Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World

The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World
Clifford Lynch
First Monday
Volume 6, Number 6 — June 4th 2001
"The real issues are more fundamental: how do we think of books in the digital world, and how will books behave? How will we be able to use them, to share them, and to refer to them? In particular, what are our expectations about the persistence and permanence of human communication as embodied in books as we enter the brave new digital world?"
- Clifford Lynch

Much of what Lynch presents is not new, at least to librarians. His significant contribution in this article is to tease out the social and political implications of the e-book. Particularly intriguing to me is the distinction between an individual e-book and a collection of e-books (a digital library). An individual e-book, despite it's electronic form, really functions as an analog to a book in print format. When gathered as a part of a collection, however, one might search across all of the collection to read portions relevant to one's search.

That's not really a new insight, but it's impact is significant. I've recently been reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the way people use libraries in the past 25 years. I was an undergraduate before the photocopier was an expected feature in libraries. The library was a place I went to study. Reading took place in the context of the library's collection. Certainly their were no electronic searching capabilities comparable to what we expect in a digital collection. But reading did take place in the physical context of a greater body of literature.

Today, in part because of the photocopier, but also because of course-packs, student's living remotely and a number of other factors, many students read beyond the physical context of the library's collection. I've wondered what the pedagogical impact of that might be. If Lynch's observation is correct, one possible benefit of the e-book would be the possibility of regaining a sense of reading in a greater context.

Of course, he also projects some problems. Vendor (publisher, aggregator, etc) control of the content could become so restrictive that it is no longer feasible for libraries to add e-books to the collection. The doctrine of first sale that has prevailed in print publishing has provided libraries (as well as individual purchasers) the permission to lend or circulate the books that are added to the collection. Anti-piracy controls could be built into e-books that would essentially make it impossible for a library to lend a book that it has purchased for the collection. Lynch suggests that e-book publishers are targeting the consumer market and libraries are a minority voice that may not have much impact as publishers shape the licensing agreements and content control devices.