I have long held the opinion that e-books are here to stay. There is plenty of time still for wistful sighing over the smell of the printed page, or the way that books furnish a room with their testament to our good taste and cataloguing skills. Yes, paper books can be lent to our friends, and discovered on coffee tables by visitors. Yes, they don’t run out of batteries. Ever. I’m first in line to announce that when the zombies arrive to devour us all you’ll find me tucked in the nearest corner beneath a good old-fashioned bookshelf. But e-books are here to stay, and many of us with an eye to the budget of our addictions, the portability of our travel selections, and the ever-diminishing space on our shelves, are listening to anyone who promises to make getting hold of stories easier.
One of the first places we used to turn to for this sort of convenience was the library. Now our libraries are like us: navigating a new way of reading. This month I read an article in Locus by Cory Doctorow, (http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2013/09/cory-doctorow-libraries-and-e-books/), which discussed the difficult situation that libraries find themselves in. Doctorow reveals that libraries are paying premium prices for frontlist titles as e-books, and using expensive software such as Overdrive (used by our own state libraries here in Tasmania), in order to preserve restrictions from the publishers and prevent copyright infringement. This makes it even more difficult and sometimes impossible for libraries to do many of the things they have always done so well—interlibrary loaning, re-selling old stock as second-hands. Bizarrely, hold-waiting still remains, and books that could theoretically exist in almost infinite numbers are reduced to a single copy for which patrons find themselves in a queue. Most shockingly, Doctorow reveals that HarperCollins insists that libraries delete their e-books after they have been circulated 26 times – a projected parallel to how long a book might be expected to remain intact as a physical edition.
The concept of a “library in the cloud,” and a world of reading that can be accessed by any reader with an Internet connection, delights and fascinates me. But before that idea becomes a reality we first need to embrace the way that e-books can give new life to the landscape of reading—not ham-fistedly try to push the digital revolution into the world that already exists. There is great evidence to suggest that publishers would love us to embrace the e-volution of literature. But to convince us, they’ll need to start us off, and that means giving a better deal to libraries. After all, that’s where the readers are.