I’d like to explain why I don’t think eReader lending (Nook, Kindle, Sony, any reader at all) is a good plan for public libraries. It’s not that lending eReaders is a *bad* thing at all: if someone gifts your library a garbage bag full of Nooks, what the heck, please use them! Instead I’d argue that libraries can have some foresight and spend their dollars on other programs, equipment, and skillset development for both staff and the people in their communities that will far transcend the fleeting, temporary lifespan of the next version of the Kindle, Nook, or whatever other piece of consumer electronic garbage is currently fashionable.
A few facts:
An eBook is not a book.
A jpg is not a photograph.
An mp3 is not a vinyl record.
Digital media is fundamentally different from a piece of media bound by a physical or mechanical container. The reason that digital rights management, the Harper-Collins 26 checkouts solution, or the Stop Online Piracy Act exist is because we insist on trying to find ways to make digital media fit within the same constraints we’ve become accustomed to for mechanical-era media. We do this in order to preserve existing business models and the complex ecosystems that artists, publishers, and consumers have depended on so that everyone can make a fair living. The problem is that successfully mapping the basic constraints of physical media onto digital media is no wiser an enterprise than making gold from graphite; it is futile and it impedes progress toward the evolution of a new, practical ecosystem for artists, publishers, and end users. For that reason, I’m vehemently opposed to DRM, the 26 circ idea, and SOPA, all of which are similarly flawed solutions to the same problem differing only in scale and scope.
An eBook has more in common with a website or an app than it does a book. Similarly, the nature of a text-only eBook bears more in common with a collection of digital images or a playlist of digital songs than it does a book. Once media is digital, it has a different constraints and affordances than it did when it was in a physical container. There’s a closer constraint/affordance index shared between digital text, images, sound, and moving images than there is between any of those and their physical or mechanical counterpart.
Step away from that copy of John Grisham’s The Litigators that you are reading on your Kindle, and consider the true affordances and constraints of that file. Forget the artificial constraints in place because of the system; leave behind intentional constraints applied by the author of the work, and think of nothing but the potential. That “eBook” could be almost instantly copied and those copies could be transmitted across the globe at no cost. That “eBook” need not remain a static work, it could be concurrently edited by many authors or other computers. The contents of that “eBook” could be networked and intertwined with all other “eBook” content across the web; contextual metadata about chunks of that “eBook” content could be reused and repurposed to make other works. Take a quick look at Small Demons as an example if that last sentence threw you for a loop. I’d suggest that because the properties of digital media mean this can happen then eventually it will happen. Everything eventually reaches it potential, in spite of artificial constraints.
So, when I look at the Nook, the Kindle, or even some of the eReaders on the market today that aren’t associated with their own content sales and distribution network, all I see are tools for lazy consumption that don’t take advantage of what “eBooks” can and eventually will be. That’s A-OK, we all like to read, watch and listen passively to media and traditionally those are the activities public libraries have supported. Still, I think the ROI is questionable at best for a library purchasing these gadgets, and I don’t think such a purchase is a long-term solution that accounts for the evolution of digital media packages and the myriad ways the public might be able to interact with digital media other than simply consuming it. I’ve written a lot about my belief that a bright future for public libraries would be a robust commitment to community content production, rather than just the content consumption we support now.
In this transitional time, public libraries should aim for the future and invest in toolsets and programming that help their communities produce and participate in new digital works, not simply consume them. To make something is to understand something. If you build a radio from parts in your garage, you’ll have a very different relationship with every radio you listen to from that day on. A tomato you grow in your garden will always taste better than the tomato you bought from the grocery store, and you’ll develop a deep understanding of what that tomato is after you’ve nurtured its growth for months. Every time you have tomatoes at a restaurant after you’ve grown your own you’ll have a different understanding of tomatoes; what they are, where they came from, and the potential they hold. To help our communities taste better tomatoes, public libraries need media labs, hacker spaces, coworking spaces, expert staff, and a long term investment in technologies supporting community creativity.
This is all one man’s opinion with nothing but the best of intentions. Feedback and criticism is accepted with a smile.