Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Libraries lead the e-book revolution


'e-book' by Chris JohnstonHave you read an e-book yet? Do you think it means the end of bookshops and libraries as we know them? Will book people have to turn into e-book people to meet the brave new world? It's all a bit early to say. 

I haven't read an e-book and when asked by borrowers if I feel that my profession of librarian is under threat, I ask them if they themselves have used an e-book . No, is the consistent reply. But they know chapter and verse about the developments, usually from what they have seen on the internet. The new slimline gadgets can display everything a text maniac wants to get their hands on. Or so it seems.

Every day trucks cart away more of the university collections of Michigan, California Berkeley, and Stanford, to the Google digitisation factories. Nobody has the full data on progress, it's a secret, but millions of works are now being assembled in what is a monster digital library and bookstore. Google claims that this is all a service, making available works in e-form that are not easily accessible, and that it will all be for free.

This last claim brings out the sceptic in most of us, but more pressing for now are the claims from authors and estates that their copyright is being abused. Test cases are cropping up all over the United States and the Justice Department has started looking unfavourably at Google, in part for the very American reason that Google is creating a monopoly, thus stopping competition.

Digital is moving in, that's for sure. But will readers get what they want? I don't mean readers who ask for the latest blockbuster, but all of us who need those difficult-to-get books for study or personal interest, the ones Google says are not easily accessible. It is the same librarians who remind the digitising deliverers that inter-library loan can get the requested print version at next to no cost and in short time.

Far from sidelining academic and special collections, the digital libraries of the future make easy and free access to print-libraries even more of a priority: there is no way of predicting the price tag for that rare thesis or out-of-print title in its downloadable form. This is an issue that more academics and specialists need to be questioning now, especially as they are the ones often making the decisions about their libraries, and not the librarians.

Actually, libraries have a large measure of responsibility for the Information Revolution. Libraries must be super-sensitive to any form of information production and retrieval: it's their job. In the early '80s, when I was at library school, there were students who already resented being called librarians or library managers — we were Information Managers. Some heroic individuals had these words painted on their office doors when they went into the workplace. When you remind librarians that their title comes from the Latin root for book, they are much too busy figuring out how the translation button works on a research site to worry about a dead language.

Indeed, the fourth century shift from the scroll to the codex is being used as a comparison to the present transmogrification. I tend to believe that we are seeing the early technology of the e-book. In five years the e-book will look, feel, sound, smell and gesticulate in very different ways from its iPad and Kindle prototypes. iPad will look as cute as a cassette tape.

As usual, libraries are quietly ahead of everyone else. At universities there are library departments dedicated solely to the acquisition of e-materials for students and lecturers, while public libraries make e-books available and train the staff in their use, anticipating the demand before the e-books themselves are even on the market. But neither are libraries in a hurry to drown their books and make the sea change.

I imagine that the e-book and the book will thrive together. The real question is usability. Will people quite simply prefer one over the other? If everyone goes mad over the e-book then it will place publishers in a very interesting situation. It is in the lap of the gods and, like the laptop before it, the gods are fickle. The ancient technology of the codex book succeeded because it was practical and pleasurable.

I will still be reading the print perfect, easy-to-manage, hard bound book when it is no longer fashionable or profitable to do so. But I also know that when it comes to one of my favourite pastimes, browsing the entries in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, it is more comfortable to do so on a compact plastic screen than it is to lug the leatherbound volume (40 cm folio) onto my peak-hour express train.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is President of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association.

Topic tags: philip harvey, e-book, ipad, kindle, libraries



submit a comment

Existing comments

Nice one, Philip. Do librarians side with authors' unions that want to fight the Google empire on this?

Max Richards | 28 February 2010  

We are living in interesting technological times and wonder whether we can compare it to the time of the introduction of Gutenberg printing press.

Terry Steve | 28 February 2010  

The only novel thing about these e-book proposals is the determined attempt to generate cash from both the software and the hardware. Originally they were going to give you the hardware for free as long as you paid for the downloaded texts. The current attempts will fail if not for any other reason than the multiplicity of formats.

