E-BOOKS AND LIBRARIES
By Sarah Flowers, Community Librarian, Santa Clara County Library, Morgan Hill, CA.
Suddenly, everyone is talking about e-books. In libraries, we've been using e-books for years; we just didn't call them that. We stopped subscribing to the print version of The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature because we had other indexes that did the job even better-first on CD-ROM, then online. We have online databases from the Encyclopedia Britannica to Standard and Poor's Net Advantage to Novelist, all of which are taking the place of reference books.
There are other kinds of e-books, too. Most state and federal government documents now are published online; fewer and fewer are coming out in paper format. And online magazines and newspapers are changing the way people get information. I rarely go a day without reading something from Salon magazine (www.salon.com) or CNN or Fox News (www.cnn.com; www.foxnews.com). For years now, Project Gutenberg (http://sailor.gutenberg.org), among others, has been digitizing out-of-copyright works of literature and putting them on the web.
So far, however, these have meant reading the e-text on a computer screen, and most of us just won't do that for more than a few pages. Indexes are one thing; reading an entire textbook or novel is something else. But now there is something that is changing that: the hand-held e-book reader, the most popular of which is the Rocket eBook by NuvoMedia (www.rocketebook.com). The Rocket eBook is about the size of a trade paperback book-about 5 by 7 inches, and weighing 22 ounces. It has four megabytes of disk space, and holds the equivalent of 3200 pages of reading material. There's also a Rocket eBook Pro that holds even more data.
Why would anyone want one of these? Well, it definitely saves space. Say you are going on a trip and you want to take plenty of reading material. Instead of dealing with the weight and bulk of five different books, you can load them all onto your e-book device, and you're all set-no need to dash to the airport bookstore between legs of the flight because you've finished one book and didn't bring along another. Or say you're a student, carrying one of those 30-pound backpacks filled with books. Wouldn't you rather have one device that holds, for example, your history book, your biology book, your Spanish book, AND the novel you're reading for English? You can make margin notes, underline special passages, and bookmark pages. What's more, you can search the contents to find a particular word or phrase. The Rocket eBook comes loaded with the Random House Dictionary, and you can look up a word and get the definition while you're reading. The device has adjustable backlighting, so you can read anywhere at any time, without an external light.
So if this gadget is so wonderful, why doesn't everyone already have one? Well, there are some disadvantages, too. Expense is one. The price of the Rocket eBook just dropped from $499 to $199, but that's still not cheap. Books that are out of copyright can be downloaded free from web sites like Project Gutenberg, but new e-books cost about the same as hardback books, $18 to $25 each. You need a computer to download titles onto your eBook, and you might need additional software to convert a book to a format compatible with your device-right now we're still in the "format wars" stage of things (remember Betamax vs. VHS?). And remember our student, loading up all his textbooks onto one device? Well, first of all, most textbooks aren't yet available (but I see that coming soon); secondly, if he drops his history book in a puddle, it might look gross, but he can still read it. If he drops his e-book device hard enough to break the LCD display, he's going to be in big trouble. Then, of course, there's the battery: you've got to keep it charged, or risk being stopped at the most exciting part of your book.
One of my biggest gripes about the e-book concept is that it is difficult to share books. When you download a book onto your reader, it is encrypted and it will only be readable on your particular reader. So, say I read a wonderful book and want to share it with my son who lives in Berkeley. Right now, if I own the book, I drop it in the mail to him, or give it to him sometime when he's visiting. But if I buy a Rocket e-edition, the only way he can read it is for me to give him my e-book device. Then I won't be able to read anything else until he has finished with it and returned it to me. Even if he had his own Rocket eBook, I couldn't download it to his device. If the whole family-even in the same household-likes to share books, you either have to pay for each book multiple times, or you each have to own a reader, and swap them around.
Libraries exist on the principle of shared access. So how do we deal with "books" like Stephen King's latest story, "Riding the Bullet," released in electronic format only. You could get a Rocket eBook version, a version that was readable on your PDA (Palm device), or a version that was readable on the computer screen. This last involved downloading a special piece of software called the Glassbook reader. Simon & Schuster, King's publisher, has said that the rule for "Riding the Bullet" is "one sale, one user," an extremely restrictive interpretation of copyright. Some libraries downloaded the Glassbook reader to a library computer and offered "Riding the Bullet" to patrons, and they probably won't be prosecuted, but it's not a comfortable solution.
Some libraries are buying Rocket eBooks and other e-book devices, loading them with a few books, and then checking out the whole device to their users. To me, that feels a little bit like checking out a VCR with every video we circulate-cumbersome and not very efficient. Unfortunately, the way the publishers have limited e-book access, it wouldn't be possible for a library to buy an e-edition and download it to a patron's e-book reader, the e-equivalent of checking out a videotape.
There are a lot of unresolved issues about e-books and their use in libraries: copyright and intellectual property concerns, access, cataloging, and expense are only a few of them. Still, when an author as popular as King has already jumped on the bandwagon -- indicating, in fact, that he might be interested in doing a serial novel in e-book format -- you know it's the wave of the future, and we'll have to consider how to deal with it.
Note from Marylaine: If any of you who HAVE rocketbooks are interested, volume 1 of my column, My Word's Worth, can be downloaded free at http://www.rocket-library.com/
For an interesting followup on last week's article about our profession running away from the noble word "librarian," see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "In Revamped Library Schools Information Trumps Books" http://chronicle.com/free/v46/i31/31a04301.htm.
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There are 10,000 books in my library, and it will keep on growing until I die. If I had not picked up this habit in the library long ago, I would have more money in the bank today; I would not be richer.
Pete Hamill. Quoted in A Passion for Books
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.