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.