A TechSource Blogger Forum: E-Readers and Libraries

By Daniel A. Freeman |

The release of the Kindle 2 has set of a firestorm of speculation about how e-readers are going to transform (destroy?) the publishing industry. Anything with the potential to transform reading has the potential to transform librarianship. If widely adopted, these e-readers have the potential to allow libraries new ways to house and circulate material. But could there be downsides as well?  Jason, Tom and Cindi weigh in with their predictions on how e-readers are going to change librarianship in coming years.

Jason Griffey: There are a myriad of downsides to the Kindle, and to any existing commercial e-reader. For the Kindle specifically, the biggest hurdle seems to be Amazon's DRM model. As with most DRM media, it's true that you don't really own it, you're only accessing it at the whim of the holder of the DRM. If you buy a book from Amazon with the Kindle, you are limited in ways that you can't be with a physical book. You can't make a copy of a section of it for ILL purposes, and you can't move it to another device (unless that device is also blessed by Amazon, like the Kindle iPhone app). The current DRM model for Amazon allows for a single purchased book to be read on up to 6 Kindles simultaneously, a model that works well for families, but not so well for libraries. The DRM allows me to buy 6 Kindles, link them to my institutions Amazon account, spend $9.99 on a NYT bestseller, and then sync it to all 6 Kindles. It's as if I'm getting a 6 for 1 deal on the books themselves, but as Cindi points out below, there is no way to buy the book multiple times. Is this legal for a library? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. That's the problem.

The eventual truth is, though, that none of this matters. E-books are the future of reading in a very real way, simply because at some point they will be too cheap to not use. One of my staff brought a receipt to me this week for a laptop that the library bought in 2000. It was $3600. I just priced netbooks for my library, and can get a machine that is ridiculously more powerful than the year-2000 laptop for under $350. The Kindle, and most other e-readers, are hovering around the $350 or so dollar mark right now. In ten years, what will they cost? How can paper continue to compete with Moore's Law?

Tom Peters:  Well, I have to admit that the idea of near-instantaneous delivery of hundreds of thousands or millions of e-books to just about anywhere I happen to be at the time is pretty appealing to me. Traditional ILL will still be useful and used for relatively obscure documents, but I think the Kindlesque way of delivering reading content is the wave of the future. Add to that the TTS (text-to-speech) feature that can convert any book (well, until the Authors Guild pitched a fit) into an audio book on the fly, and the Kindle becomes even more attractive. (NB: This is all still a thought experiment for me.  I've yet to actually use a Kindle.)  

I've long been a defender of auditory reading as a valid, useful form of reading, and I think TTS has a bright future. Did cell phone sound quality have to surpass that of land-lines before most of us migrated to cell phones?  Nope. Having said that, though, there are truly troubling aspects to the Kindle breakaway.  As far as I can tell, it leaves libraries in the lurch in a way that other interesting reading developments, such as downloadable digital audio books and things like the Playaway, do not. Of course, the price point for the Kindle and content for it is nowhere near the point where 99 percent of all American households will own at least one Kindle anytime soon. Nevertheless, the development of the Kindle and similar personal, portable reading, communicating, and gaming devices raises some basic "two cultures" questions. Will the info elite all migrate to Kindles and iPhones and such stuff, leaving print and libraries for the underclass? The same types of fundamental issues are facing other basic public good institutions, such as public water supplies (for awhile there, before the green issue rose to the fore in the bottled water sphere, it seemed like only the "great unwashed" would stoop to actually drinking tap water) and public school systems. Another big issue concerns what will happen to the right of first sale (i.e., the right to lend, give, or re-sell the copy of a book you own to someone else).  

Kindle 2 Text-To-Speech demo from Jason Griffey on Vimeo.

Cindi Trainor: My library is in the midst of planning how to circulate digital content using Kindles and iPods (Touch). We are very excited about the pilot project, the plan for which is to involve the book that our freshman class will read, as well as books related to major lecture events on campus.  One roadblock that I'm not sure we're going to be able to get past is the model under which digital content, including books sold at the Kindle store, via iTunes or Audible.com, is distributed.  We are a single institution that wants to buy several copies of the same title, but the software via which these  titles are bought only allows the purchase of a single copy.  Witness iTunes: if I click on a song that I've already purchased, iTunes stolidly reminds me of said purchase and asks if I want to download the title again without additional charge.  If institutional purchase is not being considered at all, have libraries already lost this battle?  How can we make our collective voices heard?  Libraries *want* to purchase and circulate digital content the "right" way, i.e., legally, but major vendors are currently making this impossible.  Constructing impenetrable walls between potential content purchasers (libraries)and potential consumers (our users) drives our users to sites like Pirate Bay.