Friday, March 26, 2010

The Future of the Book

Being a librarian, I am obviously interested in and concerned about the future of libraries and the book. As many have pointed out, the internet puts information at people’s fingertips and, to some, makes libraries, research and reference librarians, and books unnecessary or irrelevant. The rise of e-readers such as the Kindle, Nook, and now the iPad (not only a reader, but with a full color reader app) make many books downloadable at the click of a button and have led many to speculate the demise of the print book in favor of an all electronic book future.

I find these scenarios disarming, to say the least. First, to presume that the internet is full of accurate, authoritative information, and that all of this information is accessible with the click of a button is naive at best. Anyone can create a webpage and make any sort of claims they choose - much of the info that you can find on the internet should at least be evaluated for its source. Additionally, a lot of information is not freely available online and may not be even 10 or more years from now. The amount of time, money, and human effort required to get all of the world’s info and books online (including huge archives, all city and state public records, rare and fragile books, etc) would be staggering. For this reason, I find it downright frightening that anyone would suggest, as has been suggested, that the internet will just turn into one big collective brain; you type in your question and it gives you an answer, with no need to look in more than one place. Who gets to decide the answer you see? Who has evaluated this answer for accuracy?

E-readers could very well mean the end or near end of print books. The ease at which you can have books delivered straight to a reader would make it seem that going to the bookstore or a library is just too much effort. Firstly, the expense of these readers as well as the expense to download all of the books you want to read is prohibitive for a large number of people (and, despite dropping costs, may remain so). Many libraries have begun offering downloadable e-books to their patrons (APL hopes to offer this service in the future when the budget allows for it), which can take the cost of downloading books out of the equation, but it does not solve the larger problem of all of your books existing in electronic files that at any point could be deleted. Electronic information is erasable – it can be wiped out in just a series of clicks and typed commands. Are we really going to start recording our histories and achievements exclusively in a format that could potentially be wiped out so easily? Furthermore, the company that owns your e-reader could at any time delete whatever they like. Take, for example, the case of Amazon deleting downloaded copies of 1984 by George Orwell from Kindles without any prior warning (I’m sure the irony is not lost on you). What does it mean when a company can so easily delete content you paid for without your consent?

To be sure, I am actually very excited about the future of libraries and the book. Information becoming more and more accessible and available is my personal dream come true and I’m really excited about newer devices such as the iPad that allow books to be read in full color (maybe comics and graphic novels can finally get into the downloadable market!). I think it is easiest to make blanket statements like “all information will be free one day” and “all books will be online” rather than consider how the reality may actually end up being some mixed up version of this. And, of course, there are many more issues that deserve consideration if you are really contemplating this issue: the Google Books settlement, few viable pricing models to ensure proper monetary incentive exists for people producing quality content, copyright issues, and the current state of both the library and publishing industries, just to name a few.

I do have faith that people will continue to demand information that has been reviewed, tested, and debated. I believe librarians will remain the professionals that can help people navigate the increasingly complicated information world. And I, most firmly, believe that I will be able to hold print books in my hands for many years to come. What do you think?

Read up on this issue online or via the great many books APL has on the subject.


The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture

Free: The Future of a Radical Price

Googled: The End of the World as We Know It

This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto


The Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians

Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask

The Future of Libraries, With or Without Books

The Future of Publishing (video)

Have We Reached the End of Publishing as We Know It?

Institute for the Future of the Book

Interviews on the Future of Librarians

Kindle, Nook and Other E-Readers to Take off in 2010

Publishing: The Revolutionary Future


tim snead said...

To say nothing of migration to new information-storage systems. How much stuff is written in code that no program reads anymore or on floppy disks in sizes that no longer fit the hardware?

verin said...

It looks like the San Antonio Public Library system has moved over to Overdrive. It seems to be a viable system for many libraries, and includes audiobooks for the blind in formats deliverable to many devices.

malita said...

I thought about the fact that books and entire libraries could be deleted but then I realized that's about the same as physically loosing a book, having a fire or all of your books being destroyed by a evil water heater leak (note I have in fact lost many books from 2 of these three examples). There is a place for the e-readers as well as print books. I myself have a nook but still buy, borrow and love printed books and my own personal library. I for one can't wait till the Austin library gets on board.