Thursday, April 8, 2010

Diffusion of Information, and E-books in Libraries

Bradford pears, framed by cherry, in bloom this week

I notice that in the current information landscape, the preferences and habits of individual users are supported as never before. Those who are mobile can go mobile. Those who sit in front of a personal computer all day have habits grounded in PCs. Those who hate computers can still buy books.

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.


  1. I was kind of alarmed by your comment about requiring e-book readers. Do you know of any institutions (aside from the Cushing School, I guess) that are doing that outside of particular studies to test them? I'd be very hesitant to do so, because it's such a new technology and I'm not at all convinced that students are comfortable with them right now. Not only that, they have several identifiable weaknesses for academic work. Note-taking is pretty poor, navigation is wonky, etc. The research project that I am working on is actually going to focus on adjustments to pedagogy relating to their use and I think it will be pretty interesting. But I think that our role is really adapting to them when and if they do catch on and NOT trying to push students to use them, especially since there are a lot of disadvantages to them right now.

    I'm also really worried about digital divide issues here. It seems pretty obvious to me that dedicated and/or larger readers have important advantages over cell phones for reading. But if e-books become the norm, everyone still can't afford to buy an e-book reader, with the possible result that the students you are seeing will read less than they do now. After all, we already know that people are more likely to engage in something when it is easy and comfortable to do.

  2. Wups, sorry if I sounded alarmist -- no, I do not know of any institute of higher education that is currently requiring e-readers, but if I chose to believe half the hype I read in a single week I would think that's the way things are going. I should have noted this was a hypothetical proposition.

    There is something of the digital divide here, but there's also plain economics: Think of the poor printing quality that many people of moderate incomes had to endure in the early days of books.