It was recently announced that North America’s first paper-less physical public library system will be built in Bexar County, Texas, with the first branch set to open later in 2013. The system will be called BiblioTech and the library will feature computer stations, with e-Readers to borrow, but no bound books. Just digital copies. It will serve as a meeting place and a place to go read and will have banks of computers instead of rows of shelves. Is this a library or just a coffee shop without lattes and cappuccinos?
Until recently I’ve been a bound book purist. I love the physicality of books and the smell of them. I love wandering the VIU library looking for treasures to take home and I’ve worked at a public library for four-and-a-half years. Searching a digital bookstore or library catalogue is not the same in the slightest, but I’ve come to appreciate the advantages of the technology. Namely, if I finish my book I can get a new one with just a Wi-fi connection, and if I need something in a hurry, that’s wonderfully convenient. I can read an ebook and enjoy the experience—in fact love it—but after an ebook or two I always gravitate back to bound books for a few reads before perhaps reading another ebook.
While the stories might be the same, the experience isn’t. I used to be obsessed with keeping my personal collection of books pristine. There would be no writing in them, ever, and certainly no highlighting. I’ve lightened up in recent years and will set pencil to the page—though never, ever anything inky or fluorescent yellow. Ebooks can be highlighted and written in with those marks easily searched out and erased, but again, I’ve found it’s not the same as having the physical copy. The mark is disposable and can easily become a thoughtless exercise; it’s not the considered choice that I make when I underline in a bound book.
Still, digital books are wonderful in many ways, but are we ready for exclusively digital libraries? Children and parents prefer to read physical books together—according to a study released in Sept. 2012 by the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre at Sesame Workshop—even if they have access to an iPad with ebooks for children. Less than 10 percent of the participants studied preferred to read ebooks when they read together as parent and child. One of the primary concerns from parents mentioned at <DigitalBookWorld.com> is the distraction of add-ons in enhanced ebooks for children—that those enhancements distract from the act of reading and developing reading skills.
This idea of the digital library in general seems a lot more appealing to adults than to children. I see the excitement that kids exhibit when they go to the library; they can run up to a shelf, drawn to a candy-coloured spine, yank the book out, and open or discard depending on whether they like the cover. It’s the start of a beautiful adventure, and I don’t think it’s the same with a digital book. Sure, physical books might be germy and are sometimes returned with unidentifiable goo smeared across the cover, but one of the wonders of library borrowing, for me, is that communal experience of sharing a wonderful book. Reading a physical copy of a book that another person may have loved or hated. I think there’s a connection there between people and stories, and that doesn’t exist in the same way with digital library books.
Another problem comes from the publishers themselves. Penguin, for example, will not make its titles available to public libraries. Other publishers charge exorbitant amounts for library ebooks—as much as $70 or $80 per copy per title! On top of that, HarperCollins determined that their ebook licences would expire after 26 loans. This last point, in particular, is tricky. In a public library system a book can last for decades, or just a year, depending on its popularity, before it needs to be discarded and possibly replaced. In many cases, 26 circulations isn’t very much. It’s especially not much when taking into account how much easier it is for someone to download an ebook from the library, have it sit on their device for three weeks unread, and then returned not used. In the physical library system, this borrowing usually isn’t strenuous on books. In the digital system, this loan is counted as a strike against that copy’s shelf life. Fair? I think not.
However, this technology is new and these problems will straighten out over the coming years, hopefully in a fashion that benefits publishers, readers, authors, and libraries and maximizes the ease of availability of information while serving the interests of all parties involved. I, however, won’t be flocking to Texas to check out the digital library. After all, a trip through the stacks is an adventure amidst the dust and the occasional mis-order, with the potential for finding new worlds without the limit of a starting search term.