Ebooks, E-readers and Libraries

What, you actually wanted me to write something after my grand declaration of return? Ok, ok, I get it. Here you go:

There’s a nice little post over at Gizmodo about the sudden spike in the number of e-book readers hitting the market. Their verdict: There are too many e-book readers1. And their reasoning falls pretty well in line with my feelings on the matter2. So, by all means, please head on over and read it.

Too lazy to click on over? Thought so. The gist is that these are intermediate devices and will miss a large group of “middle-road” readers. If you like Barnes ‘n’ Noble or Amazon, and buy a lot of books the Nook/Kindle will be quite satisfactory. If you pirate a lot of books on bit torrent then there are some sub $100 models coming your way with lots of compatibility and no access to authorized retail channels. This leaves a sizable group people in the middle who might be looking for competitive pricing but don’t understand all the options.  Our Gizmodo blogger contends that “these people might give up on buying books altogether.”

Now, as a Librarian I am one such person who has, for the most part, given up buying books. And I am generally here to help others do the same sort of thing. And thus, my reaction so far to e-book readers has amounted to little more than a shrug.  I’m not one of those who argue that the printed, corporeal word will be with us into eternity. Though it might be – the death of paper has long been foretold and, has yet to materialize. Or, as this paper [PDF] from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center puts it:

Paper is all around us, quietly doing the same work it’s been doing
for centuries. Indeed, what’s most remarkable about the quest for e-paper is the standard by which we measure its progress. Paper itself is the inescapable metaphor, the paradigm, the tantalizing goal. The new medium will be deemed a success if and when it is no longer just an imitation of paper, but the real thing – when it becomes paper. It’s not as easy as it looks

So, touche. But I, as well as the author himself, grant that modes of reading may well evolve beyond the bound and printed word as we know it.  And this is my point – as a culture we are increasingly becoming format agnostic and will consume media in whatever way presents itself as most convenient.

My interest in e-readers, then,  is piqued only by the simple question of convenience. Loaning a physical book is easy. Its contents are discreet, packaged nicely and fit in a relatively small space. It is convenient to the original reader and on down the line to subsequent readers throughout the ages (or as long as the paper, glue and ink last) to read, re-read, loan and otherwise dispose of as they please. E-book readers have a long way to come in that sense. If I purchase an electronic copy of Thomas Pynchon’s V3 on my Kindle, Nook, etc. I can certainly read and re-read but if I want to evangelize, then I am stuck handing over my reader4, and potentially my entire library contained therein, until my unwitting mark reads the novel and returns it. And anyone who has ever loaned a book knows not to expect it back within any reasonable amount of time. Not to mention that if I was looking to pick up a used paperback copy for a couple of bucks, there’s no such analogue in the digital world5.

Ultimately, I come neither to praise or bury the e-book reader. I only point out that the technology has not come far enough for me to find it useful. I agree with the good people at Gizmodo that the devices currently available are but nascent incarnations of what we can expect within a few years, and I don’t know that even those will allow us to consume that particular media – books- in the manner in which we are accustomed and bring us satisfaction6. And until the Gordian knot of DRM is cut and balance is achieved between access and ownership in the digital realm I will continue to shrug my shoulders, scan the next patron’s library card and inform them that their stack of books is due in two weeks.

1 Or, their official title “There are officially to damn many ebook readers
2 as a Librarian I’m pretty much expected to have “feelings on the matter”
3 A worthy purchase, I assure you.
4 Yes, B&N’s Nook allows one time loaning to other Nook owners and it’s a step in the right direction
5 unless you expect me to purloin it via bit torrent
6 though I am, in fact, rooting for it

4 Responses to “Ebooks, E-readers and Libraries”

  1. Walter Says:

    Your consternation that devices won’t _be_ books and won’t satisfy you similarly effectively tables the talk here. Hmm… I’m not sure I understand the dichotomous criticism of E-readers, the analog/digital choice we feel we must make. These devices aren’t books and do not replace books in our lives. Rather, they can be tools for managing content in new ways in our lives and thus fit nicely into existing reading habits. Here’s a recent example: The only physical library copy of one of my textbooks this semester was checked out from my local libraries. There was an electronic copy available, but I read a tremendous amount of material online with my online degree as it is. I chose the Kindle version– it was cheaper than the new pb (ok, a little more than a used pb, but I would have had to pay shipping on that), I received it instantly, and it takes up no room on my already stuffed bookcases/floor. This was a perfect solution for a reading scenario that lacks all the romanticism you so eloquently describe.

