Does Your Library Have a Vision on e-Books?

I have to say I have a love-hate relationship with e-books. I love the idea of e-books. No matter where I am, I can instantly access it and start reading it on an electronic device. That’s great. As an expatriate, I dream about the day in which all the books I want to read written and published in Korean become available in an electronic format, so that the exorbitant international shipping charge (for heavy heavy books) can be instead used for more books I want to read. I love to underline, highlight and save the passage in an e-book for future references as a text file, so that I don’t need to retype it again later. I want to carry multiple e-books in my smart phone, so that my bag won’t drag me down stuffed with multiple paperbacks.

But how so much I hate e-books! Every time I search for certain books on my library’s online catalog and it turned out that the book is available as an e-book, I grind my teeth. I don’t want to read any books in front of my computer. It simply isn’t my favorite manner of reading books.  And how so much I hate that restriction that I can only print one page at a time from an e-book! You gotta be kidding me to think that I would need one page of a book for my reference purposes whether I am accessing the book via a library or whether I bought it through Amazon or any other online bookstores. Besides,  I want to hold a book in my hands and I want to read it in my comfortable reading chair, not in front of my computer straining my eyes and back. I desperately want a book in paper, particularly the ones that I am going to take some time to read it through. When a book that I look for is not available as an e-book at my library, I get relieved because it means that I can request the book via Interlibrary loan. And I count days until the book arrives! How ironic.

So I am desperate for the growth and maturation of the e-book market. It is just that the vendors are not getting it. That is, what they need to do to make their market to expand. Here are my suggestions.

  • Go for textbook market particularly in science. They are expensive and heavy. And students need them for classes. They will “buy” them.
  • Make e-books “significantly cheaper” than print ones. Unless it is cheaper by 50 % or more, people won’t go for e-books. I would personally pay 30 %. The utility of e-books is much less than that of print books. This applies to particularly for non-textbooks such as fiction, bestsellers, etc.
  • “Standardize” the e-book reader software. Agree on one software that can be used for all types of devices including computer, smart phone, PDA etc. regardless of where they are purchased.
  • “Don’t go crazy on DRM” to make e-book buyers keep entering password every time people open the e-books they already bought. Make it easy for the owner of the e-book to use it.
  • Let e-book owners “own” the book. Don’t make them feel that they pay for ownership but are treated as if they were actually only getting a license for the ebooks they pay for. That’s just unfair.

But I now realize that for e-books to become popular, we also need a right device for them. It may be something like Kindle. But it probably should be better than that. If it can be something like a bendable  touch-screen e-paper with memory and internet connection, that would work great because right now what bothers potential ebook consumers most seems to be the fact that they cannot read e-books like normal paper books. They need a proper device for e-books. But devices currently available for e-books are hardly ideal for comfortable reading.

Phillipse e-paper technology from YouTube

While I was reading a news article about the University Librarian of University of Michigan, Paul Courant, I came to wonder if libraries should have a vision about e-books.

Let’s see what Paul Courant thinks about books at future libraries. (Source:,1)

Despite the advantages of having tangible books on hand, Courant said the University Library’s books will be uselessly sitting on shelves while students browse them on their laptops.“This is blasphemous,” he said. “But it’s true. We don’t need to have 3 million books in the middle of campus.” Courant said he predicts the University Library will use converted files to make materials even more digitally accessible in the future.  “In a few years, most of what I expect will be in the library (will be) in a form where you’ll be able to load it into something that looks like a Kindle or a Sony Reader and read it very easily,” he said.  He added that the stacks will eventually disappear. With this shift, Courant said the role of universities and libraries will become increasingly important as society moves into the “information age,” where loads of information are available at people’s fingertips.  “The problem of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom is every bit as important as it always was,” he said. “The University is the place that’s going to figure out how to do that, and within it, the library is going to be the place in the University that figures that out.”

Well, if the stacks disappear, I don’t think that it will be any time soon because the current technology for ebook devices are still quite below users’ expectations.

But my question is whether this is something libraries should think about and include in their vision. How do libraries plan to deliver information and knowledge in the future? Is it going to be an espresso book machine that can print out and bind whatever old book that a user happens to need to use? Or is it going to be a computer file that can be downloaded immediately to whatever device a user has in their hands? Or maybe both? It is not a matter of whether it is possible now or not. It is a matter of planning for unpredictable future and doing something about it to make the best vision to come true by conscious efforts. That is something that online bookstores or e-book publishers may not be interested in but something that libraries can play a significant role.

Librarians are mediators between knowledge and people.  Paul Courant says: The problem of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom is every bit as important as it always was. I see a great role that libraries can play in solving this problem. We are digitizing a lot of information and knowledge. Now how do we want to deliver it to users? Until the mode of access to digitized information and the manner of utilizing it become almost effortless, digitized information will be less than optimal in being absorbed by people to become their knowledge and wisdom.

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
This entry was posted in e-Book, Library, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Does Your Library Have a Vision on e-Books?

  1. Clio says:

    I came here following the link from “Library Day in the Life Project.”
    Very interesting posting on e-books. I am glad to find such a thoughtful blog. I totally agree on your point in regarding to the books for an “expatriate.”. That will be really cool. 🙂
    I believe we, librarians, are also the guardian of information and in that sense, e-books pose us more challenges than answers. For example, will e-books we have now still exist and be available for patrons in the year 2100, meanwhile the paper books from 1800 are still easily to find and read with human eyes? What do we need to do for make them available then? etc… But because of those challenges, our job becomes meaningful and thrilling, I believe. Thanks for thought provoking posting.

  2. Library Hat says:

    I agree that librarians’ work becomes more challenging and interesting every day in the information age. Thanks for reading the post!

Comments are closed.