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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Books: Are They Passé or Here to Stay?

Photo originally uploaded by PPL2a

Are books passé (behind the times) or will they be around forever?

This is an interesting question for me as a librarian who is now working almost exclusively with digital materials rather than the traditional hardcover books. My day is spent looking at a computer screen, tapping away at a keyboard, and exercising my mouse while searching online catalog records and verifying that Internet links are correct.

Currently I am the only employee of the library who is cataloging digital materials. There are four catalogers handling print and audiovisual materials. Last summer I was transferred summer from the Cataloging Department to Library Technology which has just been renamed Digital Library Services. I am happy about this change because frankly I still have lots of years to go until retirement and if there's even the slightest chance that books are going to kick the bucket, I still want to be employable.

That being said, however, my personal reading experiences remain old school. Okay, I admit I have read a few books online through NetLibrary but I haven't read them beginning to end or "cover to cover" as we used to say. It's been more of a browse really. Nor do I own any of the portable devices that are available and am not too knowledgeable of them (new job department title notwithstanding). I'd characterize myself as an avid book reader with generally several titles on my nightstand. In order to feed my need to read, I'm a regular patron of my local public library where the books are free rather than a customer at the bookstore. I don't know if it's the influence of my choice of career or not but I own relatively few books.

To solicit input from others I took an informal poll on the topic at work. I asked people whether they thought books in a physical format were as of now passé or here to stay. The five coworkers I got to take me seriously all voted for here to stay. Some qualified their remarks a bit saying things like "in a hundred years or so it might be different" and "the digital ebook readers will have to get a lot better" but everyone was confident that books will be around for quite awhile yet.

Here's a look at the other point of view:

Voices for Passé

"With most media being converted to digital formats in order to be made more portable, such as music and movies, it’s only a matter of time before books make a similar leap. Sure, there’s a certain comfort brought by carrying around a real book, but just like the warm-sounding vinyl records before them, they’re bound to become a relic owned only by serious fans. What’ll replace them? Digital books."

Quoted from post "Sony Reader Hints Towards the Death of Books" on (January 2008)

Photo by Kevin P. Casey for The New York Times

Edward Wyatt of the New York Times reported that the Kindle (pictured above) was the talk of the BookExpo America trade show in June 2008.

Electronic Device Stirs Unease at Book Fair
"Booksellers, who make up the other major group attending the
publishing convention, are also concerned that electronic books could become more than a passing fancy for an electronically savvy subset of customers. “It certainly does feel like a threat,” said Charles Stillwagon, the events manager at the Tattered Cover Book Store, a large independent bookseller in Denver.

Nearly all publishers say their sales of electronic books are growing
exponentially. Carolyn K. Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, said its sales of electronic books will more than double this year compared to last year, after growing 40 percent in 2007 from 2006. David Shanks, the chief executive of Penguin Group USA, said his company sold more electronic books in the first four months of 2008 than in all of last year."

Read full article here.

But on the other hand....

Voices for Here to Stay

"It is an immutable law that the Death of the Book must be debated at least once a year.....The book is an artefact of the heart. Because the mind responds more viscerally and profoundly to words on paper, it gets an emotional charge, a deep connection with the characters, a yearning desire to know the ending that is not found on a screen. Books hold our personal histories; our bookshelves are the record of our lives. Our childish loves, our adolescent passions, our sudden crazy obsessions, are all up there in our room, to remind us. The physical act of opening a pristine novel, getting the scent of it in our nostrils, and yes, holding it close to our heart, are sensory and uniquely human experiences. We carry books to show who we are, to impress new crushes, to protect us when dining alone; we take down an old favourite down when we are shattered from heartbreak, or demoralised by illness, or overwhelmed by life."

Quoted from The Guardian 4/17/07 "The Death of the Book, Again". Read full article here.

I'll finish up with a quote from a librarian I read in a book just this week.

"And when you walk into the library, you still notice the books: shelf after shelf and row after row of books. The covers may be more colorful, the art more expressive, and the type more contemporary, but in general the books look the same as they did in 1982, and 1962, and 1942. And that's not going to change.

Books have survived television, radio, talking pictures, circulars (early magazines),dailies (early newspapers), Punch and Judy shows, and Shaekespeare's plays. They have survived World War II, the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, and the fall of the Roman Empire. They even survived the Dark Ages, when almost no one could read and each book had to be copied by hand. They aren't going to be killed off by the Internet.

