The same, only different!

library shelvesThe blow up about HarperCollins and the 26-use limit for library ebooks raises a lot of interesting and contradictory issues in the library/publisher relationship typology. One of these is how, at various turns, one or the other of the parties wants ebooks to behave just like print books. Then, after a moment of arguing, the parties change sides. This begins to be a little ridiculous after a while. In an NPR story Monday (yes, the issue has risen to NPR level visibility), Eli Neiburger raises some of these points. A trendspotting symposium hosted by the Connecticut Library Consortium today also highlights the topic. There are a lot of good tweets, if you weren’t able to attend.

Clearly, the notion that ebooks and print books should behave the same is absurd. But both parties have a hard time giving up the idea. From a commercial perspective it is easy to see why. Print books are unique and discrete objects. Despite the bibliographic complexities of bookishness (see FRBR ideas of “work,” “expression,” “manifestation,” and “item”–PDF), a single book can be sold, owned, shelved, loaned. But it is never more than a single book. It gives comfort to the seller and the buyer. The sense of ownership is clear and the limits on duplication and distribution are obvious. All of that goes out the window with ebooks. What does an owner own? How can the imminent (and infinite) power to duplicate and disseminate be limited?

But some other aspects of bookishness begin to seem strange and inhibiting as we move into the digital realm. An idea at the heart of HarperCollins’ new ebook model is that print books wear out, and, therefore, so should ebooks. As though their business model is based on books wearing out. But more to my point here: PRINT BOOKS WEAR OUT! What an unfortunate limitation. Can’t we begin to see that one of the beauties of ebooks is that they don’t wear out? (Let’s leave aside all the questions of digital preservation. The mere act of using an ebook doesn’t contribute to its degradation.)

Another obvious limitation of print books is that a particular book has to be in one place. When we hunt for a book in the library, it can only reside in one spot. I hope I know what that spot is and understand the library’s organizational scheme. A lot of our professional literature in recent years has addressed the notion of organizational schemes and how libraries seem to make it more difficult to find something on the shelf than it ought to be. An ebook has “no shelf required.” It can be anywhere; it can be in a multitude of places. Although, British publishers encountered opposition similar to what HarperCollins has experienced, when they floated an idea several months ago that library users should be required to come into the library in order to borrow ebooks. (See the Guardian.)

But we cling to the notion that print books are comforting. We love the idea of browsing the stacks for books, although we can’t find the one we originally went in there to get. We like to “curl up” with print books. Even though ebooks in no way inhibit curling, and might, in fact, aid it. We wish ebooks could be more like print books, only different.

2 Comments on “The same, only different!”

  1. Cathy says:

    I listened to this weeks’ round table webinar from Digital Book World, and the publishers were bemoaning the lack of a front table and browsing for discoverablitity! It’s not just us! Not to mention the publishers worrying about becoming like the music industy! Read a year or 2 worth of Publishsers Weekly and you’ll see what I mean–used books stores! libraries! book exchanges! (and I’m not entirely exagerating the exclamation points, research used book stores in PW.)

    And when one pays the same amount as for a hardcover, shouldn’t one own the item? It shouldn’t be erased from the reader by the vendor, or should it? Who owns it? On the other hand, you wouldn’t argue about something I’d written and put on a thumb drive. Even if I’d put it on my ereader. Once one pays for software, it’s purchased, only when missused is it frozen, or etc.

    The comforting thing about print books is that they take more abuse, can be dropped, have tiny amounts of liquid dripped on, slightly soiled, and will continue working. They can be resold, lent, and inherited. How long will the ebook files integrity last?

  2. Steven Harris says:

    Cathy: good points. Everybody is perplexed about what to do with ebooks. It is definitely a culture we need to work out.

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