Sunday, December 2, 2012

ebook library?

Lovers of traditional bound books go on about the look, feel, even the aroma of books. The very physicality of them is both pleasing and comforting to traditionalists. But the difference between books and eBooks goes beyond their look, feel and reader interface.

Image: Ed Stein, Rocky Mountain News. Used without permission.

Once a text is unbound, its clearly easier to search, modify, transport, quote, reference, and store; which all seems great for consumer side buy-in. And the buy-in has been tremendous. In early March this year, a Harris Poll found that nearly three in ten Americans (28%) uses an eReader such as the iPad, Kindle or Nook. Up from about 15% the summer before. Yeah, roughly double in about 6 months.

In her recent article for Library Journal, Andromeda Yelton brought up some interesting points about the differences between ebooks and analog, or paper books. you see, right off the bat, I avoided saying 'real' books At issue are the electronic strings attached to these digital texts--strings that lead back to the seller, the publisher, the library... and beyond that, who knows, maybe even the government. She states: "In fact, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the government does not even need a warrant to seize data in the cloud." I just type it, I didn't independently check to see if its true

One of the article's Yelton cites is Alexandra Alter's Wall Street Journal piece; "Your E-Book Is Reading You" That just sounds creepy, but try this on for size. In the first paragraph, Alter drops this one on us, just to get our attention:

"Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second [Hunger Games Trilogy] book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."

How does Amazon or Barnes and Noble know these things?

Because your Kindle or Nook told them. But you've already agreed to let them.* I'm pretty sure my books aren't talking to anyone

Non-fiction gets read a little at a time, whereas fiction books are read straight through. Didn't like a book and gave up on it? They know that too, and where you stopped. And don't highlight or bookmark anything if it may embarrass you, 'cause they're keeping track of that too. what if I was doing research? are they copying marginal notes people make? ugh

Interesting, right? But maybe more important is the lack of library in the ebook equation. That's library as an idea I'm talking about now. Library as a repository of ideas, a storehouse of knowledge. I know what you're thinking, electronic data is easier to keep, maintain, access, search, add meta-data to, sure, I hear you, but that's not what's going on with ebooks right now. They just sit out there in the cloud, and libraries--public or private--just have access to them.

According to Amazon, the Kindle 3 holds about 4 gig, which translates to about 3500 books, but if you start getting close to 1000, the performance starts to suffer. Sounds like a lot, but I've owned more books than that in my life, and I'm sure my public library is holding something like 100,000 volumes; and none of them is an ebook.

Barbara Fister who writes the Library Babel Fish blog on Inside Higher Ed, explains the problem with not having your data on hand this way: "materials that were publicly available in a pre-web state tended to evade notice; web access is wonderful, but it exposes things." And exposure makes folks nervous, and nervous folks tend to block access. When libraries had all of their material sitting on the shelves, your access, as a patron of the library, was limited only to the operating hours of the library building. I know: its so... analog. And the internet is always open, right?

Wrong. In fact, Fister's titled her blog entry: "The Library Vanishes - Again."

Relying on the internet, the Cloud, or some other off-site-and-out-of-your-control server farm to store your data is not what public libraries are traditionally built on. Preservation of data is also a hallmark of public library service. And how do you preserve data that you don't physically have?

In a blog post last Monday at the newly formed Digital Public Library of America, Carly Boxer summarizes the issue this way: "what happens if our desire to access digital records outlives the financial viability of the company storing them?" In fact, her piece is driven by fears which arose in the wake of superstorm Sandy, citing this horrifying example: the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York, which stores digital artworks, was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and much of their digital archive was damaged and is now undergoing an emergency preservation and restoration process.

Its a little clunky, and definitely old-fashioned, but the way libraries have traditionally stored and preserved hard copies helped to defend against this type of threat. But library buildings are like any other building and they can also be flooded, burned, and knocked down, but the beauty in the system is redundancy. Lots of little libraries have similar holdings, and if one library is damaged, many, if not all of the materials reside elsewhere. That, and it takes a lot longer for a book to reach a point when it can't be read any longer. Not so with digital files. Anyone still have their resume from 1995 stored on a floppy disk?

The bottom line is: we're stuck with books; at least some of them. Even if old, out-of-print materials are scanned and digitized, any book or other printed document that has any historic interest or value will still need to be preserved. Its just the way we do.

So I am just a hold out? An older guy who still remembers the look and feel of books from my younger days? A sentimentalist? Yeah, I guess so. And I understand that I (along with folks like me) am not going to stop the influx of eReaders and other digital text advances. Frankly, I don't want to. I just think the jury is out on how we're storing, distributing, and using these technologies. Libraries, thankfully, have our interests at heart, and are helping to lead the charge.

I want to get lost in a book. I love how a good story take us away from where we are, and help us to see things in new and interesting ways. And I don't think John Green is alone in saying: “A novel is a conversation between a reader and a writer.” That's certainly the way I feel about it too, and I'm not ready to have some big tech company or publisher eavesdropping on that conversation, taking notes, and using that information to sell me things.

Feels like a need a shower. that's still private, right?

Update: Check out this chart which provides some info on who's keeping track of your eReading habits and how, thanks to Cindy Cohn and Parker Higgins over at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

* Section 4(a) of the Nook Terms of Use: "Privacy. You agree that we may use, collect and share information in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Without limitation, we will collect, use and/or disclose information regarding you and your use of your NOOK and the Service in order to: (i) provide the Service to you; (ii) permit you to engage in activities that you initiate through the Service, such as purchasing Digital Content and reviewing products; and (iii) analyze, operate, support, maintain and improve your NOOK or the Service. We reserve the right to make changes to our Privacy Policy at any time" 

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