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The potential elitism of ebooks

posted 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. 

Good_kate Kate Good lives in Lancaster City, Pa.  She is a member of Blossom Hill Mennonite Church, Lancaster. She is assistant publisher at Good Books.

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  • Posted by Gerald at Monday, February 01, 2010 at 04:45 PM

    Good word, Kate. The opportunity cost of our multiple devices and subscription services may be inversely related to the amount of time we have for actual reading.

  • Posted by pastoroffishing at Tuesday, February 02, 2010 at 03:14 PM

    You bring up a very interesting thought on the cost effectiveness of eReaders. I personally am a pastor and have a limited income. This is why I invested in a Kindle. The cost savings and library toting ability I have is amazing...so yes there is the power. The kindle is available as a PC reader. The other question comes if publishers would move towards the open standards that exist for publishing documents. Even now as I type I am thankful for the electronic medium in which this blog was given to me. It has started a whole new world of ministry to use not only my blog, but facebook,twitter, email, etc... We should be looking how to utilize lower tech solutions for high tech needs within our world. Also what will it look like in the future when a library becomes an electronic warehouse?

  • Posted by ericrumsey at Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    Thanks for the thoughtful words, Kate. I think the idea that eBooks are elitist is rather a US/European-centric view. For people in the tropical world, especially Africa, I’d guess that it’s pretty much a question of digital reading or no reading, in the near future. See my blog article on the travails of paper-book-reading in India: http://blog.lib.uiowa.edu/hardinmd/2010/02/18/the-pull-of-ebooks-in-india-the-two-thirds-world/ See also a recent NY Times editorial on how mobile devices have revolutionized life in the two-thirds world: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/opinion/20sat4.html --Eric

  • Posted by mpowell at Monday, March 01, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    This is a little ridiculous. I attend a state school in California and there are quite a few lower income students there. They have iPhones, XBoxes, Playstations and all sorts of technology that I am far too conservative to spend my money on. I see people on public transit using Kindles. If books go the way of magazines and end up mostly digital (something I have doubts about), that will, if anything, broaden the scope of book access. All modern jobs and schools come with an unspoken requirement to use the internet.

  • Posted by insidethebuggy at Monday, May 23, 2011 at 07:07 PM

    Here's the way I see it. Print, much like anything that becomes antiquated, finds itself a niche market that never totally dies but has a corner to itself. People naturally get attached to things and resist change. We remember the good times but forget that bad. I personally enjoy doing a keyword search in a digital PDF copy of a book rather than flipping through pages. Having said that, the graphic designer in me buys books on a regular basis because I love the tactile experience. I run a Mennonite Blog just to be a part of the new digital world of literature but am definitely not afraid to pick up a paper book. Heck, I even use books to write some of my posts.

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