by Leigh Bunton
Ever since reading Louise’s post on the ebooks vs print books debate, I’ve thought a lot about this question. I’m part of the Multimedia, Information and Technology Group because I’m passionate about the possibilities of technology when it comes to the dissemination of information. Why, then, should such a technophile experience a twinge of regret and resistance when ebook advocates state their case? I work in an academic library. Only last week, a book in our collection that I imagined would be an effort to track down on the shelves arrived in superfast time as a convenient, searchable and formattable electronic entity without requiring so much as a few keystrokes. I hadn’t expected to find the information I was looking for so quickly and marvelled at the brilliance of the ebook. I’m a fan!
For me, then, it matters what the purpose is. The book I needed was a textbook, and after a long time providing a variety of lending services to university students, I’ve found few who had any enthusiasm for their reading lists at the time of borrowing. The compulsory nature of the texts and stressful time limits during each semester don’t necessarily allow for leisurely enjoyment of a nevertheless chosen subject that will (hopefully) form the basis of a lifelong profession and/or interest. In an academic setting, books are often a means to an end, the necessary intermediary between an absence of knowledge and the passing of an exam, and it is here that the ebook comes into its own. Expedience, availability, remote access – these are the attributes that matter for coursework and which I could only have dreamt of as a student myself. Ebooks in such a context are invaluable.
There are pros and cons to almost everything, though. Ebooks are only available to registered students and academic staff. Paying members don’t have such access and therefore cannot access books that are only in stock electronically. The same is now true of a vast array of journals as we move away from print to electronic delivery, although some suppliers do permit walk-in access to limited titles, but with inevitable restrictions. The pressurised academic, however, no longer needs to take the time to visit the library – an alerts service can ensure that the most topical articles are instantly accessible at their desk. Distance learners who can’t borrow physical books from short loan now have access to titles that would otherwise have been off limits. High-demand titles are now available to all students on a given course, not just the ones who got there first. Common student issues related to ebooks, such as eyestrain due to the absence of library e-readers, and the often expensive necessity to print sections of an electronic resource in order to extricate it from the virtual world, should lessen as library mobile strategies are put into place, allowing increasingly tech savvy students to access library services on their own devices via purposefully designed mobile library applications.
As suggested by Louise in her recent blog post, however, the greater danger facing ebook users is the war going on behind the scenes. Take, for example, the fact that students habitually annotate text, whether by endless reams of post-its, or the heartbreaking disfigurement of the books themselves by the dreaded highlighter pen. The ability to virtually annotate the text of an ebook is invaluable, leaving the same book untouched for the next patron, yet Digital Rights Management creates a significant vulnerability to this facility, as evidenced by the infamous Kindle lawsuit that saw Amazon remotely remove purchased copies of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ from Kindle accounts due to a lack of publishing rights, thus rendering user annotations meaningless. The precarious nature of finding acceptable lending models was also highlighted by Penguin’s decision to suspend library ebook lending in both the UK and the US in November 2011 due to security issues, largely related to the association between Overdrive and Amazon. Whilst it is understandable that publishers are very wary of copyright issues and maintaining control of revenue, it is inevitably the end users who lose out when ebooks simply vanish from library stock, or indeed from their own personal ebook accounts, until issues such as these are resolved. The impermanent and intangible nature of ebooks will always make them vulnerable and transient in nature – Fahrenheit 402-Not Found.
So back to my original question – why the twinge of resistance to ebooks when I’m clearly an advocate? Reading for pleasure, that’s where the difference comes into play for me – print rules my heart!! My love of books only deepened with my first job as a bookseller. There would be such a buzz of excitement when a new title would arrive – the aroma, the texture, the cover art. A book to me is as much a physical object as a means to gain knowledge, travel to another place for a few hours, learn a new recipe etc. As a bookseller, I had responsibility for the wonderful art books that would come in. Taschen always produced fantastic coffee table sized books with colours and images that simply leapt off the shelves. These were selling points, a way to draw a person towards a book they would otherwise ignore. A lost Jules Verne novel was lovingly produced in hardback with an art deco cover and manuscript style pages – it added to the experience of reading the text, of becoming immersed in that world. Penguin brought out a series of modern classics that provoked me to buy them all over again due to their diminutive size and fantastic cover art – a dense green jungle for ‘Heart of Darkness’, a single blood stain on a white background for ‘Lord of the Flies’, a ribbon bound stack of love letters for ‘The Go-Between’. What’s not great about the feel of books?
In my experience as a bookseller, there was always a fantastic interaction between book, author and reader in the world of physical books. The simple mechanism of a local booksigning still offers a unique way to meet a person who has perhaps inspired you, and often for no more than the cost of the book itself. Attending the launch of their latest books at various in-store events, I had the chance to meet Sir David Attenborough, Michael Palin, the River Café Chefs, Terry Pratchett, Tom Baker and Billy Connolly, to name a few. Never would I have had the opportunity to meet such people otherwise. Alas, the Bookseller recently warned that internet-only retailers are doing better, citing ebooks as the reason that more book purchases are now being made via the internet than through stores. Will meetings with favourite authors be confined to online events in the future? Can virtual autographs, such as those offered by Kindlegraph, ever be a substitute for the real thing? Not in my world. As a direct casualty of disappearing bookstores, I can only lament their slow demise and hope for their revival.
In the academic library where I work, we receive hundreds of donations a year from all sorts of organisations and individuals. In the pages of the books donated, we’ve found perfectly preserved author letters that became part of special collections; annotations by retired scholars in books sometimes years out of print; and curios that had been used as bookmarks and long forgotten, such as a 1920s postcard of a silent era Hollywood starlet. In a similar way, physical books have become a repository for my own history. One contains pressed flowers from a wedding. Another holds a handwritten poem from my dad purposefully stored and treasured in the pages of a book of equal meaning. An inscription from a loved one within a book given as a gift has ensured it is irreplaceable; a bookplate in another commemorates a high school achievement, whilst countless dog-eared creases remind me of passages I don’t want to forget. I only have to glance up at my bookshelf and I see a representation of the person I am or hope to be. For me, these things are profoundly important and linked only to the physical object of the printed book.
Willam Geramo wrote in his article ‘What are books good for?’ that ‘good technologies don’t eradicate earlier good technologies. They overlap with them—or morph, so that the old and the new may persist alongside yet another development’. I don’t agree with the concept that ebooks and print books are in conflict – they are both ‘good technologies’. I believe that each format has its strengths and weaknesses, but are the better for co-existing. And as much as I look forward to witnessing the evolving nature of ebooks, in a society where many now spend both their work and leisure time staring at a screen of one sort or another, it’s comforting to know that books can still offer the chance to switch off.
More posts about e-books vs print books.