Washington D.C., who ‘teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University’. His @philshapiro  notices on the Twitter bulletin-board are quirky, sometimes impish, and essential reading, and led me to you and your book. In a 2008 entry on his ‘Community Voices’ blog on PC World’s site — ‘Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity?’ — a biographical note explained:

In high school he built a hot water solar collector from an abandoned shopping cart and hauled it up onto the roof of his house with a rope. His parents thought that was a good idea. The neighbors were not entirely thrilled with the shopping cart. On the roof. Of the house.

That suggests that the questions people selecting library chiefs should be asking in job interviews or library-related elections are, ‘How young were you when — if — you appalled people by doing things that later confirmed you as one of the pioneers in your circle, and can you give us some examples?’

In my life divided between several perches, in recent years, experiences at public libraries amply bear out your characterisation of too many people working in them as ‘stuck in a sort of professional conservatism that favours what they do over why they do it.’

Not long ago, I asked one head librarian whether our library might support the indie e-book revolution by encouraging patrons to list on the library web site the titles of any independently published books for which they were responsible. I said that I envisaged a bare-bones listing of each book’s title and subject – with, perhaps, a link to the author’s personal web site. This stark recording, I thought, would discourage competitive promotional hype and one-upmanship. The idea for the list had occurred to me when I realised that a number of potential readers of my first e-publishing experiment — a short book (or long essay), Jung on men and women: a Swiss travelogue  — happen to live in this particular library’s catchment zone. It is not unusual to meet local residents who are widely travelled, devour travel literature, and are interested in psychology, Switzerland, the fight for women’s rights, and the theories of Freudian psychology’s chief 20th-century rival, Carl Jung.

It seemed to me that libraries might be able to link local readers to writers in ways that the algorithms of Google and Amazon cannot. I would love to glean, from a constantly updated record of books they were publishing, impressions of the obsessions, preoccupations, passions and undisguised money-making schemes of people who live nearby. Living in the same place can mean much more than a shared or neighbouring postal code. Among those of us situated where we are from choice, not just necessity, it seemed as if there could be indefinable but powerful resonances predisposing us to being interested in each other’s literary and graphic creations. Whether I was right or wrong in this assumption, it seemed worth a test.

The head librarian — someone said to be charming whom I have never met in person — replied both directly and through a mutual friend. The idea, I gathered, was a non-starter. The staff already had too much to do without making and updating my proposed list. Though the library is neither a valiant inner-city nor struggling rural branch but located in a large, rich suburb, there were no funds for hiring new workers. What about letting volunteers – patrons – do the job? No, that was out of the question. Why? Because the library chief had tried working with local volunteers and quickly been worn out by the complications of being assisted by those most in need of occupation, bossy ladies-who-lunch types, many of them strangers to workplace discipline. In addition, an overbearing patron who had just published a book for teenagers had been hounding library staff members for help with publicity.

I was sympathetic to these reasons for the proposal’s nervous reception. Well then, I suggested, how about making a specific request for help from seasoned professionals in the ranks of the town’s retirees? What about letting retired administrators or book-keepers, doctors, teachers, company managers, accountants, lawyers and so on, get involved? But I made this counter-suggestion hesitantly, in fading tones, accurately anticipating defeat – because I had by then detected a faint but unmistakable whiff of hostility in a reference in one email from the librarian’s intimate friend to ‘this promotional idea’. I had been careful to explain that the list of e-books published by locals that I envisaged was plain enough to be the antithesis of anything sales-y. To no avail, apparently.

Prejudice can get in the way of reading or hearing what someone has actually said. What would the prejudice be, in this case? At a guess – your characterisation of the typically change-resistant librarian’s view of the purpose of a library – ‘providing access to knowledge,’ where that is perceived as a ‘passive … accumulation of facts,’ and not, as you say it should be, ‘intimately tied to the passions of the individual … dynamic, ever changing and alive.’ Too many libraries, you add, ‘support consuming knowledge instead of creating it.’

Phil Shapiro, arguing along closely parallel lines in a post titled ‘Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries,’ asks whether libraries should ever close their doors:

In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn’t the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too?