As written by Vicki Myron a library director from Iowa in her best
selling book Dewey The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

What do you think? Passé or here to stay?

*Update* Read Liz's experience with purchasing an ebook here.

*Update 12/09* Megan from Hearing Sparks has written a post on four initiatives to make ebooks more accessible to the visually impaired.


sara said...

I've now read almost a dozen full length novels on my iPhone - 4 were paid for from Amazon in Kindle format and the others were in the public domain or released as free ebooks.

I like it. It's nice to be able to read on a device I have with me all the time. I read from my iPhone on my lunch break in my car, I read on it in bed with the lights out.

I tend to wish I had brought along a paper book when I fly though since I have to turn all devices off until in the air. Of course once they wouldn't let me keep my book because it was too big and heavy (I think it was Harry Potter 7, thankfully I'd already finished it and was reading it again for something to do).

There is a library 1/4 mile of where I work, I really need to get a card. I hear they have an online reservation/request system.

SpeakUp Librarian said...

Hi Sara,
Thanks for sharing your experience with ebooks!
Public libraries generally limit their "free" library cards to those who reside within their taxing district. Depending on how close you live to where you work, you may be eligible or they may ask you to pay a fee. Many libraries cooperate with each other so that you only need to get a "free" card from your home library to be able to borrow materials for free from theirs.
I use my public library's online request system all the time. It's a wonderful feature.

Steve said...

Interesting topic! I don't think books are passe at all. However, I think they have changed and will keep changing. In the past few years, this has been my experience:
* a lot of reference material (I'm thinking especially of computer manuals) is now used largely in electronic format, usually PDF.
* the Web has made it much easier to find and buy books. If I read of a book that sounds interesting, I don't hesitate to dive into Amazon or Chapters and buy a copy. I still like to hang out at the smaller independent bookstores, though and I'd hate to see them go out of business.
* Toronto has a great library system. But to find the interesting stuff, you really need to dig through the electronic catalogue and that's a pretty dry experience. Amazon's system ("Other people who read 'Bubonic Plague for Dummies' also enjoyed 'The Black Death, a personal view') is much more fun

Books talk to books and I find that the Web/internet makes that link much easier/quicker. So, no, I don't think books are passe. E-books & Talking Books are really just another form of paper (people looked down their noses at paperbacks when they first came out) but the material in them is still a 'book', just a different format.

ms toast burner said...

Interesting topic, Sarah.

I think there is a place for both.

Buuuut, for me personally, I love books; I love buying them, cracking them open, the smell and texture of the paper and I love having them around me. I've six bookcases of various sizes around my place loaded with books. I still have the books I learned to read with as a child. I have my favourite textbooks from university that affected how I think. I love to write in books and make dog ears. I love libraries, bookshops - new, antique and secondhand - and bookcover artwork.

E-books, though I can definitely see their use and application, they just do not do it for me, emotionally. They are too two-dimensional for me to fall in love with, they same way that I love books.

Also, I do not foresee the death of books until e-books are accessible to all. Currently they are definitely for the 'haves' of this world.

Put me down as 'Here to Stay'.

SpeakUp Librarian said...

Hi Steve,
Welcome to my blog. I was struck by your comment that searching through the Toronto library catalogue is a pretty dry experience. Any thoughts on what you would like to see in an online library catalog?

SpeakUp Librarian said...

Hi Marnie,
Yes, I saw an interesting thought in one of the articles I cited - I wonder if anyone has ever cried over an ebook? You hit the nail on the head with your emotional response to paper books.
I think online books do have potential for making books more accessible - think Google's gigantic digitization project. I hope they won't be only for the haves.

kim said...

I remember back when PC's were first getting popular. Some thought that with information so readily available at home that libraries would become obsolete. NO WAY! Libraries embraced the web and have continued to grow with technology.

My system currently offers a large selection of downloadble books-- either to MP3s for listening or to your PDA for reading.

Personally I haven't used it. I like to hold a book and turn the pages. I like not worrying about power and batteries. Can you imagine getting to a really exciting part of your book, then having the power fail??

I don't know if anybody has done a study on this, but I wonder how many trees have been saved since people started using Kindle and similar technology.

I think there may come a time when it could cost more to print a book on paper than to make it available digitally.