Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unintended Consequences of Moving to E-Books

 Taft Hall, with a poster depicting the new science building (site to the right)

Recently I've noticed certain side effects of e-books, and I think these side effects are tied up with format. (The question of book format is currently viewed as either unimportant or all-important depending on whom you're listening to. I don't fall on either side but am going to discuss it anyway.) When I say book format, I mean the difference between a tangible physical object and a digital one. I can't think of another word besides format for this, where a thing having a presence and taking up real space might also exist entirely digitally. But here are some effects:

(1) Use / Access
At the college, we share a library system with the county, and we share our collections. It's very easy to search all collections simultaneously. This benefits the college students who can borrow books from the public library, and the public library patrons who can borrow academic titles from the college. While the college adds more e-books to its collection every day, however, our license agreement does not allow public library patrons to access our academic e-books.  Suddenly the public is denied access to titles they could recently route to their local branch with a click of a button. More broadly, something similar happens with interlibrary loan services. Interlibrary loan, for the uninitiated, is a commonly available service that allows a patron to request a book from another library located almost anywhere in the world, with some restrictions. Interlibrary loan becomes impossible if access agreements permit use of e-books by local patrons only.

(2) Re-use
Our library staff keeps a little internal lending library, mostly of paperbacks. The source for this collection is now drying up because the primary donor got a kindle. Along the same used-book lines, if textbooks go digital I suppose used textbooks will no longer be available. Students might be forced to pay top dollar for a single available digital edition, and there would be no competition in price. 

(3) Ownership
My own use of printed library books reflects less of an economic necessity than a desire to read something. I don't want to have to own it, and the library makes this very convenient. A library book allows me to fully test the thing before deciding whether or not I want to keep it forever. I have no plans to run out and buy an e-reader, but as we approach the holiday season, I wonder what would happen if I received one as a gift. It certainly is a convenient gadget, but to get books I would suddenly have to own them. I am a discriminating reader; I really don't want to own every book I read.


  1. Hi Olivia

    I haven't used an e-book reader either and one of the reasons is that I love the idea of sharing books. I go camping at the beach every January(don't worry - it's summer here!) every year and my girlfriends and I swap and share books the entire 2 weeks. It's more than just reading, it's social interaction, discussion about what we've read etc etc. Plus, I don't think the e-book reader would stand up to being dropped in the sand....

  2. Honestly, I am not sure all of these consequences are unintended, at least on the part of publishers / manufacturer. These are some of the reasons I'm pretty wary of these devices.