As it happens, a few days before I read that, I’d made the nearly identical point to the circulation staff of a library. I said that they were surely sealing their institution’s doom with rigid, daft rules and systems that make it look more out of touch with reality, every day, to patrons accustomed — for example — to being able to buy discounted books online at any time of day or night, and avail themselves of exceptionally elastic and forgiving returns policies to unload themselves of purchasing mistakes. Don’t libraries realise, I railed, that their worst policies are so despised by patrons that some of us have been whittling down our reasons for borrowing anything from them at all – and actively developing other routes to acquiring everything that they alone could once supply?

I’d been complaining bitterly about being obstructed from paying a late fee because it fell below the threshold for permitting a credit card transaction at the circulation desk – though, by some impenetrable logic, if I went home and logged into my library account from there, I would meet no obstacle to settling my bill with my plastic rectangle. When I actually attempted to do this a few hours later, there was a block on the account because … no, no, I’ll stop there: the reason is too petty, tediously complicated and batty to recount.

As for the good sense in Phil’s advice about adjusting to the information economy — well, a library worker in another branch for whom I have nothing but high praise once explained that the reason why the software download speed on his library’s network can slow to approximately zero megabits per second — even forty-five minutes before closing time — is that the staff do not want patrons getting in the way of closing time routines. They simply shut down internet access to encourage these patrons to leave. I asked how that was possible when the library’s wifi network is supposed to be on all day and night. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So when you’ve all left, they turn it on again.’ This reminded me of a minder of the public internet-access section of a library, a woman I had never seen before, hovering nearby, tidying desks and watching me type my library card number into the login box at least nine times in a row, trying to get online — with no success. Only when asked for help did she explain that she had already tucked the wifi system into bed – fifteen minutes before the end of her work day.

So, David, imagine trying to make the mental transition from that — a set of far from uncommon reasons for contemporary libraries being a depressing subject of conversation — to your description of ancient Egypt’s fabled book-haven in Alexandria. A place that you say was ‘not a huge document warehouse’, but ‘much more akin to universities of today’, where ‘[s]cholars from the known world were brought together and encouraged to talk and create.’

The contrast is agonising and will get worse, unless you, Phil and other advocates for reform can find a way — fast — to add people like yourselves to the staff of public libraries in senior positions. My happiest discovery in your book is that my modest proposal for patrons letting each other know about their indie publishing projects is directly in line with the transformed library-land you perceive as essential:

In essence, too many libraries have defined access as providing access to their stuff. You must expect more from your library. You need to expect it to provide a platform where you can access the ideas of others, as well as a platform for you to provide others access to your own ideas.

I note, by the way, that you published Expect More yourself. I didn’t buy the e-book. I bought the attractive print-on-demand paperback, childishly delighted – as always – by the idea of a book printed specially for me.

Incidentally, I would love to know how you would have treated my suggestion for a continuously updated list of indie books published by members of a public library. If you ever see this post and feel moved to reply, I hope you will leave a comment here – or on some site of your own.

Best wishes,

CB

Amazon needs competition as much as Hachette does … let’s do something about that and let the caravan move on

 Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital photographs by EF and postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital (lens)
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

There has been a shortage of calm, witty, Establishment voices answering the foes of Amazon.com howling about Jeff Bezos hammering the last nails into the coffin of literary culture. One of these rare birds is Clay Shirky, an American writer and prescient media scholar. Though we had his permission to reblog the whole of his post on the subject on Medium.com — within five minutes of asking — this entry will only link to it and quote its most courageous and wickedly entertaining sections.

Courageous? Absolutely – for anyone following the coverage of the Amazon-Hachette brawl in New York, whose leading newspaper last Monday had a banner headline in its business section shouting, ‘Literary Lions Join Protest Against Amazon’, and recorded Philip Roth (scowling ferociously in a photograph), Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera diving in to bash Amazon with their computer mice and vintage clack-clackers-with-carriage-return.

Restricting this post to extracts from Shirky’s consideration of all the good Amazon is doing – which makes it merely an agent of a revolution that can hardly be held back – leaves room for quotations of some of the most constructive reactions to what he has to say.

