Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Posted: February 14, 2014 in cultural commentary, reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht


Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.


This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?


When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.


Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons

  1. north5 says:

    Everything’s tablets.

    Already, north5.1 and north5.2 extensively use tablets and netbooks in school for all sorts of learning. As these get better (and better integrated into other learning tools, such as smartboards, lecture notes, etc) they will be the default way to get knowledge across (At least for the next couple of decades).

    I’m really optimistic about this – even the concept of a “textbook” won’t last, if it can be replaced with an online, trusted source in a better format. A schools publisher might publish a range of texts & tools for, I dunno, chemistry, varying from a few paragraphs and a video explaining Tungsten to five year olds, to a huge rambling wikipedia-like resource on covalent bonds.

    As for libraries … it’s sad, but they’re a dead end, an anachronism. We’ll lose the public spaces, just as we lost the communal spirit of the washhouses.

    If we want, value, need, desire communal spaces, we should be investing in them. Alas, what everyone seems to agree is a vital resource is only ever something tagged on to the back of churches, libraries, sports halls, rather than being built and celebrated for their own sake.

    • glenatron says:

      Interesting point about losing that particular public space. I wonder whether the spaces that replace them will increasingly be virtual rather than physical.

      • Glenatron, I suspect that those virtual space and communities will start to find ways to manifest back in physical space, because that’s useful and comfortable for people. Though how that will work I’m not sure – it’s still mostly a vague concept in my head.

    • Interesting to hear that your kids are already using e-reading stuff in schools – it’s a great sign that schools are adapting so fast. Eight years ago, when I was teaching, most classrooms hadn’t even moved to smartboards yet. The pace of change is accelerating fast.

      I think that point about investing in communal space is a good one. I wonder how long it will take for people to bite the bullet and say ‘yes, we’re willing to accept the cost of paying for a communal space just to have that space’, rather than needing it to have some other purpose. Or whether that is even the best model to take.

  2. As a library worker, I can say that e-books have yet to harm us. We’ve actually increased circulation of everything, as well as customer visits — though much of that can be attributed to the economic downturn. What’s easy to forget when you think about books becoming e-books is that libraries aren’t just about books; we have public computers, wifi, magazines, databases, audiobooks, movies… Some libraries lend games. Some have 3D printers. We rent auditorium space and discussion rooms. We have ‘quiet area’ study tables that are always full. We put on daily children’s programming for early literacy and family activities, and have a large children’s play-space. We host free talks, book-signings and local events; we’re partnered with local zoos and museums to provide free day-passes; we give training courses for e-readers and other technologies.

    We also provide e-books, e-audiobooks, digital music, streaming video, tutorials, a digital collection of historical documents and photos, video interviews with local luminaries, online ask-a-librarian reference services, Goodreads reviews, and downloadable issues of our magazine subscriptions. In addition, we deliver books directly to elderly customers, support book clubs through bulk lending, and have opened drive-up pickup windows and dropoff bins to most of our branches.

    We’ve never been busier.

    Cheap doesn’t mean free. Not everyone can afford an e-reader, or a computer or internet. Not everyone wants to, either. Nor is everyone internet- or technology-literate. Not everyone has a printer, scanner, copier, fax machine (yes, people still come in to use our fax machine). Not everyone wants to buy every single book on their child’s summer reading list, e-version or otherwise. Netflix doesn’t have all movies and TV shows ever — we have a lot of customers coming in for Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and we’ve made a new ‘Most Wanted’ collection of short-lending-period no-renewal materials to whittle down the endless waiting list for many of these popular items.

    We are becoming more of a public use space, but that’s not a bad thing; our supporters understand and value this, the same as they value the e-services we now provide. In fact, it would be nice if we had more meeting- and study-rooms, since the tables are constantly packed. Our public computers are never not in use.

    I’m writing most of this about the branch of the city library system where I work, not our main library, which is labyrinthine and contains expansive children’s and teen spaces. The fact is, though, that we haven’t seen a decline, and e-lending has been frosting on the cake for us. Will this last forever? Sure…if we keep an eye on societal trends and figure out how to maintain a relevant niche, and can justify that niche to the taxpayers who support us.

    For other types of libraries, I couldn’t say.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences H., that’s really interesting. It’s good to see that space successfully evolving to provide community space and knowledge/entertainment resources in a different way.

      Can I ask where in the world your library is? It’s interesting to have that extra bit of context for where this is really working.

        • Cool. I’ve seen some of the same developments here in the UK, but it sounds like your library’s doing particularly well.

          • There are a lot of different library systems exploring different ways to provide great service for the internet age, and a lot of it gets shared around during library association conferences, so hopefully more systems will learn how to adapt. We get a lot of ideas from other systems out there, and give ours back in turn, but a big thing is about making your home library accessible no matter where you are. Thus the growing digital collection and the library’s own internet presence, e-payment of fines, et cetera. Our customers seem to like it!

            • That point about access to collections, whether it’s your own or a library one, is interesting. We can think of libraries as originally being a way for people to access knowledge, but the only way to do that was through physical books. Now we’ve moved on from that, maybe the way e-readers go will be shaped by new ways to access that same knowledge.

  3. Sheila says:

    Very interesting to see how well a US library is handling this. I’m working alongside a UK special library, looking at the UK public library system from rather a long way outside. We have to negotiate licenses to provide our clients with access to a set of e-books, which works well.

    Where it has been complicated is when I want the library to buy a copy of a particular e-book I need just for my own work. I have a couple now, installed on my own personal e-reading device or on my work PC. Once I have finished working with the books, I cannot simply put them back on a virtual shelf for another person to borrow.

    What struck me first on reading the title of this blog post today was not about libraries, but about children in the home. I derived huge pleasure as a child, and still do, by reading the actual same physical copies of books that had thrilled my parents and grandparents. With the pace of change in digital reading devices, I fear that this pleasure is going to be denied to many.

    • That point about returning virtual books interests me. In an age of e-books, is there any reason for a library to have a finite number of copies of a book? If the equivalent of ‘returning’ a book is a copy that auto-deletes after a set period of time (that seems to be what my local library system does) why not let as many readers as possible get copies of the same book at the same time? It takes one of the inefficiencies – waiting for books – out of the system, and by letting more people share the same experience at once adds to the sense of community.

      But again it raises a challenge – if all the laws and contracts are set up around a model of borrowing and returning physical books, those structures could take time to adapt.

      And I’m totally with you on the last point – I love that much of my early reading was the same copies my dad had enjoyed. I don’t know what could replace that.

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