With the ever-increasing hype about eBooks and the digitization of information, this is a question being asked at the library quite frequently these days.
First, a bit of historical perspective: what we currently know today as a book (pages of paper bound at one side with a cover) was first created in the first century AD as a replacement for parchment scrolls. Books became the most common way to record and transfer information around the globe about 500 years ago .
So after centuries of use, are they now going the way of the dinosaur? It’s hard to argue that the rise of eBooks has been rapid...in only 32 months, eBooks went from being introduced on Amazon.com to leap-frogging over the total sales of physical books at the Internet-based mega-retailer. The New York Times now includes eBook bestsellers lists in addition to its long-standing categories for fiction, non-fiction, hardcover and trade paperbacks. This said, it puts things into perspective when you realize eBooks only account for 10% of all publishing activity.
Some people tend to be either very pro-physical book/anti-technology, or vice versa. The ironic thing is that they often use the same arguments to espouse the benefits of their chosen reading platform. “A real book is easy to carry and light”, some claim (unless they’re reading War and Peace, or the Outlander series by Diane Galbaldon). As eReaders get smaller and lighter, the tech-savvy are making the same claim and adding that their gadgets can hold up to 100 Tolstoy-esque novels. “And they’re better for the environment than all that pulp and paper”, say the eReader group. Yet publishing companies are more often using recycled materials and less toxic inks in their printing processes, while the cumulative effects of e-waste are not fully known.
These arguments really are moot though, because the essence of the matter is that books – in whatever format – are conveyors of stories, and stories will never become extinct. Storytelling is one of the traits that defines humanity, and stories have been around since people were sitting around fires in caves and recording their imaginings on stone walls.
However, amid the blaze of this debate about the future of books are two often-overlooked issues that do warrant attention. The first is about how information is SHARED. Real books can easily be lent and borrowed. This is the whole premise behind libraries - they are not warehouses for reams of paper, but an efficient way for populations to share resources amongst each other. One book can be read by thousands of eyes until it is literally falling apart. This is not the case with eBooks. Publishers have control over the digital rights management (or DSM) of their materials and one purchase of an eBook equals one license – one download to one individual’s device. You can’t send it to a friend’s computer when you’re done reading it. This business model is great for company profits, but difficult for libraries.
The second issue is how information is SAVED. There is a reason ancient philosophers, historians and theologians recorded their information on parchment and paper: it lasts. Save fire and water damage, ink on paper can be legible a thousand years after it was written. We don’t know about electronic data. Will we still have means to retrieve it years from now? Could someone edit it, or just wipe it out completely, with the push of a button?
Bottom line: stories will be with us forever in various formats - whether you read it on paper or a screen, or listen to it from your iPod, or feel it through Braille. But the ways in which information is shared and saved, and who has control over this in our digital world, is worthy of debate.