December 6, 2007
Can the Latest eBook Kindle the Market?
Now comes Amazon's "Kindle" -- an ebook reader that is also connected to the Internet. And once again, the decline of the book is predicted. Who needs books?
Who needs /libraries/, because after all, libraries are just warehouses of books, right?
In essence, libraries are cooperative purchasing agreements, offering cost-effective access to universes of knowledge. We are information navigators, helping people sift through that universe to find what's relevant and useful. We are common and public space, building community through civil discourse. And finally, we are advocates for literacy, not just for a particular format.
So how does the Kindle fit into all that?
Well, a host of trends -- the digitizing (by Google and others) of older materials, the development of higher capacity Internet pipelines (including wireless), the increasing power and decreasing size and cost of electronic storage and mobile devices -- does start to look like the realization of a dream: the text of the world's libraries in the palm of your hand.
That's a worthwhile goal. In the near term, there are some obstacles:
* the cost of the reader. The price point for these readers continues to be close to $500. How many people read in your household? How many devices can you afford?
* standards. The wonderful thing about the book is that it doesn't depend on much else to use it. You don't need a turntable. You don't need a Betamax player. You don't need a 5.25 inch floppy drive. You need one working hand and eye.
In the ebook market today, there are really only a couple of reader devices. But does either one of them equal a standard?
* the participation of publishers. Right now, the publishing industry is scared, in much the same way that the music industry is scared. Once content goes digital, it's easy to copy. How can publishers preserve the revenue stream -- some for authors, but more for the publishing conglomerates? That's the key reason that you can't find a textbook publisher willing to put our children's texts on an electronic reader.
* the monetization of information. The probable trend is toward either licensing books to an institution (schools and academic libraries, for instance), or something a little more worrisome: pay per view. You want to read a bestseller? Maybe you pay by the page (in case you don't finish it). A year later, suppose you want to read the book again. You pay, again. What is the impact of this on the access to information, particularly for the young, and the poor? To put it another way: What is the price of lifelong learning?
* preservation. When you go from owning books to renting them, who preserves, long term, the record of our society? And how are those organizations funded?
Another thing to remember is what former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, called "the displacive fallacy." It's the idea that any new technology replaces the old. Sometimes, it does.
But we don't live, finally, in a binary world. It's not just A or B. Television didn't kill the radio -- there are more radio stations today, with more listeners, then ever before. Ebooks won't kill print. Coexistence seems likely.
So let's say that the ebook reader comes down in price to $5, and your tax dollar, brokered by the library, buys you access, through your local wireless network (or free public wifi zone) to a host of books, newspapers, and magazines. Sound good?
Sure. We offer downloadable books now, and that trend will accelerate.
But remember a final point: social networking is not only virtual. We are wired for many kinds of learning, but deep in our genetic code is the need to see and touch people.
An ebook doesn't deliver storytimes in real space. An ebook doesn't let you learn how to have a courteous debate with a neighbor over a common concern. An ebook, purchased online, doesn't let you share physical space with real people, or find sanctuary that doesn't rent by the hour.
The Kindle is interesting, and bears watching. But remember that 2 out of 3 Coloradans have a library card. In Douglas County, it's 4 out of 5 households. Ebook readers are years away from that kind of market share.
What's my read? Welcome, Kindle! The library has room for you.