Absent at the eBook Revolution

By Tom Peters |

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Conference program topics tend to be lagging indicators of the hot topics in a given field.  The lag time develops because it takes time to plan for a professional conference, even an online or in-world conference.  In fact, by the time a molten topic spews forth many conference programs, sometimes even entire conferences, that’s a signal that the magma has started to cool and harden. 

The eBook movement is heating up worldwide, with many major corporations launching eBook services and significant chunks of the worldwide reading public – the Chinese and romance readers come to mind – giving ereading a sustained try.  The paucity of programs about eBooks at next month’s ALA Annual Conference in Chicago could be seen as a case-in-point of this general truth about conference program topics as lagging behind hot topics. Nonethless, I think a different, more troubling dynamic is developing between eBooks, libraries, and librarianship.  I worry about the role that libraries and librarianship will have in the real eBook revolution. 

A colleague recently brought to my attention that his search of the program titles and descriptions for ALA Annual in Chicago turned up only two programs about eBooks.  One is a RUSA STARS program about resource sharing in the 21st century, and the other is an ALCTS preconference about Streaming Media and Proliferating E-Books. 

My search didn’t find much more.  Of the dozens of topics proposed to be discussed during the ALA unconference preconference (or is it a conference unpreconference?) scheduled for Friday, July 10th, only one proposed topic --  “Audiobooks, e-books, and online reading” – specifically mentions eBooks.  Jessica Moyer at the U. of Minnesota(Go Gophers!) suggested that topic.   Registrants for the unconference are still voting on which of the proposed topics the group actually wants to discuss, so eBooks may get voted off the island. 

The problem with the eBook movement is that it is no longer perceived as a newly emerging hot topic, but as a stale, old, previously overhyped topic.  eBooks have been in the radar of librarianship for over a decade now.  In the late 1990s, the launch of the Rocket eBook device, the buzz created by the then standalone start-up company called netLibrary and other innovative efforts created a lot of excitement and interest.  The prognostications and preferences of eBook pundits have become petrified.  When the eBook revolution is mentioned, many librarians may think to themselves, “Been there, done that.  Fooled once, shame on you.  Fooled twice, shame on me. “

And much has happened vis-à-vis libraries and eBooks since then.  Many publishers and eBook aggregators (OverDrive, ebrary, etc.) have developed and delivered lots of eBooks to library users.  Nevertheless, the really big social revolution in reading hasn’t happened yet, but we may be on the verge.

Many major corporations like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Sony, are really pushing eBook services directly to end-users.  The Kindle family of portable dedicated ereading appliances seems to be selling well, although Jeff Bezos won’t share sales figures, even with Amazon’s shareholders.  Another wave of dedicated reading devices is beginning to hit the beach, and startup companies like Pixel Qi are developing low-cost screens, better batteries, and other improved components that will drive down the hardware costs.   Although ereading still seemsprimarily to be a domain  for the gadgetista and affluent readers, that’s a typical phase through which most technological developments pass. 

The real problem with eBooks, IMHO, is that, while that overhyped dud in the late 1990s didn’t result in paperless offices and parlors around the world, we may be on the verge of the real eBook revolution now.  I write this guardedly and sheepishly, because I don’t want to overhype eBooks yet again.   After suffering through a decade of hype, many false starts, and only modest successes, librarians may be lulled into a sense of complacency about eBooks just as the real revolution begins.

An interesting professional conundrum may be developing here, because, while recent developments in the eBook marketplace may be generally good for readers (a debatable assumption, I admit), most librarians seem to agree that most of the recent eBook developments may result, intentionally or unintentionally, in locking libraries out of the process.  Most of these emerging eBook systems are designed to move content directly from publishers, aggregators, or even authors to the end-readers.  What’s good for readers may not be good for libraries.

This may be a fundamental professional challenge:  To put the needs and interests of your clients before your needs and interests as a professional.  We all know that lawyers, educators, and healthcare professionals have to confront this conundrum occasionally, and librarians do, too.  If push comes to shove, we need to remember that the goal of serving readers trumps the goal of saving libraries, even if we are frustratingly saddened that these two noble professional goals may suddenly become out of sync. 

I just re-read Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science in light of this possible conflict between libraries and readers.  Those laws emphasize books, reading, and readers/users.  I assume Ranganathan would have accepted eBooks as a type of book.  Only the enigmatic 5th law (the library is a growing organism) specifically mentions libraries.