The Future of Books

When you look back at the history of books, the story is revolutionary.  Before books and the ability to economically reproduce them, information and human knowledge was not easily shared.  There is a direct correlation between poverty and a lack of books or prosperity and access to books.  Books have had a multi-hundred year exponentially iStock_000010954699XSmallsuccessful run!

Enter the “e” book (eBook).  eBooks have some pretty compelling properties that differentiate them from traditional paper-based books.  Note that you will need to ignore copyright constraints for the moment to accept all these properties – I believe the copyright “problem” will solve itself in time. 

eBooks don’t weigh anything, they don’t wear out, you can take hundreds or thousands with you on a simple low powered slate or tablet device, and eBooks are (will be) easily shared with others.  They don’t take up shelf space in a bricks and mortar store or library.  You can buy them while sitting on your couch at home, they are always in-stock, and they are delivered to your tablet, phone, or slate within seconds or downlaod the e-bookminutes.  Their contents are easily searched, linked to, and highlighted.  Readers can easily attach eNotes to passages of text.  Notes and highlights are silently synchronized to the reader’s personal website where they may be incorporated into other writing such as blogs, wikis, tweets, and emails.  eBooks can be mashed up with other content or eBooks and Teachers can easily incorporate portions of eBooks (textbooks) for use as personalized learning resources for their students.

I’ve been progressively switching from paper-based books to eBooks over the past year (since I got an iPad).  I am an avid reader – my bookshelf in my office is full of a diverse set of books – I’ve read every one of them.  It’s often a conversation piece with people I meet with.  It looks cool to have all those books on the shelf representing what I’ve read.  But, I’ve made the switch…  I will not purchase another paper-based non-fiction book.  They are too inconvenient.  I highlight and note take through-out the book.  Doing that with an eBook is such a straightforward and efficient process.  And having access to the highlights and notes electronically from my personal website is so convenient.  It is an easily accessible reference of knowledge I’ve extracted from the books I read.  With paper books, I wrote in the book, underlined, highlighted, wrote notes in a notebook, etc.  None of those are easily referenced now.  That knowledge is “locked” into physical spaces whereas the electronically recorded knowledge is searchable, easily browsed, and I can copy/paste into documents, tweets, and posts as needed.  And I’ve replicated my book shelf here using The Library Thing.

I have recently purchased a few fictional eBooks to experience reading for pleasure on a tablet.  I like the Kobo reader (app on my iPad) and how it virtually represents a book and the turning of a page, etc.  On the iPad app you swipe your finger on the page much like you might on a paper-based book and as it “turns” the page, you can see through the digital page from the back side – very cool.  I don’t take notes or highlight (typically) when reading for pleasure but the efficiency of having books on a digital device is compelling.  The downside I see is when I want to read a book at the beach or some other outdoor location – I think a paper-based format will be a better fit there.  Perhaps book creators can sell readers the paper-based format (if they choose it) for a significant discount if already purchased in an “e” format…  The intellectual content is what carries the value, not the physical object so this kind-of makes sense.

About libraries…  there is a lot written about how the role of libraries and librarians are changing and need to change and adapt to the “e” world.  I worry that the people writing about the future of libraries and librarians are doing so through a traditional book and a nostalgic lens.  I used Diigo to leave a digital sticky note comment on an article shared with my by a secondary school teacher: Don’t Discard the Librarians - my comment was:

plot historical change timelines driven by information technology (start with the printing press); you'll notice an exponential change curve; predicting the next 10 yrs can not be based on the past 10 or even 5 yrs; ppl need to look at disruptions through a new futuristics lens; once technology like IBM's Watson become common place in your pocket and even more capable, libraries will become obsolete along with librarians; yes for the next 5-10 yrs there should be a role but not past 10 in my opinion

I added in an email to this teacher that “I think we have to start using a futuristics approach and scenarios based on trends to forecast possible alternative futures”.  My point is that we need to break free from our past thinking and see what new technologies can or will do to books, libraries, and the role of librarians.  We need to always think about what is possible, how might this be in the future.  I believe the current role of librarians has to evolve to remain relevant.  Just like book publishers have to evolve to stay in business.  They are at risk of becoming irrelevant as the ability for authors to publish directly becomes more likely.  Companies like Amazon and Chapters may end up cutting out the publisher one day.  So too with libraries – the physical space for books will disappear over time – paper books may move to a museum iStock_000011224415XSmallorganizer at best.  Libraries need to rapidly evolve into Learning Centres or Learning Commons that are setup with comfortable quiet spaces, small meeting spaces, coffee shops, etc. that cater to people wanting to read (eBooks) quietly, enjoy each others company while debating topics, sharing what they’ve read, researching together, etc.  There should be virtual spaces with 2-way touch or no-touch learning windows that people can use to interact with other people around the world. I think librarians can develop their expertise further – to assist people with accessing history, current knowledge, news, research articles, connecting with other people around the world, and assisting people with newer technological tools for learning.  As my teacher colleague said to me in an email…

“There’s one other, very human, point to consider.  Libraries are tangible places that people move toward and move in, where people can meet, walk into together, sit side by side, nod hello, and smile; they are places where we can see and feel all the thought, wisdom and knowledge that humans have created; they are often aesthetically pleasing and emotionally calming.  In short, they are human”

I completely agree with him on this point.  Books and libraries will shift, I believe rapidly, to support both a fully digital format and a fully human need.

Perhaps you can share your experiences with the shift from paper-based to eBooks.  What future scenarios do you envision for books, libraries, and librarians?


  1. I've always been a fan of 'the future of the library', as I see it as a true learning hub in a school or community. My favourite read on this topic came from Seth Godin recently:

    I'll need to borrow some books from you soon;-)

  2. I think ebooks are likely to be the way of the future, but there are some serious problems with them right now.

    For example, it's currently not possible to find a single provider for all of your books, or even a single format so you can read them all on the same ereader.

