I'm Curious, Library Services, Tech

I'm Curious, George: E-books Kindle Buzz

By Tim | February 1st, 2008 | 3 Comments

George is beside himself

This month we are trying an experiment with our long-running “I’m Curious George” column. As regular readers know, George’s pieces can often inspire reflection and occasionally lend themselves to group discussion. To facilitate such discussion we are posting the entire column here at BlogJunction. We’re optimistic that the “I’m Curious, George community will engage in a conversation right here in the blog comments. If this proves successful, look for more of our regular features published in BlogJunction. If it bombs, well, this is the web and we are supposed to try new things, right?

E-books Kindle Buzz

by George Needham

Dear George: When I was young, “kindle” was how we started a fire in the fireplace. Now, I see the name has been appropriated for yet another electronic book reader. I’m curious, George: What is it about e-books and e-book readers that make techies salivate? Don’t they realize that the good old paper book is the best possible technology for carrying information?-Passionate about Paper in Poughkeepsie

Dear 3P:

Before I address your question, full disclosure: E-content provider NetLibrary and WebJunction are both part of OCLC, and I work for OCLC. Second, I have a Kindle on order from Amazon for my personal use and to use in the workshops I teach. Finally, everything stated below is my personal opinion and not the opinion of OCLC or NetLibrary or WebJunction or the commissioner of professional football or the studio producing the movie contained herein.

That being said, many years ago I attended one of the first Public Library Association conferences where the keynote speaker was science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He talked about writing a story in which he needed a high-tech device that was easy to produce on a mass scale, fairly indestructible, and compact, and that could hold vast amounts of information. Then, he said, he realized it had already been invented: it was the book.

“Wikipedia lists two dozen formats in its comparison of e-books, and that doesn’t even include Kindle. It seems that the woods are littered with dead e-book readers.”

Since that day, your faithful correspondent has watched the rise and fall of a score of electronic reading formats, and there was a time when I would have agreed with you. Wikipedia lists two dozen formats in its comparison of e-books, and that doesn’t even include Kindle. It seems that the woods are littered with dead e-book readers. As one writer said on the flickr site “ebooks kindle amazon” (run by WJ’s own Michael Porter), “The public library I worked at bought a ton of e-books and e-book readers back about, oh 8 years or so ago. A huge flop. I think they’re using them for coasters. Or to hold up bookshelves.”

I looked at several of the earlier technologies and decided they weren’t for me. The flickering screen, the short battery life, the onerous usage restrictions, and the lack of available content were all factors that discouraged me from using e-books.

“I believe we might be at the point where e-books move from techie toy to mainstream product.”

E-books have taken a beating in the courts of library and popular opinion. But one of the few advantages of being older than dirt is that I’ve gained some perspective. There seems to be a pattern to the adoption of these things. When a new technology is introduced, the initial manifestations may be bug-ridden, expensive, highly restricted in operation, and available in limited supply. A few people will become passionate advocates despite the flaws, a few people will become passionate adversaries despite the potential, and the vast majority of people will be blissfully unaffected. Slowly, the new technology may improve and become more acceptable to the vast middle group by coming down in price, becoming more dependable, and improving functionality. If it doesn’t, it disappears into the sunset, rightfully.

I believe we might be at the point where e-books move from techie toy to mainstream product. The E Ink has greatly improved readability of the electronic page. The battery life on the new readers is much longer than its predecessors. Amazon already has nearly 100,000 titles available for the Kindle, along with magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Are there huge holes in the offerings? Of course. Will I trash my personal collection of thousands of books in favor of replacing everything with digital surrogates? No.

But it strikes me that e-books could have a huge positive impact in several ways. First, there is inordinate waste in the current production of paper books, magazines, and newspapers. Millions of these items are printed and pulped every year without ever being read. Millions more clog landfills after they’ve served their purposes. E-books take this inherent inefficiency and environmental damage out of the system.

E-books could be a very effective distribution mechanism for high-demand items. I certainly would have preferred to put in my order for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and have it delivered directly to a Kindle than waiting in line at midnight at the local superstore to buy it. it would have also weighed about a quarter as much as the paper version.

“Another positive impact could be the e-book reader as a possible delivery tool for textbooks.”

E-books might make it possible for iconoclastic authors with views outside the mainstream of any publishing house to make their views known to a wider audience, and even make a living at it. This could, possibly, help keep the huge communications conglomerates from limiting access to the marketplace of ideas.

Another positive impact could be the e-book reader as a possible delivery tool for textbooks. When I see my grandson lugging a backpack full of textbooks home from school each night, I wish that he could have just loaded all that material to a 10-ounce reader and saved his back. It would also be possible to keep e-textbooks up to date on an e-book reader, something that’s not an option with paper books.

Despite this screed, I’m not totally sold on e-books yet. I need to start using my Kindle to know if it’s going to be something I can’t live without, like my iPod, or a tchotchke that sits on my desk and doesn’t get used, like my digital picture frame!

So all I ask is that you keep an open mind, 3P, and don’t write the technology off just because the early versions are clunky. That’s my beef with the gentleman who posted about the library that bought e-book readers eight years ago: a lot has happened in the intervening eight years! We don’t base our decisions on buying a car today on the shortcomings of the 1903 Stanley Steamer, do we?

Want a second opinion? Read William Lund’s of Brigham Young University review of the Kindle e-book reader.