Like him, we wish that Amazon had found a less aggressive way to persuade Hachette to share the costs of its book-discounting strategy that it says is designed to put more money into authors’ pockets. But, as we pointed out in a post here two years ago, it is hugely surprising to hear anyone in charge of the commerce of publishing care about and speak up on behalf of writers. (See ‘Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission?‘) … We are also worried about Amazon getting much too big. We would love to see as a competitor what DuckDuckGo and its anonymising search engine are to Google – an alternative filling a vital need that the giant leader did not acknowledge or accommodate.

Over to Clay Shirky and his first responders, now:

More energy is being spent right now attacking Amazon than defending the five big publishers … because they aren’t easy to defend. There is some handwaving around the irreplaceability of their discerning taste, an argument undermined by their recent habit of acquiring ebooks they passed on the first time around, like “Still Alice” and “The Toiletpaper Entrepreneur”; their willingness to produce print editions of books that initially found their readers electronically, like “Trylle” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and by their building or acquiring self-publishing platforms, as with Penguin’s Author Solutions and Book Country.

Similarly, the idea that only the Big Five will fund speculative work for small audiences doesn’t jibe with the growth of niche publishing enabled by lower publishing costs. (A quarter-million titles have appeared on the Kindle in the last 90 days.) Nothing here is magic. Books are large chunks of writing. Digital publishing creates many new ways to get those chunks from writer to reader. Only some of those new ways require the services of people who work in lower Manhattan.

[…]

I say this as a beneficiary of that older system. I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances for my last two books, to say nothing of the opportunities those books opened up, so the system has worked admirably well for me. However, I am a WASP, an Ivy League graduate, a tenured professor, and a member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite. Of course the existing system works well for me — it’s run by people like me, for people like me.

Despite my benefitting from it, I am unwilling to pretend that this system is beneficial for readers or for writers who lack my privilege. I’d always aspired to be a traitor to my class (though I’d hoped it would be for something a bit more momentous than retail book pricing), but treason is as treason does, so here goes: The reason my fellow elites hate Amazon is that Amazon refuses to flatter our pretensions. In my tribe, this is a crime more heinous even than eating one’s salad with one’s dessert fork.

The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published.

Reactions by commenters on the MagellanMediaPartners.com site:

Baldur Bjarnason

Sep 18, 2014 at 10:41 AM

I’ve found the publishing industry supremely inhospitable to even debating important issues.

The debate in publishing circles surrounding Clay Shirky’s piece depresses me. It echoes and rhymes with every debate I’ve been in personally and it demonstrates just how little has changed over the past ten years in the publishing industry.

But, […]debating this is pointless.

You don’t change people’s world-views with dialogue. If you want change you have two options:

You wait until the believers in the old paradigm die, experience an apostasy, or become irrelevant.

You try and build things that don’t rely on them (i.e. work solely in the new paradigm) in ways that minimises the harm they can do to your work.

It’d be wonderful if the field could debate itself into some sort of sensible middle ground—in fact, that’s what the publishing world view people think they are trying—but world views and paradigm shifts don’t have a middle ground.

The publishing industry is stuck in the mythology that was invented when mass production took over publishing. Challenging that mythology is like challenging a religious fanatic: their response is to repeat themselves, just more loudly. […]

Hugh McGuire

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:59 PM

… No one is even near Amazon in terms of reach to the buyers of books; that “problem” is just going to get worse …so publishers who want to keep doing business as they always have, will be forced through the Amazon “value extraction choke point,” with decreasing leverage.

There are two solutions to this problem as I can see it:

a) support other channels (Oyster, Scribd etc) & hope that they really start to matter

or

b) start building businesses whose prime objective is to capture the relationship with the reader directly

For a) we’ve seen grudging signs of movement; and for b) nothing.

