three library issues, part 1: the all-digital library

An enormous number of library-related stories cross my path, either through school or this blog. A few have stayed on my mind and seem worth fleshing out.

A San Antonio, Texas public library will become the first in the US (and possibly in the world) to go completely bookless - that is, its collection will have no paper books, only digital books.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of digital books, and without recapping all that here, I think it's important to realize that there are both positives and negatives. The digital book, like all technology, is not a panacea, not without issues, and some of those issues are very relevant to the public library.

For one thing, e-books are incredibly expensive for libraries. For the price of one digital edition, the library can order as many as ten paper editions. Many digital titles are not available for library use, and at least three major publishers are not making e-books available to libraries at all. This means there's no way the all-digital public library can offer as many titles as a public library that collects both paper and digital editions.

More important, I think, is the digital divide. We live in a society of tremendous inequality, and that inequality extends to technology - access, the regular use that builds comfort levels, the ability to stay up to date, and so on. The digital divide doesn't map exactly onto income inequality, but there is certainly a great overlap. The digital divide excludes many seniors, no matter what their income level, and many people who work at non-computer-related jobs, who struggle to manage computer time in between work and family.

The public library has an obligation to mitigate the digital divide. Offering free internet access is part of that, as is lending e-readers so that people can experience digital books at no cost. But the library also has an obligation to serve people who are not reading e-books and who may never want to. Because despite the impressive sales figures for Kindles and Readers, most people the world over are still reading paper books. We shouldn't lose sight of that.

To read a paper book, all you need is literacy and a book. No other technical skill or equipment is required. No format is proprietary. No downloading is needed, no file conversions.

Those of us who are adept with technology - which includes me, by the way - may barely take note of our many digital interactions. Last night, Allan downloaded an episode of a TV series, converted the file, transferred it to a USB drive, plugged the USB into our Roku streaming device, which is already connected to our wireless network. And we watched the show. To us, this was simple and easy (and far superior to ordinary television). But to my mother, for example, it would be a complete impossibility. To her, watching TV means turning on the TV set and selecting from what's on.

I don't read e-books and I have no great desire to do so. I'm perfectly satisfied reading paper books; I don't buy gadgets simply because a lot of other people are buying them, if I don't see an advantage to adoption. Most books I want to read aren't even offered in digital format. However, if I have read some digital books and could easily continue to do so if I wanted to. My mother, on the other hand, would find making the switch to e-books a source of great anxiety.

This is a digital divide, and a library that doesn't work both sides of the digital divide has lost its way. The Bexar County Public Library will probably help some people discover what its like to read in digital format. Whether or not that helps those people become more adept at and comfortable with technology is open to question. One doesn't necessarily follow the other. I'm sure you know many people, as I do, who have learned to deal with email but who still fear and avoid new technology. And many other library users will be completely excluded.

Why should libraries choose between paper and digital? Isn't there room for both?


Amy said...

Can you explain how libraries use e-readers? Do they have a special license to loan the "books" to borrowers?

Though I still very much prefer reading a real book, almost all my books these days are electronic. I have no room left for more books on shelves, and when I travel or go away for the summer, it is so much easier to pack a kindle than 5-10 books. But if I were to go to the library, I'd probably take out a real book to read at home and return rather than an electronic one.

Amy said...

One more thing: you asked why there wasn't room for both. I assume it's a question of financial resources (not space), no? But in the best of all possible worlds, I'd vote for real books in libraries and leave ebooks for those like me who have a particular reason for needing books in electronic form. (But maybe many people who check out ebooks are also taking them on trips?)

laura k said...

On your first comment:

Libraries have a license to loan the book a certain number of times, then the license must be renewed. The licenses are very expensive and in some cases nonexistent.

We're all maxed out on space for books, myself and everyone I know who reads. But this issue has existed as long as there were books and readers. That's why there are book sales, used bookstores, etc.

I think we all know all the arguments in favour of e-books. But similarly, most of us have traveled before, and with books, and it was never that much of an issue. I agree e-books are very convenient. I just don't want to pretend that they're necessary the way some people do.

laura k said...

On your second comment:

I meant "room for both" in a figurative space, that there should be room in our conception of libraries for both physical and digital resources.

Shelf space is a HUGE concern, and digital books do free up space, but since they are accessed only by a privileged percentage of library users, don't we still have an obligation to keep the paper versions in the library, too?

Thanks for your thoughts, Amy!

Amy said...

I'd never say they are necessary, but they are convenient and take up less space.

When we moved, I donated 100s of books, and yet I still had so many more that I just could not part with. Children's books, favorite novels, classics, books from college courses I'd loved, etc. And I do still buy some real books---travel books, photography based books, books that I can't get electronically. But having books on the kindle is still a space saver.

I am not arguing for one over the other. I actually don't see why libraries need ebooks, but then I don't use the library FOR ebooks, just regular books.

laura k said...

I knew you weren't arguing digital is better.

The library must have e-books because it is, for many people, the only opportunity to experience them. For some, it's a way to try before buy. For others, it's the only way.

Many people are using them instead of large-print books, which is really nice. Many people want them for travel. And many people want digital books for the same reason you and others do, but can't afford them.

Amy said...

I hadn't thought of the large print advantages. Good idea.

I am pretty agnostic on this, but if a library had to choose one OR the other, I'd still prefer to see real books. But yes, having both sounds like the best way to go if it's feasible.

(BTW, my 82 year old mother now uses a kindle---so perhaps your mother would be able to also!)

laura k said...

Nope, not my mother! Although I'm glad yours does. Mine is the same age as yours, or soon to be (30 years older than me), but very fearful and shut down to technology, unfortunately.

Libraries also need to offer digital books to stay up-to-date. The library cannot afford to look obsolete or old-fashioned.

Amy said...

That makes sense.

My mother is quite remarkable---uses the internet to shop, has a Facebook page, uses email all the time, etc. Of course, she tutors kids so she needs to be on top of these things. My dad, on the other hand, hates it all, but nevertheless has found that he, too, needs to use email and the internet to keep up with his profession.

Sometimes they are pretty funny, though. Like when my father thought "attaching" a document meant somehow getting it INTO the computer. Or when I asked my mother whether she had wireless and she asked my father, and he said he was wondering that also. (They don't.)

I have spent hours tutoring them. The one thing I can't get them to do is text....but at least they do have a cell phone!

laura k said...

I have also spent many many hours tutoring my mother. It is a job that I absolutely hate, because of her fear and anxiety. I can't even stand to talk about it!

My mom does email and she does use the internet for certain limited things, especially research for her book clubs.

Amy said...

I know what you mean. My father isn't anxious or fearful, just angry that things aren't as obvious as he thinks they should be. It's been a good role reversal for me, though, since he was always the one teaching me things. I like having the upper hand after all these years! And when he gets too testy, I either laugh at him or tell him I've done all I can do.

impudent strumpet said...

What would irritate me most about going all-digital is that when I have technical difficulties, I'd lose access to my library books. When I have problems with my computer or my ipod that are bad enough that I need to seek tech support and/or replace the device, I've already lost some of my entertainment/relaxation/de-stressing for probably a day or two (not to mention that my stress level is also increased by the technical difficulties). If my library pile was electronic rather than paper, I'd lose one of my few remaining sources of entertainment and relaxation. Not to mention that if there's a longish power outage, I'd have to use up valuable battery life just to read a book.

laura k said...

That is definitely a downside to digital books - dependance on technology where there was none before. As you said, it's irritating enough when we have issues with the internet or email or our computers, and we're kept from work or play. But to be kept from reading because of technical issues would be so annoying!