From Print to Digital- the Future of the Book

09/03/2011 § 13 Comments

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” -Walter Benjamin

I work with digital collections and part of what I do at my job is digitize historical documents. As I handle these delicate materials, I see how they transform into a digital format, and I can’t help but wonder if something was lost in its translation. The quality of the digital image is wonderful, and yet very different from its physical form. Similarly, when looking at the difference between a book and a book on an e-reader, the relationship between the reader and the material also shifts. People have varying opinions on the rising popularity of e-books and digital media. Librarians, authors, publishers, patrons–we all see the inevitable digitization of media differently. We’re currently in a transitional phase and in light of recent events dealing with e-books ( Harper Collins anyone?) it’s clear to see that there is plenty of change to come.

The rising sales of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers has many people pondering over the longevity of the book. Books can be damaged or misplaced, e-books can be downloaded at your convenience and are less likely to be lost. However, it’s my opinion that people have a special material relationship with their print materials that is hard to replicate in the digital format. I like to write notes to myself in the margins to help me sum up main ideas and the physical act of writing helps gel those ideas in my mind. But the issue isn’t really new, remember when people thought vinyl records would become obsolete? Now there is a niche market for those who see them as a collector’s item, perhaps in the future this will be the same for books.

E-books have plenty going for them, but there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Not all books lend themselves easily to digitization. I love art books and I hope that by the time I’m very old, I’ll have a wonderful personal library filled with them. Some artists see the creation of a book an art, and have done very innovative things with books that would be very difficult to replicate in a digital format. An additional issue, is that not everyone has the money to afford an e-reader, so it’s important and relevant that libraries would still provide physical copies of best sellers. The e-reader market will probably only strive to make up for these concerns by lowering prices and using emerging technology (like E Ink) to make its products seem like the real deal.

Taking all this into account, I also have to wonder about the future of books and their place in libraries, education, and our lives. Will our relationships with print materials transfer over to the digital? How will libraries accommodate these trends, especially with shrinking budgets and publisher’s e-lending policies? It’s hard to make that call now, but as future librarians, these are issues we will have to face.

What do you guys think about all this?  Do you relate differently to print material as opposed to digital? Are these issues being discussed in your programs?

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