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?

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