When e-readers first came out, I wanted nothing to do with them. Any book lover can tell you that in addition to the characters and the story and the plot, there is a passion for the feel and smell of the book, for the emotion of curling up somewhere and entering elsewhere.
Personally, I love to not only sit and commit hours to reading but to read throughout with my day, in every moment of downtime; elevator ride, check out line, while walking down the street– you name it! Thus, as most readers can contend, I have forever been faced with the readers’ dilemma of how to have my large bulky book on me at all times. As a woman I often carry a small purse – nothing is fitting in there! And what do you do when you only have 3 chapters left in that encyclopedia-sized book?? What about the fear of finishing a book while waiting at a doctor’s office? You have only been in the waiting room for fifteen minutes and you know you have the better part of an hour left, what do you do with yourself now? Carry two encyclopedias??
When I was younger I dreamed up a brilliant solution. It was something to do with adjusting the spine of a book so that you could carry just portions of a book with you wherever you went. It was a simple slip down binding mechanism – in my vision – and could be customized as needed to take, say, just the middle third of the book on one errand or just the last chapter rather than the whole section. I am not an engineer. This ingenious idea lived only in my head. I, nonetheless, had no doubt that I would be a bagillionaire in no time. Who couldn’t use this invention!?
Enter the e-reader. This little device essentially cost me my “bagillions” while simultaneously changing the face of the literate universe.
Like many, I was extremely resistant at first. As I mentioned before, there is nothing as comforting as the smell of a books pages as you flip through them. What was this electronic alien invader, trying to sneak in and take the essential “book smell” away from my reading life? I was not having it. Until, that is, my friends ignored my very proud stance, and gave me a kindle for my birthday one year. Traitors. At first I fake-smiled and hid it in my closet. One day I very innocently turned it on. Another day, I looked at just a sample of a book someone recommended. Next thing I know…oops I own an entire virtual library – how’d that happen!?
When you(me) get past your(my) resistant exterior and stop fighting based on principle, anything can happen it seems. In no time my kindle went from being the enemy to an addition of my body. My kindle is my fifth limb. It is as essential as my keys, phone and wallet when I leave the house. I purchase bags based on them having good kindle-storing/protecting pockets. I keep the charger on me. I have the app on my phone and computer. Did I mention that I am an addict?
What affect is this having on libraries today though? Certainly there are less physical books on shelves. Likewise, I proudly borrow from the New York Public Library’s e-book selection at every opportunity. Does this mean that more people are reading more often and more easily? That’s a good thing. But, what if I were to tell you that books might be done away with altogether!? I’m sorry, reader, if you are anything like me then that was a punch in the gut and I gave you no warning. The horror! Am I right!? You need only google “digital-only library” to learn that reports are rampant that the next phase of libraries may be subject to digital-only collections. Reema Khrais (2013) noted one of the earlier attempted launches of a digital-only library at the Santa Rosa Branch Library in Tucson Arizona in 2002, was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, not least of which it was simply said to be “premature.” Try, try again, more are on their way (Beres, 2013).
I have already admitted that I caved and joined the nerdy digital world. Some might say that I have therefore forfeited the right to be devastated. Maybe I just am resistant as I was with my e-reader at first, and need to be persuaded – with time -that this is the best move. Perhaps I am just a sappy nostalgic, one who hates the cold image that the idea of an “all-digital library” conjures. Maybe this is for the best, less killing trees and greater accessibility, not to mention fewer late fees?
In their works on street-level bureaucracy, Lipsky (1969) and Bovens, et al. (2002) discuss the affect and a reform from the influence of street-level, active and in person bureaucrats to a more scene- or system-level bureaucracy. That is, for example, a traffic cop is street-level whereas the automated red-light camera might be scene-level and the system automatically spitting out a picture and a ticket and mailing it to your home is system-level. It is a change from the human element to the machine, and these authors discuss both the good and the bad. A cop has the ability to use his digression when doling out tickets, good or bad, he can decide. The machine, however, is rigid. If we remove the human element is it now more “fair” across the board or does it “undermine the legitimacy of governance” (Bovens, et al., 2002, p.182)?
When thinking about the notion of an all-digital library, I am made aware of the bureaucratic shift that is involved. There will be less interpersonal interaction in a digital library, less searching on shelves and borrowing hard copies. No arguing about late fees or room for opinion. In my experience with the New York Public Library (NYPL), when borrowing an e-book, the system gives you a set number of days in which the book is on your device, after which it is automatically removed. No questions asked, no one there to ask them. The system warns you when your loan time is ending. Is this fair? Is it better, is it worse? What if I told you that a physically borrowed book can be renewed for extended loan, whereas the system currently does not permit renewals on e-books. Does that matter? Is that less fair? Is this just a quirk in the system? “Equality For E-Books” rally, coming to you soon!
Digital libraries will of course carry more than just pleasure-reading collections. Will you be able to borrow periodicals? What happens with print documents that haven’t been reformatted to digital copies? What about articles from magazines or papers, etc., that the library doesn’t subscribe to? Can you pay? Should you have to? Maybe the digital age actually opens us up to more accessibility; an article published in Europe might come up in a simple search conducted by a researcher in Alaska. The questions are endless.
Perhaps all we can do is bear in mind all of these uncertainties, try to recognize any undue influence this media might be having, and considering it when drawing conclusions. Who is to know what the future will hold. Good or bad, the digital age is here and is spreading like wildfire. Nothing, not even the sanctity of our precious “book smell” is exempt it seems.
Beres, D. (2013, April 1). 50,000 Shades of Grey: The Wonder of Bookless Libraries. RD. Retrieved from http://www.rd.com/recommends/50000-shades-of- grey- the-wonder-of-bookless-libraries/
Bovens, M. & Zouridis, S. (2002). From Street-Level to System-Level Bureaucracies: How Information and Communication Technology Is Transforming Administrative Discretion and Constitutional Control. Public Administration Review, 62(2), 174-184.
Chappell, B. (2013, September 14) Bookless Public Library Opens In Texas. North Country Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/npr/222442870/bookless- public-library-opens-in-texas
Khrais, R. (2013, January 15) A New Chapter? A Launch Of The Bookless Library. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/01/15/169412670/a-new- chapter-a-launch-of-the-bookless-library
Lipsky, M. (1969). Toward A Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy. Institute for Research on Poverty, 48-69.