Tuesday, August 11, 2009

He's back!

Nicholson Baker has a long track record when it comes to libraries, books and technology. Among those of us who make our living in the technology sector of the library world, Mr. Baker isn’t always considered very forward thinking. Back in 1994 he did an article in the New Yorker magazine talking about how various libraries, including the New York Public Library, Harvard, and others, had discarded their index card files and replaced them with “inferior” on-line systems. In 2001, he wrote a book called “Double Fold” that was very critical of libraries and their handling of original works and their replacement with newer types of surrogates. Now, in the latest issue of New Yorker, he takes on the Amazon Kindle 2 in an article entitled: “A new page”. It’s an entertaining article, certainly. Not surprisingly, it is also a pretty skeptical look at the Kindle as he relates what he views as good and bad about the technology behind e-books and e-book readers. If one checks the web, various sites are already dealing with his article and those sites are building an impressive array of comments. Again, the comments are entertaining and informative and they represent all sides of this very passionate discussion.

As informative and entertaining as these discussions are, as a user of e-books and an e-book reader, many times I find some points of view glaringly missing. These include: Given the quantum leaps each generation of this technology makes, where might it go? What might we do with it? What will it mean for librarianship?

As a starting point, consider the technological leaps made by the iPod, which launched in October 2001. We’ve seen new versions and models virtually every year since, each offering major new features and technology. As a result these devices have become prolific. According to
Wikipedia, over 200M iPods of one variety or another have been sold since their introduction. The number keeps growing.

Now, consider the most popular e-book reader, the Kindle. The first one was introduced in November 2007 and today, almost two years later, we’ve seen two additional new versions – each offering substantial new feature sets. It is estimated that 500,000 have been sold thus far and by 2010 it is projected that over 3M will have been sold. I have no doubt, many of the issues/concerns we hear today, from people like Baker, will be taken as input by the various manufacturers and will be used to rapidly improve their products.

When talking to librarians about these devices, I frequently encounter the point of view that “It’ll never replace books” or “The book is a perfect technology – widely usable, no power needs, it feels and smells good,” etc., etc. However, I think this is a black and white view. It is also a denial of the inevitable. I read somewhere that paper is a technology and like all technologies it too will have an end-of-life. Until that day is fully realized, as librarians we should look at these devices and ask ourselves the following questions:
  1. If I can have a book/magazine/newspaper delivered wirelessly to the device in my hand in less than 60 seconds and for a reasonable charge, why should we expect users to go to the library or use inter-library loan?
  2. If I check out a book at the library, can I plug a headset into it and have the book automatically read to me?
  3. If I’m reading a book from the library, can I instantly change the font size of that book to one more comfortable for my tired eyes?
  4. Can I keyword search the book in my hand, and every other e-book I own, all at the same time, with one simple search?
  5. Can I carry 1,500 books in the same space as one printed book normally takes?
I don’t intend to start a long point-by-point comparison of libraries and library books to e-book readers and e-books. Each has its attributes and it would be taking up the black-and-white view of the world to go down that path. Instead we should realize this new technology offers some very interesting new value-add capabilities that libraries and library books don’t. What are others seeing as the impact? (highlighting below is my own):

“New e-readers are leading the way to a future in which your local library is the solid-state drive in your hand” (
Candice Chan, Wired Magazine, May 2009).

Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal of April 20, 2009, in an article entitled, "
How the e-book will change the way we read and write", made some very interesting observations. If you haven’t read this article, I highly recommend it. It does offer you a view of the future of this technology:
  • “It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time, make it easier to stop reading them.”
  • “Print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading.”
  • “2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the books since Gutenberg …”
  • “Think about it. Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read – as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a topic, and comes up with the most cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.”
  • “Reading books will become … a community event, with every paragraph a launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.”
  • “The unity of the book will disperse..”
All of this should cause one to stop and think. The worlds of publishing and research will see transformation as a result of e-books. Librarianship will be able to move in new directions and address new opportunities. New software will be needed on these platforms that will replicate the some of the value add skills of libraries and librarianship but in this different environment. (Note in these articles, they say the library will be in your e-reader, not the value-add of librarianship. We should make sure it is is also on the e-reader.) At the same time, this new technology raises countless concerns for the profession if we fail to embrace it.

Nicholson Baker will be back again and again, every time he sees a new threat to traditional librarianship and new forms of information consumption that he feels threaten traditional printed books. Obviously, as a librarian I think we need to embrace this new e-book technology and to ensure that we develop and put into place ways to work with and offer librarian services within it. This evolution in technology presages new dimensions in information consumption and utilization. As a result, librarians will have some new tools in their toolbox and others we need to develop. If you want to see how some of your peers are working with this new technology, check out this blog
entry. If you haven’t started, maybe it’s time? While Nicholson Baker will be back, I'd like to make sure librarianship never goes away.

(As an intersting follow up, read this post title: "
Ebook growth explosive; serious disruptions around the corner" which talks about the growth rates in ebook sales, putting some numbers on it and also talks specifically about library sales of ebooks.)