  3. @Dave Truss: right I forgot about Seth's post on this - thanks for sharing it here. It would seem Seth agrees with me or is it I agree with Seth... I've got lots of books, physical and "e" that you can peruse :)

    As always, thanks for adding to the convo.

    @David: I think having multiple provider isn't a problem, rather a benefit to innovation, cost reduction, etc. The real problems as I see them are format, copyright rules, and sharing. Proprietary readers are stuck in a format silo whereas general purpose slates are not. Slates are far too expensive still if all one wants is a good reader - that will change though. Copyright is obsolete in a digital era. Consumers of books need the freedom to share, mash-up, re-purpose, etc. more easily than currently. I think the market will sort out the format/reader problems and hopefully consumers and governments the copyright problems...

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  4. Hi Brian - I like your thinking here and have to agree that the real barrier is copyright. Not sure I want to wade into that particular bucket of worms, though!

    In addition, with the systemic changes and access to content, it is too expensive to make books and it takes too long. When people ask me what books I'd recommend, sometimes I suggest that they don't even bother with books, just go straight to blogs.

    I think the rise of self-publishing is adding to the wave of e-books, which opens up a whole new challenge (or opportunity). If anyone can publish an e-book, libraries have even more power to help sort through the bad ones and augment the book with other content. The role of library changes - in the organizational learning field we have been talking a lot about the role of content curator. Perhaps this is a similar theme.

  5. Hi Brian,

    Great summary for adopting ebooks but I don't think the tipping point has been reached yet but it will be soon. 2 factors will nudge it over the edge. The first is the evolution of ebooks themselves.

    At present, most ebooks are little more then electronic copies of print publications. Other then portability (several can be loaded on to a Kindle)there is little to differentiate the two forms. Ebooks need to take advantage of the computing power offered by devices such as iPad and Playbooks, like this (

    The second factor is the ubiquity of technology. Within 5 years, I predict that virtually everyone in the developed and perhaps the developing world will own at least a "smart" phone if not a tablet device or some sort. Buying a book will become as easy as sending a text massage.

    Then we can tell our grand kids that back when we were young we had it rough. We had these things called "books" that were made from paper and didn't have any animations, video clips, or any other multimedia :-)

  6. @sparkyourinterest: it's interesting that you refer people to blogs over books sometimes - for me blogs are shorter snapshots of thoughts where as books are longer, deeper, more involved thinking - not sure there's a comparison.

    Content curator is an interesting idea for a organizational role. Until computers are "smart" enough to make sense of information (which hopefully never happens), people with information organization, search, and sense making skills will be very important.

    Thanks for sharing.

    @cyberjohn07: good point about ebook functionality - I have found them limiting as well - there is so much more that could be done. With kindle (on ipad) you can't copy/paste, tweet, snip/post to blog, etc. you are limited (on purpose) to how you get to interact. Doesn't seem right to me.

    Like you I think a 5-year horizon to ubiquitous access would seem likely. Apple's new iCloud service along with Google services, Microsoft live, etc. will make content and services ubiquitous amongst the devices one uses - makes it more natural - removes the hassle barriers.

    Our grand kids will probably watch cartoons of how it was in the past 'cause that might actually be pretty interesting (and require great imagination) for kids.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  7. I agree with all of the positive points regarding ebooks and the future potential of libraries.

    Where my opinion differs is really regarding accessibility.

    Accessibility...we are still in a world where hundreds of millions of people do not have access to the computerized world or electronics necessary for ebooks. If we shift to primarily ebooks then the cost of paper books will naturally increase. That will reduce acessibility to the poor and often those who are in the most need of education and the information provided in this format.
    You can't give an e-reader to someone who lives miles from the nearest electrical outlet.

    I am not saying the challenge is beyond us. I just feel that making technical progress with ebooks may not feel like progress if it doesn't include everyone or if the impact it has isn't carefully considered.

  8. @Tony R: you raise a very important point. It is interesting though how 3rd world countries often bypass the developed world's technology. Take telephones - they mostly skipped the wired world in favour of wireless cell phones. Even poor farmers in China often have cell phones. I'm not sure how they charge them but it is interesting. I wonder as their cell phones become smart phones at very low cost if they will double as their ereaders and they will move quickly from paper-based to ebooks? With improved batteries, perhaps crank charging systems, an electrical outlet might not be needed for these.

    Thanks for raising such an important aspect of this conversation.

  9. Really, just the letter 'e' in front of 'book' is going to revolutionize the history, present and the future...Looks amazing when you imagine...But as everything has both advantages and disadvantages...let's see how much trouble comes with this amazing technology.. ;)

  10. @Rajiv - if you haven't experienced Wired magazine's e-version on an iPad yet, you should. It points to where ebooks could (should) head. Interactive, multi-media, non-linear. It's a very different experience. I could even see novels become multi-media interactive immersive experiences in the future. It will be very interesting to watch and partake in the next 10 years of innovation for books! Thanks for stopping by.

  11. I found your piece interesting, and to some degree, compelling; but I did not totally agree with it. I do have an i-pad - which I love - and I do have books on it. It is convenient to be able to read anywhere, and much lighter than taking 8 books to Mexico. But, it does not replace the real thing. I love books... I love their weight, feel, smell, turning pages, lending them out... e-readers just don't cut it. I know people agree with me - although they all happen to be middle aged women like myself... Perhaps this is a gender/age thing.

    1. I agree with you with respect to fiction. I still prefer a paperback novel to an ebook version. It's sort-of a psychological attachment that enhances the immersion experience with the book's characters and setting. Hard to explain, but I agree with you on that point.


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