Although I’m not a librarian, I have worked in a library for over seventeen years. E-books, which fall under the library jargon of “digital media,” are just another format. Lately, I’ve noticed a few advocates of e-books claim that e-books will drive paper books off the market and people will flock to e-books in droves.
Here are a few observations I’ve made by watching people in our library and by keeping up with the digital market:
Myth: E-books will replace paper books.
Fact: In terms of preservation, no. There will be books that are only published digitally, but if these items are to be preserved, there will be a hard copy in existence somewhere. It is a simple fact in library-land that paper has a life-span of 100+ years; digital media has a life-span of 5-10 years.
Myth: It’s easier to preserve a digital library.
Fact: Digital media must be updated and the format changed to keep up with new technology at the very least, every five years. If the media is not constantly updated, the format will change and the media will be useless. (Does anyone remember 5 1/2 inch floppy disks? 3 1/2 inch floppies?) Updating and maintaining digital media can be more costly than maintaining a paper collection, depending on the size of the collection, and the type of equipment necessary to keep the media current.
The other problem is that paper degrades over a long period of time and digital media degrades instantly. So while the ink from a document printed from a dot-matrix printer may be fading, there is still plenty of time to transcribe the document to a more permanent format. Whereas with digital media, one day your flash-drive is working and the next day *poof* it’s gone. All it takes is one virus or a corrupt code to destroy thousands of files.
Myth: E-books are just as permanent as paper books.
Fact: Server space is not infinite. One reason our consortium will not dump bibliographic records for e-books into our collection is a lack of server space. Digital libraries, such as NetLibrary, withdraw items from their collections just like regular libraries. They base their withdrawals on criteria such as circulation statistics and whether or not the item is dated (for example: a third edition of a title that replaces a second edition, etc.).
When an item is withdrawn from a digital library, it disappears. When an item is withdrawn from a library, it goes into our book sale to generate funds for more library services or, if it is badly damaged, into recycle.
However, students enrolled in distance learning programs can make good use of any digital library. For those students who are home and need to access information quickly online, e-books and e-libraries are definitely the way to go.
Myth: Digital books are more accessible to more people.
Fact: Only if there is a computer or a digital reading device in every single home. This is why libraries are so important, especially when the economy takes a nosedive. All those lovely Internet services cost a lot of money, and when people start cutting corners, luxuries such as Internet and cable TV are the first to go. Libraries fill that void, but who is going to sit at a library computer all day to read a book?
Generally speaking, people come to the library for quick-hit information. They need something fast or they want to take something home so they can study it in-depth.
Myth: Digital media is cheaper.
Fact: First one must purchase a device to play the media, be it laptop, iPad, or e-reader, then the e-book. Right now, e-books are running at approximately $9.99. This won’t last forever. Remember when songs from iTunes used to only be $0.99 each and now the pricing is starting to vary? The same will be held true for e-books.
Myth: College textbooks are better in digital format.
Fact: In many ways this is true until you have to take into account the number of people who may have vision problems that preclude them from using a digital textbook. I suppose this is another argument why both formats should be made available.
Myth: The Google Book Project is going to make everything accessible, especially to libraries.
Fact: The Google Book Project specifically covers libraries and offers one terminal per library that will provide free access to the Google library. Subsequent terminals that provide access must be purchased through a subscription. Anyone familiar with subscriptions to digital information will tell you, it’s going to be very expensive.
Myth: E-books will make our society greener, because we will be killing fewer trees to produce paper books.
Fact: All those devices, from your laptop to your Kindle, are sucking energy every time you plug them in to recharge them. If anything, we’re probably using more energy because of these devices.
I’ve also observed students who are using our library’s computers to do research and when they need an article or a page from an online book, they want to print it, and print they do — reams and reams of paper to take home and study. So much for our paperless society.
Myth: E-books will make paper libraries obsolete.
Fact: Generally, people who make this claim are very technologically astute and make the assumption no one else has issues with technology. However, not everyone can filter through the various technologies with the same ease. I can’t begin to tell you how much of the day is spent by the librarians and other staff members instructing people on the usage of various databases. The people we help vary in age from seventeen to eighty. Most have had some experience with computers and consider themselves computer literate.
The other problem is funding. Most people could not afford to subscribe to digital information. Libraries get discounts that enable us to provide information at a lower cost to patrons.
So there is really no need to be pro or con concerning e-books. They are another format designed to extend our audience. In many ways they are inferior to paper books, but in other ways they can be very valuable, especially in terms of portability.
iPads and e-readers can be useful to doctors and lawyers, who often need to search across multiple books simultaneously for quick information that must be frequently updated. The best possible format for these items is digital.
In terms of fiction, for me, it’s an instant gratification issue. If I see I book that I want to read immediately, I will sometimes buy it for my Nook, but most of the documents on my Nook are research documents. I still like buying paper books, because when I’m finished with them, I can donate them to our library for our collection or our book sale.
So what about you? Do you see e-books replacing paper books?