Wednesday, August 5, 2009

E-books, the Kindle, and the future of the library

The modern lending library is a co-op of sorts. In my town, a group of literate people got together and decided that the town needed a library. They each contributed a few books, and these sparse tomes were housed in somebody's basement. New people joined, contributed their own books, and read others. The library grew. A hundred years hence, it is a collection of thousands of books in a sterile, white-walled, green-carpeted building with a staff of ten. What will it be in another century?

The printing press appears to be on its way out. Amazon's Kindle was introduced a few years ago, and quickly embraced by the literary elite. The Kindle, however, has massive flaws. Even after a price cut, the cheapest model is still $300. It uses E-ink technology which is expensive but, unlike an LED screen, is not backlit. The Kindle can only be stocked with ebooks from Amazon's Kindle store, which has about 300,000 titles--78,000 less than the amount of books published in the US and the UK in 2006. In other words, this is a tiny drop in the bucket of books that have been published even in the last decade, a tiny mote in the dust bunny the size of Hoover Dam that is the amount of books published since the invention of the printing press in approximately 1436.

Furthermore, a cursory glance of the "Kindle store" will reveal that, although most NYT bestsellers and many significant books are available, many of the bestselling books in history are not. The Harry Potter series, for example, which has sold half as many copies in 12 years as the Holy Qur'an has in its entire history, is absent.

The Kindle is undeniably groundbreaking, despite its flaws. Two competitors, Sony and Barnes & Noble (competing for the first time in their respective histories) have produced or shortly will produce e-readers, with larger libraries, lower prices, and less restrictions than Amazon's Kindle. The fact is, the printed book is no the way out, but I'm not willing to jump on board yet. I'm an admitted technophile, but every now and again staring at glowing rectangles gets old and I have to escape into what solace a printed book can offer. I do not look forward to the day when, to read the books I love, convenience will mandate that I leave my printed books behind.

I will miss going to Borders and browsing for hours. I will miss my job at the library, which will be made ineffably obsolete in the next half-century. I will miss the fresh, foresty, virginal smell of a new book, the crispness of its pages, and the salacious pleasure of reading it for the first time, and many times hereafter. I will miss the joy--yes, joy--of recommending a book to someone, lending them a ratty copy, and then basking in satisfaction when he or she loves it. With Card's Ender's Game, I did something very perilous. I recommended to someone a book I had not read myself. He read and loved it, I read and loved it. My brother read and loved it. By the end of it, I had read eight more books (the sequels) and no less than everyone in our school had read Ender's Game. With books made up of bytes instead of paper, this sort of sharing is not possible. No sensible publisher will relax DRM (Digital Rights Management) rules to allow customers to lend books to each other. Brick-and-mortar publishers can't dictate what customers do with their books after they buy them, but cyberspace-based ones can reach into your computer and delete anything and everything it wants to if you don't toe the line.

Don't take my word for it, though. Recently, Amazon remotely deleted copies of the Harry Potter series and Orwell's 1984 from customers' Kindles, and refunded them. The books had been placed on Amazon's Kindle store illegally, but even so: if they can do it for legitimate reasons, they can do it whenever they want. Barnes & Noble, however much it wants to, can't send ninjas to break into your house and take your copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting that you lent to a friend "in the family way."

There is a inherent difference between the version of the latest bestseller on Barnes & Noble's burgeoning shelves and the electronic one on Amazon's Kindle store. There are a finite number of copies of the paper version, and they cost a certain amount of money to make. There are an infinite number of copies of the Kindle version, as many as there is demand for and no more, and they cost an infitesimal amount to produce. This means that consumers pay less, that bookstores will never be overstocked, but it also undermines the entire thesis--and here I return, five paragraphs hence, to the subject of my first paragraph--of the modern lending library.

A public library is not a building or a collection of books, but a social contract between people saying, in effect: "We will each contribue x% of our income to fund this library, which will buy books and other materials, hire staff, and provide premises where we can all enjoy these items for free." That, at least, is how libraries started out. Now, they are publically funded and so taxpayers pay for their library whether they use it or not. A book that a library buys is put on the shelf, and patron after patron after patron can read it. Electronic books cannot be put on a shelf, and with DRM only one person can own them, not a consortium. A library could buy one e-book, someone could download and read it...and it would be "used up" and disappear into cyberspatial oblivion.

So, whither the library--or rather, will the library whither?

Not to act like an action film director, but to find out you'll have to wait till the sequel: "The Future of Libraries Redux," "The Future of Libraries is Back," "The Future of Libraries Reloaded," or "The Future of Libraries II." The title is still under consideration.

Till next time,

Sola Gratia