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Libraries lead the e-book revolution

  • 01 March 2010

Have 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