As Baldur says, for the loyal opposition, the only option seems to be: “You try and build things that don’t rely on (publishers)” […]

adam hyde

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:41 PM

It seems to me that these discussions increasingly go nowhere. It would be more interesting to have a forum where those that have the ‘outsiders’ view could gather and build on ideas. Each time I see this conversation brought to the ‘insiders’ it just turns into a pointing and frothing match. It stops creative discussion …

The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. We are all dogs barking about this remaking of media. Better to go silent and get on with getting to the next stage, making it as close to universally enriching as we can …

Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on virtually equal terms - Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on nearly equal terms
– Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

It is the next stage in the rolling out of The Guardian’s new ‘paid membership’ scheme for readers and commenters that we want to see. This was the summary of the plan by The Financial Times last week — unaccompanied, as far as we know, by any comment or analysis, so far:

The Guardian has launched a paid membership scheme, as it seeks to narrow operating losses that reached £33.8m last year.

The newspaper, which has resisted charging for access to its online content, will offer readers access to events and a new purpose-built venue near London’s King’s Cross.

Top-level members, known as patrons, will be charged £60 per month and will also have access to tours of the Guardian’s newsroom and print site. Mid-tier “partners” will pay £15 per month, while non-paying “friends” will also be able to book tickets to events.

The Guardian has no pressing need for profitability, with £842.7m in cash as of March, after selling its stake in car magazine Auto Trader.

We hope that there is more to this idea than supplying forms of theatre – either professional entertainment, or the thrilling chance to watch genuine Guardian journalists and editors tapping at their computers. We resist cynicism, at post-Gutenberg. Yet the reminder that came instantly to mind was of the ancient ruses in Europe for diverting the populace from noticing social inequality – known as ‘bread and circuses’. This was an accusation also levelled at the splendid Medici family, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power in Florence during Italy’s Renaissance:

… The days of adventitious sharing in the noise and warmth within an open palace door and a hand-out of the leavings were over; the populace was firmly excluded from the pleasures of the rich.

A similar withdrawal took place with publicly organized occasions of holiday mood. Bread and circuses: Lorenzo de’ Medici was accused of soliciting in the 1470s and 1480s the support of those excluded from a voice in government by lavish public entertainments: tournaments, street pageants. … In a republic that had been subtly manipulated into a narrow oligarchy it was natural … for opponents of this tendency to remember with alarm how the emperors who subverted the republican constitution of ancient Rome had employed gladiatorial and wild beast combats to occupy simple minds. A century after Lorenzo, however, with the rising price of bread and popular insurgency that rose with it, the issue of diversion was seen in terms of practical contemporary politics. ‘Because the common people are unstable and long for novelty, wrote Giovanni Botero in 1589 in his Reason of State, ‘they will seek it out for themselves, changing even their government, and their rulers if their prince does not provide some kind of diversion for them.’

The Civilization of Europe at the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Bread-and-circuses is surely not what Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has had in mind, in his speeches and interviews about the ‘mutualisation’ of journalism. This is what he said on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, in replying to a British commenter on a blog post about turning readers into paying members as an economic survival model for media organisations (part of their exchange):

Han Gough

It’s certainly interesting. And I’d be happy to support the Guardian. But I can’t for the life of me work out what benefits I would gain from membership. I live in a university town in the south west of England and there are no events scheduled in a 300 mile vicinity! And that building looks nice but I’m never going to get to use it. To be a Guardian “member” must one live in Islington???

I feel that the Guardian’s values, and it’s history as the Manchester Guardian, have been somewhat lost in translation. […]

alan rusbridger •

Han, this is a beta launch of something that will become more interesting in a few months and still more interesting once the Midlands Goods Shed is up and running. We haven’t forgotten the rest of the country (or the rest of the world) and will announce further and better plans. This is just the initial announcement…. a *very* soft launch. And thanks for kind words about the Guardian.

Han Gough •

Wow. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I only posted here because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to comment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. And I can see how it would be really exciting if I lived in central London. But £15/month is quite a lot of money. […]. And even if you did put on an event at some point in Exeter (which is where I am), will you ever manage to put on £15-worth of events every month?