There is, however, a real attempt to make use of the modern technology. It is called the Gutenberg project and is run by volunteers. It scans books which are out of copyright or which have been released from copyright by their living authors.Volunteers are asked to do the proof-reading. Downloading is free, and can be done in a large variety of formats on desktops and laptops. So far in excess of 30,000 scanned books are in the Gutenberg catalogue.

The Canberra National Library is a hub from where you get details and enrol if you want to participate. There is a future for the e-book and it is neither Kindle nor any other commercial rip-off. Your local library may be participants. Best of luck.

Gerry Harant | 01 March 2010  

What pleasure to read an article so full of common sense!I too am in no hurry to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Maureen Howland | 01 March 2010  

I have recently purchased an e-book reader. I prefer the feel of reading a paper book (mmmm... there's a retronym for you), but that said, the e-book is great for the commute to and from work. I have also found I have been reading more - but then again that may just be a transient effect of spending a heap of money on a new gadget.

JB | 01 March 2010  

I am very interested in the e-book, especially when I survey my bulging bookshelves.I would love to be able to store my reference books on a slimline e-book or cards for same.
I'm interested to hear that universities are digitising their reference books. I haven't bought one yet as I'm waiting to see if something more than blockbuster fiction becomes available. I hope they sort out the copyright soon.

Norma Marot | 01 March 2010  

Philip's point, supported by Gerry, that 'libraries are quietly ahead of everyone else' is a very good one.

Like it or not, an increasing amount of information once available only in hard-copy format is now becoming available in digitised form and accessible on-line and some specialist journals are now available only on line. The hitch is that much of this is only available through expensive subscriptions.

Enter the public libraries! They have been doing a sterling job of progressively making a great deal of current and historical content available at no cost to members, not just at branch libraries but also on-line for members. I'm most familiar with the service offered by the State Library of Victoria which is excellent and improving every day.

It's good to see that libraries have taken up the challenge. Back in the 1980s it wasn't clear to me that that they would rise to the occasion, but a generation later the change is obvious. Libraries are once more exciting places!

Warwick Dilley | 01 March 2010  

Thank you for responses on this subject. Here are some replies.

Like everyone else, the library world is reading the developments as they happen. The disingenuous nature of Google official statements about what they are up to is a real problem. You cannot actively protest against something until you have evidence to support the protest. At the moment librarians are mainly concerned about reports of bad digitisation of books by Google. There have been lots of complaints about this mishandling, but on library list-servs and in email corespondence. My colleague Paul Chandler draws attention to this report


Google is just the Big One, of course. Look at Amazon to see how titles are now coming out in book and cheaper e-book versions. Everyone is digitising stuff and the libraries especially have been madly digitising documents for years. It's almost a cult in some libraries, with people thinking this is the only best thing to do and the way of the future. The amazing activities inside the National Library of Australia in Canberra are a case in point. All quite marvellous, but are there sensible boundaries to the permanent expansion?

Once we know the habits of e-book users then we can make sensible decisions, even deciding the extent of its relevance as a library issue. Of course the other big reading device that has already made its take-over anyway is right here in front of us: the internet. A leading bookseller I know believes that the internet has increased awareness and use of books, which lends buoyancy to the ideal that any means to reading is a Good Thing, by definition.

PHILIP HARVEY | 04 March 2010  

As a person working in blindness libraries I feel it can only be good for them, but I also feel that only bestsellers will be on offer. There are many people now who can't get the sort of reading material they want and so don't bother. If this could open up the variety and genre that sighted people can read it would be good, but I
feel that financially it won't be viable.

Elizabeth | 04 March 2010  

Similar Articles

Australian farmers sold short by cheap food

  • Sarah Kanowski
  • 08 March 2010

Throughout his 2007 election campaign Rudd pledged to address 'inflated grocery prices'. But Australians are spending less at the supermarket than ever before. Cheap food has come at a cost to the livelihoods of Australian farmers and the environment.