Saturday, June 4, 2011

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?