Thursday, April 8, 2010
Diffusion of Information, and E-books in Libraries
This thoughtful post from a personal finance blog addresses the idea that purchases should follow from needs, rather than the other way around. People who read a lot might think about buying kindles; people who merely want to read a lot should not buy a kindle. (Let's forget for a moment about those who would buy a kindle to look cool.)
So should community college students, who are not always readers in the first place, be required to use e-book readers? Sometimes I have trouble imagining this. Not that the e-readers will fail, but they are perhaps most heartily embraced by those who habitually read books. People who are familiar with books are currently deciding how e-book readers should work, but these decisions are meaningless for those unfamiliar with books. (On the other hand, if typical college students are expected to use e-book readers, students at a community college should be expected to use e-book readers too.)
In The Case for Books, Robert Darnton writes that "The strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl ... through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper."
Then again, book publishing is a business, and people who buy books are the customers. If I'm not mistaken, the number of readers buying printed books is in decline. I read a little while ago that the market for Amazon's e-reader, the kindle, is dominated by affluent baby boomers, and I wonder if that will dictate the book environment for everyone. Or, is the kindle just a device for a certain niche, and some people will find and use all the information they need through their cell phones? Or, will it all be e-reader apps? iBooks? Or, all of the above and more? This returns to ideas about diffusion and personalization that began this post.
I just read an article in Computers in Libraries about an experiment giving students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) e-book readers. Students there overall enjoyed using the e-readers, but the librarians had some interesting observations and practical considerations on why the library will not be purchasing them. For example "The e-reader market is developing so fast that it is almost impossible to keep up ... By the time our project was finalized, more companies were bringing e-reading devices and book-reading applications for smartphones to the market" and "The devices available on the market work well for an individual user but create many problems when it comes to using them in the library. The issues of circulation, content acquisition in terms of physical management and copyright, cataloging, and other library-related matters have not been addressed by the distributors of these portable reading devices."
When information was centralized into only a few different formats, libraries could process, organize, and provide access to it in a straightforward way. When information is dispersed, the situation becomes more difficult for libraries. With relative ease, we can continue our historic relationship with books, keeping an eye on e-books and e-book readers, and we can continue to manage subscriptions to established periodicals in print and online, but what about the free (and not-free-but-not-usually-part-of-a-library-collection) content online? What about the content that is fee-based but is not a book or a periodical? However we proceed, the clear, organized model we traditionally relied upon now seems limited.
Perhaps the specialization inherent to libraries will be our enduring strength. At a college, the role of the library is to acquire, maintain, provide access, and increasingly instruct about the various resources -- regardless of format -- necessary to support teaching and learning in higher education. As long as we are paying attention, we should be able to successfully continue doing this.