I covet books as objects. The physical details are what distinguish a must-have edition from today’s typical mass market paperback. These could include: a striking cover design, original artwork, aged leather binding, gilded or deckled page edges, curiosities found in antiquarian books, like hand-written inscriptions and old photos behind tissue paper, and remnants in old library editions, like stamps and due date cards.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Pocket Books, 1925.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1910.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1898.
Inside cover of Fairy Tales, with an illustrated frontispiece and title page, copyright date 1898.
Keats, John. The Poems of John Keats. London: Frederick Warne and Co., [1937?].
Inside cover of Keats’ book, with previous owners’ “Ex Libris N” sticker and inscription: “[illegible] London–37″
It’s hard to imagine an eBook ever having this much character.
This topic has been on my mind since I noticed James Gleick’s article, “Books and Other Fetish Objects,” on the New York Times opinion page a few days ago. Gleick credits the scholarly advantages of digitization, and I wholeheartedly agree that it’s counterproductive to feel like certain materials lose value when they lose obscurity or scarcity. I think any reasonable person would agree that when it comes to historical materials, increased accessibility can only be a good thing.
Gleick once had the opportunity to examine an original 1659 Isaac Newton notebook, and describes the scholarly “exhilaration that comes from handling the venerable original. It’s a contact high”; however, he repudiates this attitude as “sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue.” However, when it comes to my personal library, I don’t see anything wrong with fetishizing books. I dread eBooks taking over the publishing industry to the extent that printed books become scarce. While I appreciate the advantages of digitization, I find that I derive enormous satisfaction from the physicality of books, particularly when reading for pleasure. I will mourn the loss of that type of reading experience.
In another blog post, Mike Shatzkin argues that advancing technologies in eBooks will inevitably tip the market in this direction: “Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are.” Given the growing popularity of mobile devices, it seems undeniable that book culture is headed in this direction. He estimates “that in no more than twenty [years] the person choosing to read a printed book will not be unheard of or unknown, but will definitely qualify as eccentric” (Shatzkin).
I don’t mind being labeled eccentric, but what do these trends mean for libraries? A few weeks ago, my library classmates debated the advantages and disadvantages of a library shifting its collection entirely to eBooks. Advantages mentioned include 24/7 remote access to the collection, preservation of materials against physical damage and theft, fewer staff needed in circulation, and features like changing the size of text and multi-lingual translation. Disadvantages mentioned include the complexities of vendor contracts, including many vendors not allowing for interlibrary loan or restricting the number of times an eBook can be accessed, the lack of physical assets in a library collection once subscriptions expire, and the continuing costs of software, equipment, and maintenance.
On her blog, Meredith Farkas touches on many of these same issues regarding eBooks in libraries. She writes: “There’s no doubt at this point: Ebooks do have a real place in the future of reading. Unfortunately, the way most people are using eBooks at this point completely bypasses the library, and this is what publishers and ebook manufacturers seem to want” (Farkas). Many libraries, including the urban public library where I work, now offer downloadable eBooks through OverDrive. However, the process is not as simple as one might think. As Farkas writes: “Getting an eBook from a library is often a circuitous and confusing process; so confusing that libraries have to create tutorials on how to do it.” In general, I don’t get the impression that our eBooks are extremely popular. It seems that the patrons who use them are more likely to download them from home and not come into the library at all. There is a disconnect between these eBook converts and the majority of our regular patrons, most of whom are not likely to buy eBook readers any time soon. There is a socioeconomic factor that must be considered with advancing technologies. Some libraries lend eBook readers, but the number we would need to purchase would represent a significant financial burden. My point is that digitization only increases accessibility to the extent that people already have access to computers, ebook readers, and the Internet. Until we can bridge this divide, our patrons rely on the continued development of our print collection.
Farkas, Meredith. “Ebooks and Libraries: A Stream of Concerns.” Information Wants To Be Free. 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 July 2011. http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2011/01/18/ebooks-and-libraries-a-stream-of-concerns
Gleick, James. “Books and Other Fetish Objects.” The New York Times. 16 July 2011. Web. 23 July 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/opinion/sunday/17gleick.html?_r=1
Shatzkin, Mike. “The Printed Book’s Path to Oblivion.” The Shatzkin Files. 15 Aug. 2010. Web. 23 July 2011. http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-printed-books-path-to-oblivion
Suggestions for further reading:
Basbanes, Nicholas A. A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Institute for the Future of the Book blog
Wallace, Lane. “Brains, Books and the Future of Print.” The Atlantic. October 16, 2009. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/10/brains-books-and-the-future-of-print/28511