The potential elitism of ebooksposted by Kate Good on 02/01/10 at 12:27 PM
When I was a kid, my mom regularly packed my sister and me into our red express wagon and pulled us the few blocks downtown to the Lancaster (Pa.) County Public Library. Wandering through the shelves of books that fill that grand brick mansion, we had free rein to stuff our bags with any book that caught our eyes.
I've never lost the excitement and joy that I felt then when I was surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of books. I still can't get enough of words and stories. They have shaped my life and now my career. (I work as assistant publisher for Good Books, a small family-run publishing house, where my job is, simply put, connecting writers and readers.)
Recently, when people learn I work in publishing or love to read, they ask me what I think about ebooks, or electronic books. It's a good question, especially with the recent development of many ereaders, the portable devices used to read ebooks, from Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Nobles' Nook to the iPad launched by Apple last week.
While it's too soon to know if ebooks are the future of publishing, many people hope they are. On the surface, ebooks and ereaders seem like a great idea. What reader wouldn’t want instant access to thousands of books? I would. But I also worry that in our effort to make books more accessible, we could make it more difficult for some people to find and read books.
My concerns were sparked, in part, by comments made by Sherman Alexie, the writer and poet, who called ereaders "elitist." Alexie said, "Having grown up poor, I'm also highly aware that there's always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. Poor kids all over the country don't have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle" (Amazon.com’s ereader)?
With ereaders running several hundred dollars a pop, Alexie's concerns are legitimate. I'm also reminded of his comments during my still-regular visits to the Lancaster County Public Library. Computer literacy is almost as important as literacy these days, and libraries are stepping in to fill the gap for many people who can't afford a personal computer or the monthly charge for Internet access. At my local library, the towering shelves of books remain, but they've been pushed back to accommodate banks of computers and rows of chairs where people wait for their 15-minute slot of Internet access.
When I visit the library, I wonder how will we further bridge the technology gap if ebooks are the future? There are few more democratic spots than a library where books and their ideas and stories are unrestricted. For many Americans, libraries have been a great equalizer, a real chance to learn for free. Perhaps more than ever, libraries truly provide an opportunity for a higher education without the steep price of tuition. As Thomas Jefferson said, "A library book ... is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, is their only capital."
But if more books, particularly new books, are suddenly available only as ebooks, how can a library afford to provide their patrons with these resources?
It's easy to believe that I am overstating the potential power and limitations of ebooks. After all, they are a fraction of the books currently bought and sold each day. But not too long ago, we were told that the Internet would only enhance, not threaten our print newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, I worry that we are too eager to embrace technology without considering its shortcomings.
Librarians are some of the wiliest and most resourceful people I know. But with limited budgets and a growing need, they can only do so much. Imagine a world where people must wait in line each day in order to have brief access to ereaders and a few moments with their favorite books.
Does this sound extreme? Perhaps. But without careful thought and consideration, we could quickly limit the easy access many people have to the world of words, ideas, and imagination currently available to anyone who opens a book. If ebooks and ereaders are our future, we must push for them to become affordable and available to anyone who is interested in reading a book.
- Current Events
- Anabaptism in the UK
- Anabaptism in Australia
- Living Water Community Church
- Mennonites and Jews
- Mennonites and Pop Culture
- Christian Peacemaker Teams
- Why I love Chicago
- The institutions of Mennonite Church USA
- Anabaptist Camp Followers