The following is a direct cut and paste of a listserv message I sent in July. Since then, we’ve seen the iPad from Apple and solid rumors of ‘tablets’ from Google and from Microsoft, as well as several new dedicated electronic-ink-based readers including the Nook (and also the further delay of awaited others, such as the Plastic Logic Que).
I still think most of the questions I asked in July are the right ones for libraries and electronic reading devices. There has been a certain amount of publishing industry hand-wringing about digital books and in the rising popular interest in ebooks prompted by these developments on the device side. I remain surprised that there is less interest – or at least less interest beyond gadget-based curiosity – in libraries, at least in my law-oriented corner of the library world. While many libraries do offer ePub books for “loan” (at least for the Sony Reader and other readers compatible with both the ePub format and Adobe’s DRM) this is a pretty artificial model of “lending.” I think there’s a real question of whether online, as opposed to paper, distribution of book length materials doesn’t fundamentally undermine the central market failure on which lending library business models are based – and I find very little discussion of that.
The radical thing here is the untethering of digital texts from the networked PC. Unless we instead end up with a truly ubiquitous, fast, free, universal, seamless wireless network in the near future (which seems less likely for multiple technical, economic, and social reasons) I would expect that portable devices that can ‘carry’ an un-tethered digital version will be an important part of text and reading ‘going digital’ any time soon (whether through dedicated digital-ink devices or not). I’d put the likelihood that the “flip” will happen soon moderately high.
Suppose that what we are seeing now follows the pattern set with music, movies, digital photography — i.e. the digital form of the medium goes through something of a slow build for a number of years ( already far more than a few for text, of course), there’s a lot of skepticism, the economic sense of the transition gradually appears to key participants, and then when a critical mass is reached the “flip” to digital dominance is very rapid. If so, in a very few years we may see most personal, consumer, book consumption “gone digital” and the analog medium reduced to a niche product — maybe a bigger niche than vinyl records or slide film, say, since there are plenty of special cases for books (art books and ‘coffee table’ books for example, and the very existence of book collections as decorative objects in the way few other analog containers have been) — but a niche all the same. There’s a lot yet to happen on the technology front in terms of format standardization, etc., but as library leaders and managers we should be prepared for this transition to happen, and possibly quite soon.
If this is right, what does that mean to us as libraries? We come from a background of an at least partially failed model of “ebooks” for the library — the kind that required sitting in front of the online computer and that I’ve rarely been able to get faculty and students to consider consulting in lieu of a printed copy. They work for some kinds of works (the O’Reilly stuff on Safari), and do the trick in a pinch, and my anecdotal sense is that general acceptance has (slowly) increased over time but it is still pretty low. Treatise content in Lexis and Westlaw is another model, but an unusual one and perhaps the frustrations of legal-research instructors in urging students to use it in a print-like, contextualizing, manner indicates a ‘failure’ of a different kind.
I’d be interested in having a discussion and hearing about any work you all have put into some of the ensuing challenges/tensions. Points that occur to me (in addition to formatting/footnote/etc. issues) include:
1) Foretaste of the death of the traditional library “intermediary” role for ‘ordinary’ (popular, mid-price or lower) books? A big challenge for public libraries, a medium-sized challenge for special libraries like “us.” A move to publication of ebooks in either a very locked-down format (Amazon Kindle) or through a move to sale/dowload of DRM-free packages (as has ultimately happened with music files) focuses on the end-user in a way that removes a library-type role. Is there a library model? A very big “maybe” for some of the Kindle-competitors with lendable DRM models… interesting note that (contrary, I think, to much of the ideological leaning in the library community) library ebook models all seem to *require* robust and functional DRM. And even then, the removal of physical objects and associated constraints of place could allow an emergence of non-localized subscription libraries or any number of other lending or rental business models to supplement and compete with the traditional localized library.
2) Books are closer to the heart of the traditions and analysis of copyright than any other media and for books to ‘go digital’ will heighten the tensions in the law and policy of content distribution — e.g. amplifying what seems to be the decline of the relevance of the distribution right and its “first sale” limitation.
3) What is the model for text works that have never been economically produced and sold to individuals? In law, this would include the full blown multi-volume treatise, for example. Are they a dying medium (there’s been commentary/discussion about new models for casebooks/textbooks — maybe for the more scholarly long-form work as well)? Will they still be “ok” with the online tether for authenticated, library-based, site-licenses and other group subscriptions? Susceptible to ‘lendable’ DRM on individual chapters/units (is it robust enough for the vendors? capable of offering adequate user protections to prudent purchasing libraries?)? Or are these just not really “book like” any more in the way they are used — more susceptible to integration in the online legal research systems with predominantly non-linear access and use steered in significant part by behind-the-scenes Lexis and Westlaw algorithms.
4) PDF libraries (Hein Online, JSTOR, etc.) — most devices can show pdfs, but the hardware-reader ideal would be a “reflowable” style document not offered by these repositories for the very good reason that it would be at odds with one key purpose of their fixed, document-image, pdfs to provide an authentic photographic reproduction of a definitive, print, “original.” Will they need to offer both? Must our concern with (or belief in) the sanctity of paginated print-derived “original” versions die out?
5) What’s Google up to? It seems like whatever comes of their intention to sell e-book files of all of the public-domain content in Google Books and in-copyright books from participating publishers will be a potential game-changer in terms of defining formats and user expectations.
6) Or, does this even affect our content/users at all? After all, the only radical thing here is the removal of the tether to the Internet. But most of us and of our users sit most of the day in front of, and access all of our work content on, networked PCs anyway (though it doesn’t stop us/them from printing out articles by the ream). Some of the frustrations researchers rightly express with online formats as versus “book based” research are not helped by portable readers — e.g. you can’t even imperfectly emulate having a bunch of volumes open on the desk in front of you at once unless you have a lot of open browser windows on a distinctly non-portable multiple-monitor computer. E-reader hardware devices are even more compromised in this respect than is the big-screen desktop computer, and are no where near cheap enough (yet?) to use multiple devices to stand in for our multiple print volumes open on the table (which would pose other difficulties anyway). Even so it seems like the things our users most want to have ‘on the run’ (journal articles and other periodical articles, single-volume monographs…) will ultimately be heavily used in this format. In a weird sort of way, if portable reading devices pull users away from spending the day in front of the PC with 43 browser windows open, could it even help bring a return of sorts to linear reading and analysis? Will study tables of the future consist of large display panels in which to plug ones personal portable device in order to flexibly display and arrange textual/literary content?
7) Another “blow over” possibility — will e-reading devices never adequately substitute for printing it all out? After all, the reason those networked ebooks are hugely unpopular with our users when compared to print books, but that electronic journals are just the opposite (with most users unwilling to even look at a printed journal volume) is that journal articles are available for printout and networked ebooks typically have major printing constraints. Are e-reading devices that scholarly readers (who mark up and take notes and highlight on those voluminous printouts) will accept still farther away than my other comments/questions account for?