E-books: Mind the gap

A Picture of an eBook
Image via Wikipedia

So, according to The Review Show last night, e-books are probably here to stay. It was a really interesting programme and worth a  watch if you’re a librarian, writer, reader or publisher or just interested in books and reading – so that probably covers just about everyone!

I did some work experience at my (then) local public library in 2001, just before I started as a graduate trainee library assistant.  Part of my work was to assist with the organisation of a project about e-books. Basically, we had a few e-books readers and we demonstrated them to the public. This was the first time I had heard of e-books and e-book readers. There was no iPhone or iPad and no Kindle. I can’t actually remember who made the e-book readers we held in our hands that day, but I do remember that my overall impression of them was…grey. The cases were grey and, alas, so were the screens! I know they’re quite grey now, but these were very ‘screeny’ – it’s hard to describe really, but I didn’t fancy trying to read a whole book on one!

I know e-books have been around in the background since before I first met them, but it seems that it’s only recently that people in general, rather than librarians or other people who work with books, have become aware of them.  I suppose this is due to the new technology, like the Kindle, the iPhone, etc., that allows people to access and use e-books more easily and cheaply than before. Plus, people are now much more used to reading longer writings on a screen, whether when browsing the internet (e.g. reading blog posts!) or doing in-depth research using e-journals, which were, in  a way, the precursor of e-books.

As with most things, e-books have their good and bad points. The fact that we can now carry 3,500 ‘books’ around with us is pretty cool. I can’ t really argue with that. There is an argument that the  increasing popularity and availability e-books and their electronic readers will actually improve access to writings and literature, which can only be a good thing. I’m not sure whether or not to say access to books, because I’m not talking about actual, physical paper and card/cloth books, so I’m not really talking about actual books, as such. Which leads me on to my next point.

This point is one that Jeanette Winterson made (briefly) last night, so I’m really stealing it from her. Sorry Jeanette.  Anyway, to expand on her point, it is all very well being able to access 3,500 e-books, but access is the operative word. What if you can’t access them?

The information gap is already massive. Whether or not you have access to certain information (or entertainment) now depends on whether or not you have the technology  you need to access it.  If you can’t afford a computer or a mobile phone or a Kindle, you’re obviously not going to have the same access to information that those people who can afford these things have. The fact that not everyone has access to the internet at home seems to be something our current government seems to be conveniently ignoring. The more products are only made available in digital format (as is happening with some publications already), the more exclusive access to these products becomes.

And what access to books via searching and browsing the physical shelves? Jeanette Winterson made the good point that “digitisation is taking books off shelves…[so] you are only going to find what you are looking for, which does not help those who do not know what they are looking for”. Too true. Even if you have access to e-books, etc., how do you find new things and explore different angles and have those serendipity moments where you just stumble across a book you like the look of? There are, of course, things like the suggested reads from Amazon, but these are not always relevant or accurate interpretations of people’s reading tastes, and, anyway, the danger with such things is that they only suggest similar things to those you’ve read before, thus potentially limiting the variety of your reading material.

Browsing the shelves is many people’s only way of finding books. They may never have access to or wish to use a computer or an online library catalogue. If they can’t access the physical books on the shelves, they’re probably not going to read them.

The answer to these problems could, of course, be your humble librarian. That is, after all, what we’re there for – to steer people through the maze of information and help them find what they want or need. However, the likelihood is that the more things are digitised the less the value of real-live librarians, as well as  libraries as places, is going to be appreciated.

I, for one, look forward to the future with interest and anticipation. I just hope that whatever new technology comes our way will only improve access to information for everyone, and that the value of librarians won’t be lost in amongst all the excitement.

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6 thoughts on “E-books: Mind the gap

  1. I agree with you that this transition, we hope, will take place at a pace that will not exclude the people without access to the Internet and/or required e-products/gadgets or software. I personally cannot wait to obtain my first e-reader. They are still a little pricey for me.

  2. I love libraries and have always borrowed books regularly. It feels like Christmas Day every time I visit the library and leave with a stack of lovely new books to read. I also like the atmosphere in libraries and the library assistants and librarian are always very helpful and nice.

    I did buy an ebook once but returned it straight away because I didn’t like it. It took a few seconds to refresh and it was annoying the way I had to keep touching the screen after every couple of paragraphs to go onto the next screen. Also there was no colourful front cover or pictures (for non-fiction books) and I couldn’t judge how long the book was. I think I just like ordinary books!

    One new piece of information technology I would like to buy however is a portable CD player that works like a portable tape recorder – where you can stop it and it keeps your place in the book and you can pause and fast forward and rewind it.

    I was given some educational CD’s for Christmas and would like to listen to them sitting on the sofa without headphones with the CD player on the coffee table. But I can’t seem to find anything that fits the bill. All the portable CD players I have found just seem to jump to the next track and I can’t use the computer downstairs as it is in an upstairs room and not portable. Do you have any suggestions?

    I

    1. Hi Trish,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t know of any CD players that would allow you to fast foward and rewind the same way cassette players do, sorry. You can do this with mp3 players, but that probably doesn’t help you!

      1. Hi, yes I don’t think I’m going to be able to find out exactly what I’m looking for but thanks for thinking about it 🙂

  3. I am also a person that frequents the library and cannot see how the e-book could satisfactorily replace the librarian. I rarely visit the library without consulting the librarian for one reason or another. Excuse me for commenting twice, but I left this aspect of the subject uncommented.

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