e-books and libraries

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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When an item is withdrawn from a digital library, it disappears. When an item is withdrawn from a library, it goes into our book sale to generate funds for more library services or, if it is badly damaged, into recycle.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? 

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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24 Responses to e-books and libraries

  1. Glinda says:

    Teresa, great post!

    As much as I love ebooks, I agree that it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the the future of books and reading that some people would like to think they are.

    One thing that I think people forget is that all types of materials are not suited for digital media, at least not yet. I am thinking things like photography, art and cooking books. I can tell you firsthand that trying to use a cookbook on my Kindle has been an frustrating experience.

    I think that the other thing that people forget when thinking about the future of books is that formats do change. Most libraries do not have papyrus scrolls and cuneiform tablets sitting on the shelves in the reference desk section, LOL!

    The printed book as we know it has had a long run, over 500 years. I think that we will have physical books around for a long time to come – but e-reading is sure easier on my eyes!

    • Hi Glinda! I haven’t even thought of ordering a cookbook on my e-reader, but I can certainly see how that would be a major fail. 😉

      I think you’re right, people just get excited about new things, especially technology. Wait until some of the new wears off, but I don’t think paper books are going anywhere very soon.

  2. Interesting, T. I appreciate seeing this issue through the eyes of someone who I know is definitely pro library.

    Obviously I’m the last person who should be making predictions about the future. I would have thought a properly formatted cookbook would work well on an ereader, provided it was in a ziplock.

    As you may know, I just ordered myself a Kindle. I’m eager to experiment and get some real world understanding about these issues. Thanks for the insight.

    • Gee, I hadn’t thought about putting it in a ziplock! 😉

      I love massive art books that give glorious detail to the art and the great color pictures. I hope you enjoy your Kindle. I find I don’t enjoy reading an e-book as much as I enjoy reading a print book. The print book is easier on my eyes, especially after all day online with my job. I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences with the Kindle.

  3. Terrific post. You’re absolutely right about it all, Teresa.

  4. Lara says:

    As another librarian I have to say “Thanks Teresa!” This is great! I take people on tours of my academic library all the time and this always comes up, especially from parents. Then we head into the microfilms room and people are aghast with the same basic question: “Why isn’t this digitized??” and of course it all comes to the $$. Only big publishers like the NYT and a few others are able to put their entire collections out on the web, and even then only to subscribers. And that doesn’t include things like the ads and classifieds, so if you were looking for pictures of shoes or a wedding or whatever from 1910 don’t seek the online version — only the paper or microfilm will provide that. And the libraries are where everyone can access it for free.

    • Hi, Lara, thanks for stopping by and bringing up a very important point: photographs. I know people who love to go around saying “everything is online.” Not! Photos take up a huge amount of digital space and often give a person intimate details into an article that words simply can’t convey. I’m so glad you brought that up.

  5. erikamarks says:

    Great points, Teresa. Someday I will experience reading an e-book for myself but I must admit I feel no urgency, though I am certainly curious to see what it’s all about. My husband, a teacher, has been talking about the switch to digital textbooks for years and I can easily see the push for that change.

    • I don’t believe you’ve missed much at this point, Erika. I think they’d be ideal for textbooks, unless you’re some weirdo like me that likes to highlight and mark the margins of her textbooks. 😉

  6. kat magendie says:

    My brother called me yesterday and said, “When radio came; they said it’d be the end of books – when TV came; they said it’d be the end of books – when internet came; they said it’d be the end of books – when e-readers came; they said it’d be the end of books – why then, everywhere I look, people are reading books?” *laughing*

  7. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, Teresa. I agree wholeheartedly with the points you make, Most people prefer books not e-books. Libraries are great place to hang out. I’d much rather sit with a paper book than crouch over the computer reading from the scene.

    Also, good point about needing to upgrade the digital formatts. I hadn’t thought of that.

    I still think digital media has a lot to offer, but only as an addition to what is already there. And of course, for Indie musicians such as myself, the technologies have enabled me to get several online recordings out there, as well as photoshoots.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I think you made some good points about the Indie musicians. A lot of writers are excited about the Indie opportunities opening up for writers with e-books.

  8. amanda says:

    I loved this post, Teresa! Your list is very comforting to someone like me who can’t imagine giving up my piles of books for a little screen.

    • Hi Amanda, I wish I could say for sure and certain, but I never wanted to see music move to the digital realm, and for the most part it has. Of course, I don’t spend money on music anymore as a result to the digital move. I’ll buy an occasional CD, but it’s a rare thing. When I purchase something, I want a tangible object in my hand. I’d hate to have to stop buying books for the same reason.

  9. I hate to think that the printed book is going anywhere. During my book tour, though, some of the managers of the chain stores I was in expressed some real concerns. I’m preparing for anything…but unhappily!

    • Same here. I’d hate it if books went totally digital with no choices on the horizon, Elizabeth. I’d hate to have to rely on a computer or reading device anytime I wanted to read or research something. My house will be filled with three-ring binders holding print-outs! 😉

  10. Glynis Smy says:

    What a brilliant post. I can never imagine life without a book in my hand. I cannot read books from a screen, my brain will not settle while I try. I have to have paper backs, I cannot read hard backs. So while there are quirky folk like me around, the book will live on forever. 🙂

    • I don’t think you’re quirky at all, Glynis. I saw a post on Twitter where someone couldn’t imagine spending over $24 for a book. You’re talking to the woman who would think nothing of plunking down $80+ for good reference books that I’ll continue to use. I guess we’re part of a dying breed. 😉

  11. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, just read this article again. Very interesting, particularly what you say about the 5-10 life span of a piece of digital media and the fact that a virus can wipe out thousands of files. Quite scary too. I’m fanatical about backing up material. At present, I have 9 email accounts, a special e-drive on the hard drive, 4 online storage accounts, access to google docs and Zoho docs, and hordes of CD’s, along with three memory sticks. And I still worry about losing valuable data.

    • Lawrence, you’re probably safe. 😉 I wish I backed up that much, but I always keep at least one hard copy of the finished material. That’s my best back-up.

      And just to be clear: in the event of a virus, some files can be eventually restored, but it’s a costly venture to extract the data.

      Thanks for dropping in!

  12. Amy Bai says:

    Great post, Theresa – and great points. While I think ebooks are definitely a big deal, the gloomy predictions that they’re going to wipe out publishing as we know it are a little melodramatic. And I’m sure I’ll get an e-reader eventually; I’m too keen on going green not to– but I’m also sure I will never give up my beloved library of worn paperbacks. If I like a book, I’ll always want the printed version.

    • Hi Amy, thanks for popping in! I’m not so sure how green e-books are. Most green predictions for e-books stem from the evaluation of single users. They don’t seem to be taking into account the servers (or the size of the servers) necessary to store these items nor the massive air cooling units required to keep the servers cool.

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