From print to e-books, sadly but inevitably

I’ve got cards from four libraries but haven’t checked a book out in a year. Which is strange, because I came from a printing/publishing family, worked part-time in school libraries during college, and can read.

What happened? One hyphenated pseudo-word, “e-books.”

I still like the look and feel of print books and the smell of old bookstores, but can’t deny the convenience of the new technology.

My wife and I both have Kindles, but there are other fine readers as well. I can change the type style, enlarge the type, adjust the background light, search for characters or terms, get definitions as I read, navigate, etc. I recently saw an elderly man reading a paperback using a magnifying glass. No, he was using the magnifying glass.

We don’t buy the e-books, although that’s probably what Kindle-book provider Amazon would prefer. Most libraries have on-line collaboration with e-book providers and download facilities, and have available agreed-to “copies,” just like the old card-catalog and the library shelf. We search on-line by author, title, subjects, etc., place holds when unavailable, and even get further recommendations. And somehow, miraculously, the e-book appears on our specific reader … and just as miraculously disappears after the usual three weeks.

Brick-and-mortar libraries are definitely feeling it, with rows of computers where book shelves used to be, and aisles of DVDs in prominence.

It makes sense for nonfiction as well as fiction. The material in nonfiction for education and research is five to 10 years old when arriving at a library. Carefully chosen online sources are current, and easy to search, compare and contrast, manipulate, and plagiarize (lol) in the comfort of one’s home.

Books have evolved over thousands of years according to available technology, so yet another evolutionary step is not surprising. Clay tablets in cuneiform, Egyptian papyri, Greek scrolls, monks laboriously copying texts on parchment … then Gutenbergs’s movable type in the 1400s allowed mass production of “books” as we know them today. It’s not coincidental that each step dramatically increased the availability and readership, as do e-books today.

Evolution doesn’t stop. I suspect 90 percent of current print books will eventually be destroyed, with a few copies of those not converted to e-books remaining. Five percent will be kept somewhere as special, handed down, and collected by devotees. And many expensive college textbooks are going online.

A cautionary note: Are we perhaps too dependent on electronics? Could we have an electronic equivalent of the destruction of the Alexandria library? Could the cloud disperse? If I were writing I’d make sure there was a hard copy somewhere just in case.

One place the old-style ink-and-paper books will still reign, at least for a while, is the classic children’s picture book. I can’t imagine children at bedtime reading about “The Cat in the Hat,” Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, Winnie the Pooh’s adventures, the Grinch and the Whoville gang, or even “A is for Apple” on a stark Kindle without those wonderful pictures. The technology may not be there quite there yet, but have no doubt it will be.

David Shumway is one of our regular community contributors.

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