Also one of the reasons I like and read the Guardian is for its socially progressive values but this feels regressive at first sight. It’s providing opportunities for an already privileged segment of people: those who are cash-rich and live in London. That’s what I meant when I said it seemed out of step with the spirit of the Manchester Guardian. I can really understand why the Scots have had enough. It is this mentality that London and the south east of England gets the lion’s share and the rest of us roll over and pay for it. […] Thanks again for your reply.

The reason why Han Gough living in Exeter, in England, had to go to a site owned by an American university to react to the Guardian scheme is because that newspaper did not allow public comment on it. A box beneath the notice about it on The Guardian’s site invited readers to submit feedback on a form whisked invisibly into the paper’s mysterious innards. Ah so!

What would be better – much better – than what we have seen, so far, of The Guardian’s plan? Strangely enough, it was from the comments section of that Nieman site at Harvard that someone outstandingly practical contacted post-Gutenberg with the answer, three years ago. This is how our report about this most helpful encounter began:

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral. …

[ continues here: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘ … ]

Also see:

Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?

 

How the Gutenberg press helped Switzerland to become the pioneer of ‘inclusive capitalism’, and why poor Sophia Tolstoy needed a post-Gutenberg blog of her own

Muenster in early evening light -- around 4 pm -- Cheryll Barron

View from Bern Muenster Cheryll Barron postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

– photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

A clarification. Our use of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is neither fuzzy nor subversive – as in the accusation levelled at the organisers of a conference on the topic in London last May. For us, it describes cooperatives of various sorts, more or less the range set out in a 2009 report by Co-operative Development Scotland. Scroll down this post to see why one subject of that study, Switzerland, is proof that man as a consensus-building, egalitarian animal can be wildly successful.

Nothing drills the facts about Switzerland’s revolt against the corrupt old Catholic Church into you — your very bones — quite like mulling over them as you climb the 254 sub-arctic, twisting stairs to the bell tower of the Bern Muenster in mid-winter. From the viewing balcony up there, eyes unglued with difficulty from the hypnotic, turquoise River Aare below stray to the stone terrace at the cathedral’s base, where, during the Reformation of the 1500s, rebels had a merry old time smashing priceless religious images and objects.

This battleground in the Swiss capital is an unequalled symbol of the fight against inequality: the hulking Gothic structure on which construction began in 1421 loomed above a mere 5,000 inhabitants of Bern, at the time. All the better to intimidate them — only that assumption proved a mistake. In the words of an English-speaking specialist in the culture and history of Switzerland – an underpopulated species we care about for reasons to be explained in future posts – ‘much of Swiss history derives its interest from a revolt … of peasants against abbeys, … of towns against the ecclesiastical foundations from which they sprang.’

Switzerland’s continuing refinement of practical egalitarianism in the centuries-long wake of the Reformation means that there is a great feeling of been-there-done-that for anyone Swiss coming across a Twitter-trending lexical combination: inclusive capitalism — spotlighted in a speech earlier this year by the International Monetary Fund’s leader, Christine Lagarde. The Alpine republic most famous for political neutrality, charming quaintness and its tourist attractions, arguably deserves to be better known for its vast experience of using cooperatives as tools for wearing down social inequality. You might almost say that the whole of Switzerland – a country that has never had kings or queens, and is run not by any single leader but a Federal Council – works like a giant co-op.

Most elements of inclusive capitalism listed in a PBS – public-service broadcasting – programme in the U.S. a year ago, ‘The Alternative American Dream,’ are old hat for, and well-used by, the Swiss: ‘consumer ownership, credit unions and ownership by franchisees pursuing common purchasing efforts …’. Earlier entries on this blog have pointed to stable, cautious and solidly-grounded Swiss banking cooperatives avoiding the disastrous subprime mortgage crisis, and praised Swiss super-democracy.

Can the Swiss economy be said to have been injured in any way by excessive idealism? Quite the contrary. Cooperatives are democratic, not socialist. Socialism – as the Cambridge historian-of-ideas Gareth Stedman Jones has observed, was in part an attempt to replace the Catholic Church with a state religion. Most Swiss, a supremely praktisch people, have more down-to-earth aspirations. Last September, for the fifth year in a row, Switzerland was the world’s most competitive economy — leading the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness ranking based on its vetting of ‘the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country’.

