Rebuilding the Library
The world is about to face one of the strangest and most unforeseen tragedies in history, and no one is paying attention: What happens to libraries with the rise of the eBook?
In high school, I would wander over to the Library once or twice a week, grabbing random books that struck my fancy and plowing through them in the evening when I had free time. I loved the library. It had displays where I could peruse and collections of authors I had never heard of. I could try a book and, if it wasn’t for me, exchange it for something more my style. I always felt odd in bookstores sitting down and reading to see if I wanted something. After all, if I bend the spine or the pages, I felt obligated to buy it.
In recent years, I haven’t taken advantage of the library that much. I certainly used it for research and classes in college, but it fell by the wayside for recreational use. I found myself purchasing books or reading online instead of taking advantage of the library in Boulder. In fact, except for vacations and traveling, I rarely read any books at all.
Though I don’t own a Kindle or a competing eBook reader, it’s plainly apparent that the future of books is changing significantly from what anyone might have predicted 50 years ago. My role playing books all come in PDF form, making it easier to disseminate information to the other players. Guides and books about software, as well as manuals for hardware, are distributed digitally more often than not. Amazon is poised to become the largets book publisher in the world, already signing Stephen King to an e-xclusive deal. Publishers like Random House and Penguin will be forced to shift to competing directly with digital distribution publishers. It’s a brave new world.
For all the good that comes of eBooks—saving paper, seamless distribution, space saving, lowered cost, etc—there are a few downsides that no one seems to talk about:
- Digital Rights Management – With a digital distribution model, DRM and buying books must become intricately tied or the entire system with collapse. Already, Kindles—which are expensive to begin with—tie the digital copy of a book to the hardware system. That means one can’t loan a book to friend without loaning them the kindle it’s on. One of the joys of owning a book is being able to loan it to a friend and then discuss, or passing it on to someone else when you’re done. Reselling textbooks is pretty much a necessity for college students. With DRM, all these things disappear.
- Classism – For those people unable to afford a Kindle or a computer, there isn’t an easy way for them to access eBooks. The price of digital readers will drop over the next twenty years to make them affordable much like what happened with CD players. Even with the price comes down, the fact that one has to buy every book will make it difficult for the less monetarily inclined to be able to gain access. Since DRM will prevent people from trading and sharing books, purchase becomes the only mode of access. It essentially mimics the classist system that is Twitter and, to a lesser extent, the entire Internet.
- Libraries – The intention of the digital distribution model is to lower the cost of production to reduce the price so books are more affordable while maximizing profit. On the upside, books will be cheaper in a digital version, and more of the profit will likely go to authors. So where do libraries fit in? Loaning an eBook is the equivalent to creating a copy of the book. Without time release DRM, it would make libraries repositories for free books. While libraries could still offer books whose copyright has expired, but newer books would be unavailable. It’s conceivable that libraries could still offer books on their system within the walls of the structure, but that’s highly restrictive. One of the joys of books is being able to take them with us, but that wouldn’t be a possibility.
While the eBook rises, the printed book will slowly fall, but this doesn’t mean an end to printing altogether. Authors themselves aren’t threatened, as a digital distribution model actually works in their favor by netting them more money per copy sold. Beautifully bound and printed books will thrive as status symbols and art work. Picture books and coffee table books will survive as the most common hardcopy still around. Even trashy paperbacks sold in airports and train stations will likely continue have a market since they’ll be cheaper to lose than an eBook reader for quite some time.
As much as I love the idea of a greener publishing world in which authors can, for all intents and purposes, self-publish easily, I fear the loss of an easy and free exchange of ideas. If we can’t trade books and magazines, no longer leaving them in bus stations and dentists’ offices for people to find, we reduce the chance of coming across new and interesting ideas. In addition, it’s far easier to stifle an idea by restricting its access through DRM. There is nothing more important than freedom of speech to the intellectual health of this country.
I wish I had a solution. It’s easy to sit here and point out the prospective problems, but coming up with fix is difficult. Perhaps librarians are already planning their contingencis and I’m overreacting. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to hear what they have in store. I love the library, and I hope it’s around far longer than I will be.