Reading the way you prefer

I ran into an odd blog post (on a ALA divisional blog) this morning–and didn’t comment directly for two reasons:

  1. I’m not a member of the division
  2. I’m hoping that I simply misread or misunderstood the post.

The post seemed to be saying that libraries/library groups should be helping to persuade younger people to do all their book reading in ebook form. (I believe it springs from the New York Times piece regarding a slowdown in ebook sales.)

Again, I’m probably misunderstanding what was being said–but I have certainly seen in the past discussions that seemed to say that the “digital shift” was not only inevitable but desirable, and that good librarians should be backing it.

And I just don’t get it.

I’ve suggested for some time that there is no such thing as an inevitable digital shift when it comes to books: that there’s no reason to believe, based on precedent or history, that ebooks would sweep away print books entirely–or that this was even a desirable thing.

I’ve tried to be consistent in saying what the title of this post suggests. Expanding:

  • It seems likely that some people will prefer to do all or most of their extended-narrative reading on digital devices, either because they like them better, they’re more convenient, they believe they should do so…or for whatever reasons.
  • It seems likely that some people will prefer to do all or most of their extended-narrative (that is, “book”) reading from print books, either because they like them better or for whatever reasons.
  • It seems likely that some people will prefer to read some books in print form, some in digital form–and that the variety and distribution of preference will be different for different people.
  • Public libraries should not be “out ahead of the users” on such matters unless there’s a clear and consistent shift in preferences–and even then, maybe not. (Which is not to say public libraries shouldn’t provide ebook services, but maybe that they shouldn’t screw up their budgets or priorities to emphasize ebook services.)

I’ve said for some time that I expect book publishing and print book publishing to be a healthy business throughout my lifetime, with total print book revenues certainly in the billions and probably in the tens of billions of dollars per year. But I’ve tried to avoid nonsensical prophecies about the long-term balance between print and e.

Maybe ebooks will stabilize at 20% of the total book market. Maybe they’ll wind up being 25%, or 30%, or even 80% (although achieving a majority is beginning to seem less likely, but I’m no prophet). Maybe there is no equilibrium level, with percentages shifting back and forth.

In any case, books should be available in the form readers prefer, public libraries should support those preferences to the best of their abilities, and it should never be a matter of shoving one medium down people’s throats preferring one medium at the expense of another despite apparent use patterns.*

Of course, I’m ancient enough to go back to all those predictions that all books would become movies (although never stated that way), because of course everybody really wants their books to be singing and dancing. It always struck me that those making such predictions weren’t really book readers, and it turns out most book readers aren’t especially interested in “enhanced books.”

Those of you who read my stuff in another area may note that I also don’t foresee OA sweeping away traditional journal publishing in any great hurry, or even in my lifetime. I’m just not much of a triumphalist or a single-path advocate. Such is life.

*I do believe a case can be made that public libraries should resist aggressively bad ebook contracts, to the extent that they effectively privilege ebooks over print books if there’s not clear evidence of similar patron preferences–but that’s part of what I’m saying.

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