Books, eBooks, and the Future of Libraries

August 12, 2010 at 2:54 PM Leave a comment

Going to my first library conference in more than a year, so many ideas and trends swirling in my mind that it is hard to see the information forest for the digital trees.

Amazon announced just a few weeks ago that they now sell more ebooks than hardcovers – which shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, given my own preference for (roughly speaking) (1) paperback (2) ebook for my iPad and (3) hardback, in that order. Hardbacks are becoming chic decorative items – coffee table chachkes, and in “distressed” form, ironic works of art.

(My favorite among these has to be the bookends, made of old books bound in a stack and forever shellacked together, recently featured in the NY Times Magazine photo essay the subject.)

But it’s not time to sing the swansong for books just yet – or even print newspapers, though they’re clearly an endangered species. For one thing, I read that NY Times Magazine story the old fashioned way, on paper. In fact I made a special trip to the store to buy the paper, because I wanted to read the news but didn’t want to stare at a screen, if only for a couple of Sunday hours. I felt like I had a real Sunday, actually relaxing as I read instead of scrolling, clicking, scanning, clicking, hopping over to Facebook, checking my work email, etc.

And then there’s the intimacy of reading to a kid from a real book. The past few nights, I’ve been reading to my 7-year-old son the very silly sequel to Howard Whitehouse’s madcap “The Strictest School in the World”, this one called “The Faceless Fiend”. Granted I’m reading it to him by the light of my iPhone’s Flashlight app, but technology is not an intermediary otherwise.

Is that just habit? A factor of my birthdate and not an ingrained preference that others might share? What is the tactile experience of book-reading really about? How is it unique?

This matters to librarians, and anyone interested in the future of information. Our newfound independence from the printed word is liberating – I can as easily read the UK Independent or an English translation of a Spanish paper as a local one, and Google and Amazon are doing their best to bring me any book, in digitized form, more or less on demand. And the very multi-functionality of a device like an iPad gives it a tremendous utility beyond conveying words. But if what we are losing in the process is the idea of physical books as having significance, then librarians have a problem.

Because surveys have shown that the first image that comes to mind when people hear the word “library” is that of – wait for it – books. If libraries are seen as nothing but repositories for these antiquated items from another era, what of the people within them? We know that our purpose is to connect people with their information needs, whether those are best filled by books or not. But the public doesn’t – and that means that for librarians, the political (and thus financial) implications of these trends can’t be ignored.

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Entry filed under: Digital Books, Library Funding, Library Futures. Tags: , , , , .

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