Observations and opinions by guest editor Angela Kroeger.
I attended the ITART/TSRT Joint Spring Meeting “eBooks: Readers Wanted” on Friday. It was a very enjoyable and informative meeting.
For the first session, Michael Sauers provided a history of ebooks, going all the way back to Project Gutenberg in the 1970s. We think of ebooks as new, but really, they’re not. They’re just evolving.
One of the problems today is competing standards. For ebook readers, we’ve got Kindles, Nooks, and Sony Readers, with a few other brands on the side. There are also people who shun a dedicated device in favor of reading ebooks on their computers or phones. Of course, sometimes to read ebooks on those computers or phones, users have to get apps that mimic the devices. So you can read an ebook from Amazon via the Kindle app on your phone, but that ebook is still wrapped in Amazon’s DRM and you can’t read it with any other company’s app.
Michael showed us images of at least a dozen new ebook readers that will be on the market later this year. If all of them have their own proprietary ebook format and their own DRM wrappers, then who wins? If a person buys forty ebooks for their Kindle before deciding to switch to a Nook or to one of those soon-to-be-available new devices, what happens to those forty ebooks? Well, the person isn’t going to be reading them on their new device, that’s for sure. So while I’m not sure who wins in a format war, I’m quite certain about who loses: the consumer. And in this instance, libraries are on the consumer side of the fence.
If the problem were just formats, then someone could write a program to convert ebooks from one format to the next. But the problem isn’t really formats–it’s licensing. Because of DRM and copyright law, it is illegal to convert an ebook to another format. Even if you paid money for it, breaking the DRM is considered piracy. After all, you haven’t really purchased the book. You’ve only licensed it. No matter how much you (as an individual or as a library) paid, you own nothing. And, as we saw with the George Orwell incident, Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away.
Someone asked if there was any hope for a standardized format, and Michael suggested that EPUB seemed poised to become a de facto standard, but even that is far from certain. And EPUB-formatted books can still be locked up with DRM.
After Michael got our brains all juiced up, Joyce Neujahr offered a session with practical, nuts-and-bolts advice based on the Criss Library’s experience circulating Amazon Kindles. She talked about how the Kindles were first used as an Interlibrary Loan alternative, and later as a venue for offering popular books not usually available in an academic library. She covered everything from circulation to cataloging to acquisitions to collection development. In the interests of full disclosure, I confess my bias: I work with Joyce at the Criss Library, and Jan Boyer and I were involved in cataloging the Kindles when we first got them. Joyce was honest about some of the problems we ran into, and some things we could have done differently. But when we started circulating ereaders, there weren’t any other libraries out there doing it, or at least not any who were putting their wisdom out on the open web. So Joyce and her team made the best decisions possible at the time.
Then we had a couple of representatives from Borders show off two of the three Sony Readers they offer, the Touch and the Pocket edition. Unfortunately, they didn’t have live versions to demo–they had not-yet-activated floor versions that we could take out of the box and look at the physical design, test the weight and feel of it in our hands, and such, but not actually view a book. They mentioned that Borders has entered a partnership with Kobo and will be offering Kobo Readers by the end of May for as little as $150. In fact, by the end of the summer, they expect that Borders will have eight different ebook readers for sale.
After they left the stage, a Barnes & Noble representative came up to show off a Nook. Unlike other ebook readers, the Nook has both an e-ink screen for the book itself and a small LCD touch screen for the rest of the user interface. Also, the Nook is currently the only ebook reader which allows the user to lend their ebook to another user. It’s a one-time loan, limited to two weeks, during which the book is inaccessible on the lender’s device, and after which the file self-destructs on the borrower’s device. Those are tight constraints, sure, but it is truly something no other vendor offers.
Something the Barnes & Noble rep didn’t mention, but I learned about from Tim Spalding’s LibraryThing blog, is that Nook owners will be able to read any ebook in Barnes & Noble’s library for free while they’re in the store, but the ebooks become inaccessible as soon as the person sets foot outside the store (unless purchased, of course). That’s a very interesting development that certainly bears watching.
In addition to the Sony Readers brought by the Borders people and the Nook brought by the Barnes & Noble guy, attendees got to check out an original Kindle and a newer Kindle 2, both of which Joyce brought from the Criss Library. So people got to feel out several different devices.
After lunch, we separated for breakout sessions. I went with the catalogers (a rather huge group at this meeting). While we started out talking about cataloging, we branched off into acquisitions and other issues, too. We tended to focus a lot on how-to and has-anyone-done-this kind of questions, and we spent a good portion of the discussion on various large packages of ebooks offered by vendors, from NetLibrary to specialized medical collections. While few libraries are loaning ebook reader devices, almost all libraries offer ebooks through such subscriptions, so there was a lot to share on that front.
Instead of a second breakout session, we reconvened as one huge group. (A convocation rather than a breakout, really.) There we discussed any ebook issue that came to anyone’s mind, and we covered quite a lot of ground. Someone brought up the old Rocket Books and other vanished ebook readers of days gone by. Some libraries still had their Rocket Books tucked away in offices or cabinets of obsolete curiosities. It was observed that the library world has gone through this ebook reader device business before, and we might consider looking to the past to see what lessons were learned, rather than reinventing everything from scratch.
Lastly, in a moment of unbridled geekery, I asked Michael Sauers if he had a favorite free ebook app, since he and I both use Android phones. He recommended Aldiko, and then used App Referer to put a QR Code on his screen, which I then scanned with Barcode Reader on my phone. Bingo! My phone came up with a link to the direct download of Aldiko from the app market. If trading apps is this easy, then trading ebooks should be just as easy. Before you shout, “Copyright!” consider that he didn’t actually give me the app, he gave me a link to that app at the store. It could work the same for copyrighted ebooks. However, for public domain ebooks, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to trade the actual files with a quick bump of our phones or readers or iPads or whatever future devices we may find in our hands. It’s just a matter of time, and probably not a long time, either.
Anyway, since the meeting on ebooks, I have actually been reading an ebook on my phone. (The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, because it came with the app and I like H.G. Wells anyway and I figured “why not?”) It’s not an unpleasant experience, even with a tiny backlit screen. Personally, I really do believe multi-function devices are eventually going to win out over dedicated ebook readers, because they’re easy and people already have them in their pockets. And when you’re sitting around in some waiting room thinking, “Man, I wish I had something to read,” wouldn’t it be nicer to say, “Oh yeah, my phone,” instead of, “Darn, I left my ereader at home.” Yes, this presumes one has a web-enabled smartphone, but I think already more people have smartphones than ebook readers.
But whatever the device, whatever the format, ebooks have finally taken off. I don’t believe print will go away, because too many people like books. Movies didn’t kill stage plays, television didn’t kill radio or movies, and the internet hasn’t killed television or radio or movies or stage plays. There’s no reason to believe ebooks will kill print books. People have diverse interests and tastes. The world is big enough for print books, ebooks, video books, phone novels, and whatever else may come. And libraries need to be there to help people find what they need, sift the wheat from the chaff, and provide access for those who lack the means.