    I really like the look of the E-ink. It is easy to read and the lack of movement compared to back-lit computer screens is welcome in an electronic environment, especially for the migraine-inclined.

    I see a lot of people on message boards and even in credible print bemoan the loss of ‘real’ or somehow ‘true’ reading via E-reader/electronic reading. Ok, blogs great literature may not be, but right now my Kindle is stocked with Checkov, Wodehouse, Twain, Poe, 18th century pirate narratives, Zane Grey, etc. So take that, Luddites. [One might point out that these public domain classics are on there because they are free...] I fail to see how reading Checkov on my Kindle makes me dumber than reading the same text between cardstock. Sven Birkerts disagrees: , but he alternates between the book– that actual technology– and its content vying for supremacy. I’m left confused.

    Your lending argument is weak– you just wanted to complain. You likely wouldn’t lend a hard drive or iPod either, but that doesn’t make them bad options for storing/transporting content. [This should have just been a post, sorry...] Lending in a library context has advantages and disadvantages. I think lending to patrons who already own devices [aside from compatability headaches] makes sense, saves wear and tear, and can be potential outreach/access measures.

    The rights issues are ugly and huge. I wonder how many people who are up-in-arms over DRM keystroke-away their identities on search engines and browsers everyday? I’d like to point out that the publishing industry has never been particularly cherub-faced. But, you buy a book, it’s yours to fondle.

    And lo, so you don’t sacrifice me on a pyre of 1s and 0s, my preferred reading context involves a hardback Jew or Indian, an incandescent bulb, and a cup of coffee. Your post forgot to mention the smell of paper. E-ink has no smell.

  2. Walter Says:

    Woops. Here’s the link for the Sven Birkerts article I meant to embed in that ramble: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200903u/amazon-kindle

  3. Conan Says:


    1) I purposely wrote this to draw you out as a nascent kindle owner. It worked.

    2) Yes, this would have made a lovely post, and I invite you to share similar thoughts/musings/etc. as such.

    3) I didn’t realize that I had placed the printed word in such a romantic old-fashioned light. It was not my intention on setting out.

    You call me out on the lending argument and perhaps rightly so. The idea of loaning a $400 piece of hardware is admittedly fatuous. BUT if you look at the model ipods and hard drives as you propose, you come pretty quickly back to what has happened to film/music – the idea that many will simply pirate the content onto whatever format/device suits them. This has not overrun either the film or music buisness and likely will not do so for the publishing industry.

    So I guess my concern about lending in the library context is where do we fit? We loan DVDs and CDs, and they do a brisk circulation in spite of (or because of) the ease in piracy. And DVD/CD is still a physical format. Are we going to end up with books/collections on SD cards? Will we find a way to stream content through the cloud to personal reading devices? What are the standards going to be?

    And all of this is to say that I, personally, do not yet find e-readers compelling. I don’t (or don’t mean to) argue that it’s an either-or proposition – especially long term. It just hasn’t gotten to the point where I see e-ink/readers as a valuable supplement to me reading habits.

    Thanks for the comments, and seriously, post some of this stuff when you get the itch!

  4. Walter Says:

    Yes, I think more and more we will “stream content through the cloud to personal reading devices.” Libraries already do this. I access, download, and print an amazing amount of content via USC without ever setting foot in Columbia. I’m not so sure piracy is the concern here in the same way it is with CD/DVD– sure some people will grab the content, but people who want to own books are going to want books. I don’t know that too many people are going to care about racking up a list of pirated text files to read later. But, the prospect of pirating the latest Nora Roberts or something and distributing it to fiendish internet goons… I think these are our problems, Mr. Thirtysomething Librarian. [I was hoping to take the Digital Libraries course but I'm not sure it'll be offered before I'm done-- something by the same prof in content/knowledge management might be, which might tackle some of these issues.]

    Apple certainly changed its image and an industry by convincing people to pay $1.99 for a miniscule, crappy-sounding, proprietary mp3 file. When a friend saw my Kindle, he asked if it was a giant iPod. Publishers should take note…

    Ooh, how about ‘smart’ library cards with embedded flash memory or something? (We haven’t even talked RFID)

    The general gist of your post was sound. The general gist of mine was that so far the Kindle is proving itself an enjoyable supplement to my reading. My post should have pointed out for readers that this thing was a gift/surprise and I in no way would have bought one for myself, and that I’ve only owned it for about three weeks :)

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