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I feel the need to respond to all the articles I’ve read lately about libraries going digital.  Yes, it’s the wave of the future, and yes, one day we may not have any paper books.  But that day is further off than all these articles would have us think.

CNN talked about the “new librarian” and the new libraries with more digital resources than paper ones.  The “new librarian” started appearing at least ten years ago, so CNN is behind the times there.  Libraries have been growing more and more digital for at least that long.  And while ebooks are a quickly growing market, they are a new, untested technology.  One of the things none of these articles mentions is how quickly technology changes, and how easy it is to alter or destroy a digital file.  If it rains and your Kindle gets wet, it probably won’t survive; but a damp book is still readable if a bit funky.  Or what if you get a computer virus and lose all your files?  Seems just as likely as a house fire destroying all your books.  I’m not saying that books are a perfect technology, because they’re not.  They are easily damaged, but they have have hundreds of years of staying power.  You can go into libraries and find books that are a hundred years old, sometimes older.  The ebook was only invented a few decades ago, and it seems a bit reckless to consider going completely digital so quickly.  Not mention that something that exists only digitally in one format may not be readable once the technology that reads that format becomes outdated.  Think Betamax, if you even remember what that is, because I sure don’t.

One school library has even gone so far as to get rid of most of their books.  They plan to go completely digital.  This may make sense for a rich prep school, as most of them can probably afford laptops and Kindles.  However, one of the librarians in the article brings up the issue of cost.  A paperback book is only about $8.  The Kindle is on sale right now for $299, and that doesn’t include any of the books you want to read.  While ebooks may be cheaper in the long run, that doesn’t help people like me who live just above the poverty line and can’t afford to drop $300 at a time on anything other than rent.  I don’t buy books, I check them out from the library for free.  This is called the digital divide in library world.  I work in a library, and I meet a lot of people there who don’t have computers, never mind a Kindle.  Some of them don’t even have phones.

So basically, while digital books are probably the wave of the future, the future is further away than we think.  Unless we’re planning on some kind of horribly socio-economically stratified future like we see in the grittier sci-fi dystopias.  Or a future that is very much like present, but worse.

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2 Comments

  1. And there are a number of other e-readers out there — still pricey, but at least they don’t have the proprietary issues of Amazon’s ereader. Some of which are even sold through brick and mortar stores that pay taxes into libraries… FWIW.
    http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6698624.html?q=e-book

      • vegetarianninjalibrarian
      • Posted October 11, 2009 at 5:14 am
      • Permalink
      • Reply

      Thanks, Maryelizabeth! Nice to know there’s some kind of free market competition.


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