And its record for inventiveness? Last month, for the fourth year in a row, it was also the country at the top of the Global Innovation Index – ranking economies by their capacity to marry ideas to knowledge for creativity with social and economic value.

What connects such success with putting idealism into practice to Bern’s Muenster — and the chief preoccupation of this blog — is the media revolution on which the Reformation rode. Printing centres, most notably in Basel, were established early, in Switzerland, and became critical to marshalling and disseminating the anti-clerical, anti-Vatican arguments and facts.

Forcing change on the Catholic Church in the prelude to the Renaissance would seem dustily irrelevant, to members of the chattering classes in our time. Practically none of us have been constrained by the dictates of religious authorities: most of us grew up as the children of agnostics, atheists or doubting semi-believers. But smashing medieval religious authorities’ outrageously unequal information-power with new technology – in the shape of the Gutenberg printing presses – resonates loudly, in the midst of our digital revolution. Print broke the power of sermons, just as the internet and e-publishing are vaporising the power of print’s gatekeepers today. It was from preaching that most people, who could not read, gleaned authoritative information about the world.

A report on a conference of medieval sermon scholars at Harvard two years ago sets out the remarkable parallels – including doomed attempts to discredit the unmediated broadcast of information, as in old media propaganda, now, about blogs and blogging:

… It was the ecclesiastical system behind sermons “that invented the idea [that] there was a universal body of knowledge” and that led the way to modern universities. Sermons were the dominant literary form in the Middle Ages. They bridged the emerging power of the written word and what was, 900 years ago, the predominance of the spoken.

… Before the printing press, knowledge was disseminated through oral traditions. In the public sphere that meant sermons. These discourses from the pulpit were the Internet and the mainstream press and the propaganda machine of the Middle Ages.

… At the same time, sermons of nearly a millennium ago prompted a very modern question: Who has the right to speak? Vying with priests for the right to preach were lay people, lawyers, kings, and public officials. In a bit of recurrent culture shock, even women demanded the right to preach sermons.

Most of all, the prospect of lay preaching “was an anxiety for the Church,” wrote Carolyn Muessig in a study of medieval preaching and society. (The University of Bristol scholar delivered the first paper at the Harvard conference.) The concern, she wrote, was the Vatican’s desire to protect people from heresy and “to preserve a clerical monopoly on learning.”

The debate over who owned the medieval airwaves went on for hundreds of years. As late as the 14th century, one critic still held that the Vatican had the final say. “No lay person can preach without authorization,” wrote Robert de Basevorn, “and no woman ever.”

… In an internet break from reflections on that old battle, news of a book published by Yale University Press surfed onscreen, this week. More than twelve decades after a brutal misuse of power by her husband, Leo Tolstoy, his wife Sophia Andreevna has got her revenge. It seems that the author of War and Peace wrote a spiteful, vicious tale about his own domestic wars in an 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. Everyone in literary Russia, and lofty beings outside it – including Tsar Alexander III – knew that the old philanderer’s story about a jealous husband who murders his wife was intended as punishment for Sophia’s infatuation with a musician who filled the void left by the romantic hopes and expectations that Tolstoy’s behaviour wrecked.

The aggression in the novelist’s self-pitying tale was not lost on the tsar, who sympathised with Sophia. In one phase of the drama, this writer’s wife demonstrated exceptional nobility of character in pleading with the ruler to order government censors bent on suppressing The Kreutzer Sonata to lay off – even though she was profoundly hurt by it.

She found her own way to fight back – in two novellas telling her side of the story that languished in deepest obscurity in Tolstoy’s archives until they were published in 21st-century Russia. Now, Yale has had them translated into English, in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, a collection that includes, along with extracts from her letters and diaries – more amazingly yet – a story by the Tolstoys’ son Lev that is also a protest against Kreutzer.

We have had to wait much too long for these remarkable discoveries. Sophia Andreevna had to make a special journey to St. Petersburg to plead her husband’s case with the tsar. Now, if she had only had a blog …