For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
July 5, 2000 - The Future of the Book Revisited
I keep coming back to this subject: the future of the book. Why?
For one thing, it's because books are so important to me. I care about what might happen to and with them.
For another, books are a big part of our business -- still somewhere around 85% of everything that people check out.
For yet another, in at least one area, I'm seeing a decline in the use of books. Just 5 years ago, a good 7 out of 10 reference questions got answered from print sources. Now at least that many get answered through electronic resources, either commercial, or free on the web. That's a trend, and I'm supposed to keep track of things like that.
But the factor I'd like to explore this week is the changing marketplace, particularly in the area of e-books and handheld devices.
Most people who have instinctive resistance to the idea of electronic books start in the same place. They like the smell of books, the high definition of typography, the feel of paper and buckram bindings. None of these things survives the translation to LCD screen.
As I've written before, the beauty of the book is that it employs "surface technology" -- you don't need anything but one working hand and eye to use it. (In a pinch, you might also need a candle and matches.) The batteries never go dead. You don't need plugs.
Books, particularly paperbacks, are light, portable, and relatively cheap.
I'll admit that something like a handheld computer -- even my own Palm Pilot -- is dependent on batteries. It's also handy to have a stylus around -- the "pen" used to navigate and write things down.
Yet it is also very portable -- more portable than a paperback, because I can strap the Palm Pilot right onto my belt. And given sufficient storage space or memory, I can cram more books into such a device than I can fit in a backpack, briefcase, or suitcase.
Recently I sent Holly Deni, my Associate Director for Support Services, off to a conference with a Rocket eBook -- an electronic book reader slightly smaller than a hardback book.
She returned a convert. Despite the fact that the resolution on the screen is not as good as ink on paper, there were many advantages. She could set the book down and just touch it to turn the page; she didn't have to hold it open. Because the screen is backlit, she could read it in the dark. With four or five books in one small package, she found it easier to carry books around with her. Bottom line: she read more, with less hassle.
Some libraries have played with offering Rocket eBook services: check out a device with the Romance or Mystery package preinstalled, and have a lovely vacation!
Lately, I've been experimenting with my little organizer. I've got the older version, so can't squeeze much into it. But at www.memoware.com I found all kinds of free texts to download, many of the them from the Gutenberg Project. I've got the whole Tao te Ching on my Palm Pilot now. I also found a couple of free programs that let me do most of what I can do with a Rocketbook -- CSpotRun (from www.palmgear.com) and Peanut Reader (from www.peanutpress.com).
I also discovered a terrific utility on the web that lets you type in a URL (web location) and in just a few moments, get the Palm version of the page sitting on your desktop (pilot.screwdriver.net). This is a great way to grab, for instance, what's up at the library this week (douglas.lib.co.us/calendar.html).
To my surprise, yes, I can read quite comfortably, even on my tiny little screen. The device disappears. I focus on the content.
The library is a subscriber to netLibrary, which puts many current books online (although we've so far stuck to non-fiction). You have to be on the web to use it, but you get the full text of a book, with pictures, tables of contents, and indexes. To date, few of our patrons have used it. They will, though, maybe when we find a better way to move the text from the web to some more portable device.
I still don't think that ebooks will run print out of business. Each has its uses, its niche.
It's clear that ebooks, both the content and the devices, are finally finding their markets. Ultimately, it all goes back to this: if the ebook makes it easier for people to read, more convenient or more likely, then I'm all for it.