It seems like the final horcrux might just end up being the E-reader. So many of my conversations both inside and outside of the classroom over the past month-and-a-half have related to E-readers either directly or indirectly. In my Information Professions course we’ve been lucky enough to have some really outstanding speakers come and lead our class discussions, the majority of whom currently work in public libraries in the Tri-State area.
Inevitably somewhere near the hour mark E-readers, the digitization of the public library, and the future of the profession sneaks (or more often then not roars) into the conversation. The answers always seem deceptively simple, if not a little bit heartbreaking for a newly minted LIS student and avid reader of physical books: Yes – E-readers a coming and faster than any of us can begin to comprehend, Yes – they will be expensive for libraries and very likely end the age-old assumption that libraries own their own collections, Yes – public libraries will change physically, potentially from information centers for a community to communal information centers (think a heavy emphasis on after school and language courses), Yes – librarians and libraries are going to have to do a better job marketing themselves as purveyors of taste (as pretty much that is what our MLS’s will represent), and finally No – none of the speakers so far use E-readers and neither do their children.
Now, maybe its my sentimental, luddite ways, but I am a major scheptic towards any plan that decreases the number of physical books in a public library (or private for that matter!). Physical books are ‘free’ in so many different ways: when a library weeds their collection physical books can be sold because they were owned by the library; it costs nothing to the patron to borrow a physical book whereas not all patrons can afford E-readers; E-readers, even when I am certain they will eventually be given out for free, will still require patrons to charge them, something that not all patrons might be able to do or afford.
What really sticks to my teeth throughout all of these conversations and presentations is that so few of my fellow classmates use E-readers and to date, none of the incredibly influential, intelligent and passionate speakers I’ve heard from use them either. So I have to ask, why are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Here public libraries are sitting on decades worth of collection development, we’re talking practically free information here people! and the thought is to just sort of wipe the slate clean, buy back what was already owned in a new format, cross our fingers and hope that this technology lasts for a good, long time.
I’d also just like to consider the age-outliers, the most highly represented age groups of many libraries – the elderly and children. Naturally the E-books hold some advantages to older library patrons – any text can instantly become large print, which is a truly innovative and game-changing aspect of this technology. On the other hand however, I have two relatively young, 50-something, ‘with-it,’ technology-savvy parents who don’t really know how to use their iPhones, cannot download free media from the web and have never burned a CD in their lives. My folks aren’t even close to elderly and I can’t imagine them attempting to navigate borrowing E-books from the NYPL. On the other end of the age spectrum is of course children. It’s pretty much been proven that kids enjoy reading on tablets, and why wouldn’t they like a picture book that is 50% video game? That being said, I can’t help but feel that after an initial acceptance of the E-reader for children there will be a large backlash against it. How does graphic heavy, game-esq ‘reading’ really prepare kids for the type of literacy that we expect from them?