2012 has seen the question of eBooks debated almost constantly. Is the book dead? Can libraries survive eBooks? Ad nauseum. Bored now.
The short answer to those two questions is no and yes.
Let’s look at the longer answer.
Point number one: Digital music media. Firstly, digital music hasn’t killed vinyl record sales. Indeed, although CD sales are decreasing vinyl, record sales are on the increase[i]. Let’s examine the media in detail. Music exists regardless of format. Play a song on a gramophone (look it up kids) or on an iPod and it is the same song reaching the ears. You don’t experience anything different (other than the quality of the recording and the potential portability). The notes are the same, the singer sings the same words in the same order. It gets in your head (or not) the same way. A book and an eBook are the same. You read the same words. They have a very similar quality of print (yes they do!). They have equivalent portability (providing you can re-charge the e-reader). Read a book and the memory of the characters and the story remain regardless of the format, just as music remains with you.
Point number two: The experience. I recently read Shelley’s Frankenstein contemporaneously on my iPad and with a paperback book. I made notes on the digital edition. I read the paperback in the bath. Other than that, there was no real difference. There is, of course, something tactile about reading a book. Thumbing the pages feels good. My copy was fairly old (at least 20 years), so it came with memories and a smell. The iPad was shiny and new, but it is still tactile. I now have memories of reading the book associated with the tablet. No real difference. I love reading books and now I love reading eBooks. I love reading. I have read that some people don’t like the reading experience of e-readers or tablets. There are issues with backlighting or the density of display. When I worked in a public library, we had the same issue with books. Some people didn’t like the text size or the font. Even the quality of paper was an issue for some folk. At least with eBook lending in libraries, copies won’t come back wet, or smeared with dead insects or worse, or even edited by the lenders for grammar and swears! A challenge: define the reading experience and tell me what is better and what is worse…I dare you! There is even debate concerning the portability of a 7 inch screen tablet and a 10 inch screen tablet, and comparing them to books. Seriously? Get a grip!
Point number three: The history and the love of books. Books (mass produced, printed) have been part of human culture since the 15th Century. Writing on manuscripts, scrolls and parchments have been around much longer. The library was invented more than four and a half thousand years ago in Sumer. Books will endure because people love books. Libraries will endure because people love libraries. People love to learn and to read. People told stories before there was anything written down. It is part of who we are and you can’t un-invent what already exists. I feel a bit dumb stating the obvious, but I think people forget these things. Some people said they would never give up buying music on vinyl because of the album sleeve. This is a commendable thing. A great deal of thought, art and design goes into an album sleeve. The same is true of a book. One of the great modern fallacies is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. That is exactly what you should do. Designers and artists are paid a lot of money by publishers to get the cover right, to make sure it attracts the audience. This is why people love and collect books. You wouldn’t be bothered about that hard cover with jacket if it was a plain brown jacket with a dull Arial font. People won’t just stop loving these covers and collecting books just because of the convenience of an e-reader or tablet. But the album cover might be glorious and the book cover might be beautiful, but the content is still king. And that doesn’t even cover the smell of a book, which is pretty much an indescribable and intimate sensation.
Read a book. Read it on a piece of technology or find a tatty old copy in a charity shop. It doesn’t matter. This is my point. Pick up a collectable first edition or a digital copy. It doesn’t matter. It is the story that counts. Just stop going on about it.
To be honest, I’m fed up with people wittering on about the death of libraries and the death of books. Books will endure. eBooks won’t be the death of books. Only the death of humanity will see the death of books. So why all the procrastination? Mostly because people (and by people I mean book-sellers, libraries, publishers and others) are scared of change. People like to shout about things they don’t like, but can’t do anything about (other than shouting; or maybe going to conferences and shouting at each other, even though they all agree). Libraries are about supplying the local community with books. That won’t change in my lifetime, unless those idiots in power get their way. Which they won’t because there are too many people who love books. eBooks won’t kill libraries. Idiots in city halls will kill libraries. The head of libraries in the authority where I used to work said, in 2010, that she could see a time when libraries wouldn’t necessarily contain actual books. Foolish. But it won’t really happen. People spend a long time talking about saving libraries but they won’t, because they don’t have any real power. The only people who can save libraries are those people who love them and who love books and are prepared to work their way to positions of influence. Which most of these shouting types aren’t.