One recurring (and recurring and recurring and recurring…ugh…) topic of discussion within library circles is the longevity of library resources in paper format. In other words, how long are books going to be around? And what impact does this have on libraries?
Since e-books rose in popularity less than a decade ago, there has been an increase in the desire for books to be published in electronic format, in addition to the customarily bound paper volume in hardcover, paperback, leaked Word doc (oops), etc. Whether it’s Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or any number of model made by Sony, this manner of reading has revolutionized mass consumption of reading material. Even certain textbooks are becoming digital, alleviating the need to lug that 300-ton backpack around anymore. E-books and e-readers are definitely popular electronics. According to the Pew Research Center, one in every two adults now owns either a tablet or e-reader.
This begs the question: if we have books available in e-reader format, then what’s the point of publishing a physical book anymore? While it’s physically impossible for someone to literally carry around 100 books of whatever shape and size, one e-reader can carry more than 100 books as electronic files. I can also download an e-book with the click of a mouse, without the need for going to a bookstore or a library. In the off chance that I decide to dabble in 50 Shades of Grey readership (which, for this author, is less likely than me taking a trip to Mars anytime soon), I can read it on the bus or on a park bench or at McDonald’s without getting weird looks from people. No paper, no sore backs, no judgmental people. Cool, huh?
So why do we need books? Moreover, why do we even need libraries?
When you think about it, though, any of the advantages to e-readers are for convenience’s sake. Faster, cheaper, and more, right? However, the argument that e-readers will overthrow books and lead to the demise of libraries makes some assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that people can afford to purchase an e-reader, and to purchase e-books as they feel led. Believe it or not, some people can’t afford home access to the Internet, much less an e-reader or the ability to buy books at a whim. Secondly, it assumes that e-readers are user-friendly and easy to figure out how to use. Let’s face it: there are people in this world who completely suck at using technology, and always will. E-readers are no exception. Finally, technology updates itself every 3 seconds, which makes things difficult if e-book files are incompatible with your e-reader because it’s too old. And vice versa. Hell, there are certain computer games from the early 90s that people can’t play on a Windows 7 machine anymore.
Funny thing is, not only are regular, physical books still relevant, but so are libraries. Pew Research Center tells us so, and another thing it tells us is that the last thing people want is the removal of books from public library spaces. The public library still has a major impact on the community, and is still regarded as a safe place for kids to go, for which mothers thank you.
And whither physical books?
Well, let’s think about this logically. E-readers are less than a quarter-century old in their ubiquitousness, and yet books have been in continuous existence and usage for nearly 600 years. Secondly, books are insanely easy to use: open the book, make sure the book is right-side up, read the page, turn the page and read the next one, until you finish reading the book. Simple as that. Thirdly, books are less expensive in the long run. Maybe that $17 brand-new hardcover John Grisham novel is a little out of your price range yet, but either you can check it out from the library, or wait until the mass-market paperback comes out for $8 or so, or even better yet, wait for the hardcover to appear in a second-hand bookstore for even less expensive. That’s not something you can do with e-books (at least, not all the time and not legally). Physical books are also less expensive for physical libraries: what you lack in space, you make up for by paying a one-time charge for the book, ever. By way of contrast, libraries purchase not an e-book itself for public usage, but a license to allow the book to be checked out, without ever owning the book. And why? Well…you can blame publishing companies for that, at least for now and at least most of them. (If you click on the link and read the article, you’ll see that Simon and Schuster is trying to help. There is some good in this world.)
If you own an e-reader, good for you. I’m slightly inclined to buy one myself, but just because I tire of most people asking me, “Whatcha readin’?” Keep in mind, though, that e-readers are not replacing books anytime soon (if at all). Both are going to be around for a long time. And that’s a good thing, because there’s nothing better than free choice.