Monday, November 14, 2011

Libraries without books

Books are such a sensitive topic, especially to those who work with them on a daily basis. While I love the physical book, I understand the evolution of medium and concede that there is nothing wrong with ebooks. Well, most of the time. Let's explore this.

Pleasure Reading

I recently read my first novel on my iPhone. I still can't believe it. Yes, it is a small screen, but when you are truly captivated by the story, it doesn't matter. I read  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand as part of a book club for work. It was a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. I liked the fact that I always had the book with me and could read a few minutes here or there since my schedule is a bit crazy right now. I thought it would be a little tough on the eyes, but I played with the settings until the page was more of a beige than bright white and a little dimmer. (I must confess that while I enjoyed the experience, I want an iPad even more so that I have a bigger screen!). I did have some trouble flipping back and forth between the story and hyperlinked notes. Overall, I can see the appeal and ease of using ebooks for pleasure reading. While I'm getting on the ebook bandwagon, I don't have an ereader yet, which always surprises people. But I'm a librarian - shouldn't I have one? When I was interviewing for my current position, one of the administrators asked which ereader I had and his look of surprise was priceless when I said I didn't have one. I clarified that I want an iPad since they are more versatile and can use the apps for the major vendors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Once Adobe and Apple get the Flash issue straightened out (and I have a few dollars) I'll get the iPad.


I keep reading articles about how college students will choose a physical textbook over an ebook even if it is cheaper. While the thought of not carrying around textbooks is appealing, there are some concerns about e-textbooks that lead me to believe the technology just isn't quite there yet to eliminate all print textbooks. 
  • Staring a a screen all day is physically and mentally draining. 
  • The battery life of laptops and ereaders may not last through hours of classes and library time - there are only so many outlets in classrooms.
  • Some subjects (business, math, science) require the regular use of tables and other appendices in the back of the book. It may be difficult to read the charts depending the size of the ereader and it may be easier to flip back and forth with a physical book
I have purchased some ebooks to use with my graduate work, but I have mixed feelings at this point. The books I purchased weren't really textbooks, but books to assist with qualitative research so flipping around was not required. On the positive side, the books were a bit cheaper than the print versions and I was able to download them immediately, which was helpful since I was out of town for a week long course. I was also able to get a few items free or very cheaply that were primary sources (Adam Smith, John Dewey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) on Amazon. However, there are a few problems with some ebooks. I did notice that I may have some problems citing quotes from the books since page numbers are missing. (Note to publishers - please include this! Make your ebook match the print book!). I also have to get used to the highlighting and note making tools. Overall, for subjects that don't require the flipping around to use the book ebooks may prove to be a viable alternative to print resources.

Elimination of libraries

 As the great "we don't need libraries anymore" debate rages on, I can't help wondering if the wording in the discussion is simply wrong. Libraries aren't going away; the format is simply changing. Every so often a university grabs headlines by claiming that they are eliminating the library and going completely online. Some applaud the advancement, while others lament the elimination of the cherished print collection. Ironically, the same people who protest the elimination of physical books celebrated the implementation of electronic journals. Oh, the access! they cried. Are these journals different now that they are accessed online? No, they are the same. And so are the books that are now ebooks. Do books make a library or is it something else?

Does this mean that we should get rid of all libraries in favor of servers and online reference help? No, but perhaps we need to re-evaluate what the definition of a library is. I also believe that there are two discussions happening simultaneously - what the library community believes the definition and future of libraries are and what the lay community believes. And that perspective differs greatly when it comes to print vs online materials. One of the toughest concepts I try to get across to my students is how to cite online sources. First, they need to determine what the source is - book, periodical article, original database article. Then they must determine how they accessed it - print, website, database. It is a two step process that genuinely confuses them because they perceive everything accessed via the Internet to fall under the general umbrella of "online" and don't see the distinctions in formats. The lay community tends makes the following assumption: libraries = books = outdated. That view needs to be changed to: libraries = information regardless of the format = necessary for a free intellectual society.

Education may be the key here. We, as librarians, need to educate our patrons (students, faculty, administrators, public, board) about these differences and what they mean.  Perhaps then, when we are all speaking the same e-language, we can begin to figure out (together) what libraries are and what the future holds.

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